"I was dragging my feet, but I knew I wanted to play," Lucas says. " Coach Nelson told me that it was time to get on with my life, that if I couldn't exist there, I probably couldn't exist anywhere."
Actually, Lucas had already gotten on with his life and discovered in the process that he could have a life after basketball. During his mandatory month in a drug rehab center in Van Nuys, Calif., he conceived the John Lucas Fitness System, a training regimen geared to recovering addicts, alcoholics, the chronically depressed and the elderly. In the 10 months before he began his NBA comeback, he franchised the business into half a dozen Houston hospitals, doing it so successfully that, he jokes, his return to basketball may actually cost him money. "The business side of my life was going very well," he says. "But whenever people talked about John Lucas the basketball player, it was always in the context of the way I had left. I loved the game so much it almost killed me, and I decided that when I was finished playing basketball I wanted to go out the front door."
Not everyone who knew Lucas well was eager to see him go back to the game. His sister Cheryl once told The Washington Post, "The atmosphere in the NBA leads to destruction. I just don't think it's a healthy environment for anyone. People are paid to produce at any physical cost, no matter what. The whole drug scene is as much a part of pro sports as practice is." And even Falk was uncertain whether he wanted to be a party to his client's doing something so potentially self-destructive.
Lucas might never have returned at all if Moncrief and Bridgeman hadn't called him while he was mulling over his decision. "They made me feel like family," Lucas says. "It was the first time in my 11 years of pro basketball that anybody from the team I was going to join ever called to make me feel welcome."
Lucas has hinted that the better things go this year, the less likely he is to return next season. If he does leave, he will be able to walk out the front door. "I'm still scared every day," he says. "But whether I make it or not, I've got a war on these drugs. I want to carry the torch, and if I drop it, I hope somebody else will pick it up."