John Lucas is not about to let people forget that he was one of the best point guards ever. As the new coach of the San Antonio Spurs, he's playing without the ball these days, but he's just as animated and intense as he ever was during his 14 seasons in the NBA. Inside the redbrick gym at San Antonio's Incarnate Word College, the Spurs' practice site, Lucas traipses up and down the floor, barking out instructions in a raspy, high-pitched North Carolina accent and waving his arms like a traffic cop. "Push the ball up the court!" he hollers. "Take a picture of the floor! Know what everybody does! You've got to start thinking!"
Fueled by raw energy and an endless stream of Diet Coke, Lucas is in constant overdrive. Because his hiring on Dec. 18 came with hardly any warning, Lucas was forced to dash to the Houston airport from the offices of his company, John H. Lucas Enterprises, without packing any clothes. The next morning, as he led his new troops, he wore multicolored boxers under his Spur sweatpants. Right now, he's wearing The Look, a scowl that forecasts trouble. "Offense!" Lucas bellows. "Somebody's got to know the shot clock!"
And if Lucas doesn't think the San Antonio players are catching his drift, he'll grab a basketball and take himself out of retirement, exploding into a game of five-on-five. At 39 he's still able to throw the best alley-oop pass in the business. "I'm not afraid to be down 12-4," Lucas chirps, as he launches the ball toward the rim. "I've come back from the dead."
There is an eerie truth to those words. Seven years ago, Lucas was his own worst nightmare—trapped in the powerful stranglehold of alcohol and cocaine addiction. He had bounced between five pro teams in 10 years, had been waived twice for drug use and had drifted in and out of drug treatment centers four times. Away from the court he lived in varying states of paranoia, desperation and shame. He would tiptoe around his Houston home and peek out the windows from behind drawn curtains. Scared to take a shower because someone might walk in on him, he gave up bathing and instead doused himself in cologne. On nights when he sweated profusely from doing cocaine, Lucas slept on the cool tile floor in his bathroom. One morning in 1984 when he was playing for the Houston Rockets, he awoke to discover his son, John, then two, standing on his shoulders, trying to use the toilet. A year later, his daughter, Tarvia, then a mature six-year-old, caught him using cocaine and scolded him, saying, "Daddy, I am a gift from God, and you should be held accountable."
On March 11, 1986, Lucas, then averaging 15.5 points and 8.8 assists per game for the Rockets, bottomed out following a game against the Boston Celtics. At home he noticed that his wife, Debbie, who locked him inside the house each night to keep him off the streets, had inadvertently left the key in the front door. Without even putting on his shoes Lucas dashed out of the house and sped away in his car, with his wife and two children chasing him. At seven the next morning in downtown Houston, Lucas emerged from a cocaine blackout. He was wearing a designer suit, sunglasses and five pairs of sweat socks, and hoping not to be recognized. His clothes were soaked with his own urine. Rather than try to make it to practice, Lucas took more cocaine. Twelve hours later he stumbled back to his family; he was gaunt, with grayish skin and dull eyes, and hunched over in a disheveled heap.
On March 13 the Rockets ordered Lucas to take a drug test. When the result came back positive, they released him. Within days Lucas checked into the Van Nuys (Calif.) Community Hospital for rehabilitation. Upon his arrival, his counselor asked him to look into a mirror and describe what he saw. "I see a good-looking black man, the Number One pick in the NBA draft and one of the best point guards ever," Lucas said.
The counselor, shaking his head in disbelief, replied sternly, "I see a man who has lost his job for the third time and can't stay sober."
Lucas's hiring by the Spurs represents the latest stop on his long journey of self-discovery. Sober since March 14, 1986, Lucas is the most prominent figure to coach a major pro sport while in recovery. The opportunity to be a symbol of sobriety is one of the reasons Lucas accepted the San Antonio job, and he has already connected with others in recovery. During his first three weeks with the Spurs, dozens of NBA fans who are recovering addicts approached him on the bench before games to shake hands or to simply pat him on the back, and during the playing of the national anthem he has seen nods, winks and waves from anonymous faces in the crowd. Those gestures give him hope. "Whether I fail or make it as a coach." he says, "I will let other people like me know that I believe in miracles, because I am one."
By hiring Lucas, Spur owner Red McCombs realized he would be opening himself to criticism. First of all, Lucas, who retired as a player just before the 1990-91 season, had no NBA coaching experience. Beyond that, he had been one of the NBA's most notorious alcohol and cocaine abusers. Lucas had since become an acclaimed evangelist in the recovery field, with a reputation for holding the perhaps misguided belief that he never met an addict he couldn't save. His still-growing company, which employs 19 people, specializes in drug and alcohol education, treatment and rehabilitation.
But none of the negatives mattered to McCombs, who himself has been a recovering alcoholic since Nov. 12, 1977. Moreover, McCombs knew firsthand that Lucas had a special way with people and an uncanny ability to cut straight to the heart of an athlete, because he had witnessed the rehabilitation magic Lucas worked with former NBA All-Star George (the Iceman) Gervin, the most celebrated player in Spur history.