And in fact, if ever a player self-destructed, Lucas did. He shattered the very foundation upon which his career had been built—reliability. "I never missed a game in my life before this year," says Lucas. "I never missed any practices. I never missed anything! Look at my streak [317 consecutive games from his rookie year to March 9 of the 1979-80 season, when the flu forced him out of a game in San Diego]. That's the kind of player I was." That Lucas would suddenly start missing basketball games without reason is viewed by Strange as a result of a depressive illness. "In psychiatry, we call them 'depressive equivalents,' " he says.
The first of Lucas' setbacks occurred last summer. A paternity suit brought against him in Durham had been dismissed three different times in the past six years. But now those rulings were overturned by the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the case was remanded for trial. The court's action came as a surprise to Lucas and his attorneys. So far there had been no publicity; to contest the charge would have resulted in a public trial in a town in which Lucas' parents are leading citizens. (His father, John Sr., is principal of Hillside High School, from which Lucas graduated in 1972; his mother, Blondola, is assistant principal at Shepard Junior High.) "I wanted my mother and father to be protected at all costs," says Lucas. "I was calling home every five minutes to find out what was going on." When the story finally did make the papers, Lucas decided to settle out of court. It cost him about $120,000.
Then, in August, the Warriors acquired Lloyd (All World) Free from the San Diego Clippers for Phil Smith and future considerations. At first Lucas reacted favorably. To this day he calls Free "the most talented guard I ever played with." But Free needs the ball, and at Golden State the ball had belonged to Lucas, who had averaged 8.4 assists as well as 14.3 points in his first two seasons with the Warriors. "Let's face it, when Lloyd came over and I was asked to make some adjustments, it hurt my game," says Lucas. "It took the ball out of my hands."
Free's arrival also deprived Lucas of a possible team captaincy. Center Clifford Ray was named player assistant coach in the off-season, and Lucas and Free shared Ray's captaincy in the preseason. Then Attles gave the honor to Free alone. To the coach, it was merely a gesture to the Warrior with the most NBA experience. Free had five years in the league, Lucas four.
Lucas admits he never told Attles it bothered him. But it did. "I was looking forward to it," says Lucas. "I have my master's degree in education [from the University of San Francisco]. To a playmaker who doesn't score or shoot that much, that status of captaincy is important." That's particularly true of a person like Lucas, who has always been a leader. Says David Falk, the attorney in Dell's firm who spends the most time with Lucas, "For some of the reasons Lloyd likes to be called World, John likes to be called Captain."
On Nov. 7 Lucas didn't show up for a team trip to Portland, his first unexcused absence. In a prepared statement the Warriors said, "The club and the player have come to a resolution on the matter and there will be no further comment on the subject from either the player or the club." Then, on Dec. 8, Lucas walked into his condo, turned on the answering machine and heard the following message: "John, this is your father. Coach Easterling has passed away. Please call as soon as possible."
Carl Easterling, who was 74 when he died, had been Lucas' second father since he started high school. Easterling taught Lucas his funny one-hand set shot. He introduced Lucas to tennis and coached him as John became one of the top-rated juniors in the world. Easterling took time away from his restaurant business in Durham to drive John to tournaments around the country. Easterling was with John at a tournament in Tennessee during which Lucas, the only black player there, was called continually and mysteriously for foot faults. "I remember Coach Easterling telling me, 'You just got your first taste of what life's all about,' " says Lucas.
Lucas played in the game against Seattle on Dec. 10, then flew to Durham for the Easterling funeral on the 12th, receiving permission to miss practices on the 11th and 12th. But Lucas also failed to appear for games against Houston at home on the 13th and at Los Angeles on the 14th. He said he caught the flu and was "sick as a dog." But the real problem was the death of Easterling, which sent him into the tailspin from which he wouldn't recover until after the season.
"People just couldn't understand that this wasn't a typical coach-athlete relationship," says Lucas' father. "John felt put upon that people wouldn't consider Carl's death important to him. They were saying, 'Are you going to go home for your Sunday school teacher's funeral the next time?' "
At Easterling's funeral, Lucas told his mother, "Mama, I don't know what I'm going to do if Grandma dies." On Jan. 4, Alice Dunn Powell, 96, Lucas' maternal grandmother, died in Charlotte. She had taken care of John and his sister, Cheryl, during summers when their parents were studying at New York University. She was an avid sports fan who followed Lucas' career closely, even at her advanced age. The Warriors were again understanding about Lucas' flying back to attend the funeral and missing a practice. He didn't have to miss a game this time, but he returned from Durham with a few more emotional pieces out of place.