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On March 18, just moments before the Golden State Warriors were to play the Houston Rockets at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, the Warriors announced over the public address system that they had suspended John Lucas for the remaining eight games of the season. Lucas was the team's only real point guard, and at the time Golden State was still battling for a playoff berth (which eventually eluded them by a single game). But the Houston game was the sixth of the season that Lucas had failed to show up for, and he had also been AWOL from more than a dozen practices and three flights. The Warriors had simply run out of patience and so, quite clearly, had their fans. When the announcement on the P.A. system ended, most of the 13,237 spectators stood and cheered.
Listening to the radio in his condominium in nearby Emeryville, Lucas heard the announcement and he heard the cheers, a demonstration that would have been incomprehensible one year before. In his first four years in the NBA, Lucas had established himself as one of pro basketball's best point guards, a superior athlete—he had played professional tennis during two NBA off-seasons—whose effervescent personality had made him popular with teammates, fans and media. But in this, his fifth season, John Lucas hadn't been himself. As he sat in his condo that evening, he knew that his coach, Al Attles, didn't understand why he wasn't at the Coliseum. He knew that his parents back in Durham, N.C. didn't understand why he wasn't there. Certainly the fans didn't understand, nor did the Bay Area media, which had chronicled what it perceived to be his weak excuses and his high-income arrogance while hinting, as many NBA people were at that time, at a cocaine problem. But the saddest thing was that Lucas didn't really understand why he wasn't there, either.
More than two months have now passed since that bleak night. Last week John Lucas could have been seen briskly entering the 12th-floor offices of his Washington, D.C. lawyers, Dell, Craig-hill, Fentress and Benton. Secretaries abandoned their typewriters to embrace him. Lawyers, clerks and public relations men left their desks to shake his hand. Lucas had a word and a smile for all of them. Within minutes he had invited half a dozen people to lunch, answered several phone calls, pressed a lot of flesh, pilfered a couple of his attorneys' tennis rackets, and thrown around enough jive and good humor to energize the law offices for the rest of the day.
Once out on the street, Lucas walked with a this-is-my-city stride that seemed in part justified by the passersby who recognized him and by the people who shouted "Hey, John!" from cars. It was a beautiful spring day and Lucas, who had spent much of the past year "out of my rhythm," was back in it now. At Mel Krupin's, a sort of D.C. Toots Shor's, Lucas had only to signal and Mel himself scouted out a table. "Mr. Lucas," Mel said with mock formality, "you're back!" "That's right, Mel," Lucas said sincerely, "I'm back."
Back from where? Where had John Lucas gone in that lost season and how did he find his way back? Lucas and his attorneys think they have the answers to those questions in a recent report from Dr. Robert Strange, a Falls Church, Va. psychiatrist whom Lucas has been seeing over the last two months. "In my evaluation I found no evidence [that Lucas'] problems were caused by drug abuse," Strange states, "and it is my professional opinion that he does not have any chemical dependency on alcohol, cocaine or other drugs." Instead, Strange saw the root of Lucas' difficulties as a "depressive illness associated with stressful personal, family and career issues."
The Lucas story is about many things and many people. But most of all it speaks to this point: that athletes are less than the superhuman creatures we so often perceive them to be and that they are subject to the same demons of grief, despair and loneliness that ravage us all.
When Lucas started missing games last season, dependence on or overuse of cocaine became the most popular explanation. Almost overnight he was transformed from "solid citizen" (Attles) and "Boy Scout" (Lucas himself) into an unreliable shadow of himself who continually let down his teammates and Attles. Reports of Lucas' erratic behavior and reports that cocaine use in the NBA was as high or higher than 80% caused even Donald Dell, the high-powered former Davis Cup captain and present attorney/ agent for many athletes, who has known Lucas since he was a high school tennis phenom in Durham, N.C., to have doubts about his client. "We heard from many players around the league that John was starting to have drug problems, principally with cocaine," says Dell. "John always said it wasn't true. Finally I said, 'John, whether or not it's true, 99% of the people in basketball believe you're on drugs. That's what I have to deal with. Not whether it's true, but with what they all think."
No one except John Lucas truly knows whether drugs were a factor in his disappearing acts. He denies that he used cocaine last season, indeed, ever.
"Ever since it came out that 80% of the guys in the league are on cocaine and I acted a little out of character, I'm supposed to be going over the deep end on drugs," he says. "As soon as there are problems [with NBA players] that's the first thing people say. I'm not going to let people tear apart a character that has taken me 27 years to build." The point, as far as Lucas is concerned, is that a psychiatrist, Strange, who was chosen by Dell's firm specifically because of his experience as a drug counselor, has said cocaine wasn't the problem.
What was? Actually, Lucas' dilemma stemmed from problems heaped upon one another—a big rotting submarine sandwich of problems. For the first 26 years of his life he had been a child of good fortune and good timing. He entered the University of Maryland the year (1972) when freshman eligibility went into effect and became one of the country's first-year darlings. Coming out of college four years later as the nation's No. 1 pick, Lucas was signed by the Houston Rockets five days before the NBA and the old ABA merged. He took advantage of the leagues' competitive situation to obtain a five-year contract worth about $1.6 million. In 1978 he joined the Warriors as compensation for the Rockets' signing of Rick Barry. This season a sudden confluence of difficulties evidently produced what Strange describes as "uncharacteristic, impulsive behavior and episodes of poor judgment of a potentially self-destructive type."