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Image Of Hope
Jill Lieber
January 11, 1993
John Lucas, the new coach of the San Antonio Spurs, sees himself as an example for recovering addicts
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January 11, 1993

Image Of Hope

John Lucas, the new coach of the San Antonio Spurs, sees himself as an example for recovering addicts

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Lucas wasn't sure he wanted to become an NBA coach until last summer when he coached the Miami Tropics to the United States Basketball League Championship. Lucas had purchased the Tropics as a unique addition to his athletes' aftercare program and then appointed himself to run the club. Six of the 10 men on the roster were in recovery, including former NBA players Ken Bannister, Grant Gondrezick, Roy Tarpley and Duane Washington. The Tropics presented the players with a small-scale version of the day-today temptations that face big league athletes. For eight weeks, Lucas led daily therapy sessions, administered drug tests and chauffeured the guys on road trips, driving a van as many as 750 miles at a clip, "it was the closest team I've ever been on," Lucas says.

Coaching the Tropics broadened Lucas's perspective on the ways he could inspire others in recovery. "It taught me that basketball is an extension of what I do," he says.

Some of his former NBA coaches believe Lucas may be a natural in his latest job. At week's end, the Spurs, who were 9-11 under Lucas's predecessor, Jerry Tarkanian, had stormed to an impressive 5-1 record under his leadership, including a thrilling 114-113 overtime triumph over red-hot Phoenix on Sunday night that ended the Suns' 14-game winning streak. "John won't just be a good coach, he'll be a great one," says the Golden State Warriors' Don Nelson, who coached Lucas on the Milwaukee Bucks in 1987. "He relates to players as well or better than anybody I've been around. He coaches like a point guard. He knows exactly what should and shouldn't be asked of players."

With all the new responsibilities now on his shoulders, Lucas maintains his balance by relying on the Alcoholics Anonymous principles. He carries three silver desire chips, given to him at AA meetings long ago as "an outward sign of an inward commitment to stop drinking," and three brass sobriety chips, marking his third, fourth and sixth years of sobriety. (He has given the chips representing his first, second and fifth years to others in recovery.) To calm his nerves on game days Lucas reads the AA bible—recovering addicts call it the Big Book—before going to the arena. Before the team leaves the locker room, he instructs one of the Spurs to lead the team in prayer; after that, he goes alone to a quiet corner, closes his eyes and recites the Serenity Prayer. He whispers. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference."

After hitting rockbottom in March 1986, Lucas couldn't find the strength or courage to change his life until he was able to be brutally honest with himself. A driven overachiever who was a tennis prodigy and a high school basketball sensation, Lucas had always defined himself through sports, and his self-esteem depended solely on his athletic feats. At 17, he made the Junior Davis Cup team. In basketball, he broke the North Carolina high school career scoring record held by the late Pete Maravich. In '76 he was an All-America at Maryland in basketball and tennis. That June he was chosen by the Rockets as the first pick overall in the NBA draft—an unlikely feat for a small (6'3") guard—and for six years Lucas played both professional basketball and tennis. In his spare time he earned a master's degree in secondary education. "Everything in my life was 'winner,' 'runner-up' and 'consolation,' " Lucas says. "I didn't know how to have fun. I never had a childhood. I still can't swim, and I didn't ride a bike. The skills I was sharpest on were competition, drive and sportsmanship."

Pleasing his parents was Lucas's primary motivation. As the younger of Blondola and John Lucas Sr.'s two children, he grew up idolizing his father, who was the principal of Hillside High in Durham, N.C., and a leader in the desegregation of schools in the South. Blondola was the assistant principal at Durham's Shepard Junior High.

It was during a therapy session at the Van Nuys treatment center that Lucas made his most important breakthrough. Sitting in a circle with his parents and wife, he blurted out through tears, "Daddy, I have looked upon you as God, and you can't be that anymore."

John Sr. started to cry. He threw his arms around his son and hugged him tightly. "I too have looked up to you as a god," John Sr. said. "And I can no longer do that."

Explains John Jr.: "I couldn't be in competition with him anymore. I had to stop trying to make him proud of me. I had to stop trying to live my life for others and just live for me."

With that revelation Lucas set off to find out who he really was. In July 1986, two months after finishing inpatient therapy, he launched the first phase of his company, a hospital fitness program for drug patients. He rejoined the NBA in January of the next year, playing for the Bucks, and hopscotched around the league until his retirement in 1990. With the help of Joyce Bossett, an administrator at Houston International Hospital and his mentor in his fledgling drug rehabilitation business, Lucas mapped out a network of counselors connected to the Hospital Corporation of America chain, so he could continue his aftercare as he traveled to each NBA city. No matter where he was, Lucas always attended an AA meeting at 6:30 a.m.

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