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Fran Blinebury

John Lucas
Former NBA player and coach John Lucas has been sober for 25 years.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Lucas still showing others how to change a life for the good


Posted Oct 16 2011 2:02PM

HOUSTON -- The players are racing up and down the court running and shooting. The boss is practically bouncing along the sidelines yelling and hooting.

"Jonny, that was a nice move," he shouts while chuckling, "but don't pretend that's the kind of thing we're seeing from you all of the time."

"Hey, Mike!" he barks like an annoying Chihuahua during a change of possession, "I'm not sure you would have been tough enough to stay on the court in my day."

Part coach, part heckler, part teacher, part buddy, part mentor, part professor, part comedian, part peer, this is John Lucas in full, a quarter century after the fall.

"Truth is," he says, "I never thought I'd be alive in 2011."

Lucas, 57, now clean and sober for 25 years, has never been better. Not in the days when he was an All-American at Maryland and the No. 1 overall pick of the 1976 NBA Draft. Not when he was wreaking havoc on the court with the likes of Moses Malone and Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon during his 14-year playing career.

"Now I don't recommend people go through all the things that I did to get here," he says. "But everybody has to find their way to their real purpose in life and this is exactly where I've always been meant to be."

It is a tiny gym at Lutheran North High School with no air conditioning and no fancy trappings. Yet out there on the court every day are a handful of NBA players, college players and top high school prospects going through the paces as part of the John Lucas Basketball Resources program, which focuses on the basic skills of the court and in life.

While other big name stars are spending their summers strutting their stuff and creating headlines coast to coast in All-Star type games during the lockout, the pros here are looking to develop fundamentals that could help them to succeed as players and people.

"I tell them that if you can hone your skills and become a good citizen, there will be a place for you in the NBA," Lucas says. "And if you don't, there will always be somebody to show you the door."

That somebody for him was Bill Fitch, then the coach of the Houston Rockets when the talented-but-troubled Lucas failed his last drug test during the spring of 1986.

"He said, 'That's it, you're done,' " Lucas recalls. "And Bill Fitch saved my life."

And in the process, saved dozens of others as Lucas has dedicated himself to the rehabilitation program that bears his name and his imprint and succeeded due to his own mistakes.

"On one hand, what I got was a lot of trouble for myself with everything that I did," he says. "But at the same time I got the gift of being able to help other people directly from my own experiences."

Not everyone who is putting up jump shots or hustling for rebounds in his camp is realistically pursuing an NBA career. Some are just chasing the kind of normalcy and productive life that Lucas found for himself.

"I go to an A.A. meeting every morning at 6:30," he says. "It's what I've had to do each day for 25 years to get to this point. I don't dwell on my past, but I don't fear it either and I don't run from it.

"The greatest thing about what I've done with my recovery program over the years is when it gets families back together. Look at my own. My youngest son, Jai, has never seen me drunk. He's 23. That's something I'm proud of. That's a record I've built a day at a time."

Lucas has also built a reputation as a teacher that has given him the opportunity to run youth camps all across the country. He's currently preparing to head up a camp in Louisville, Ky. for the nation's top high school players, from which USA Basketball will make selections.

But it's inside these cinderblock walls where players knife through the thick, humid air that the heaviest and perhaps most productive lifting is done.

"This camp we have is high quality," Lucas says. "Earlier this year, we had five players who went in the first round of this year's draft. We have NBA starters. We have some of the top high school prospects and kids all the way down to fifth and sixth grade in the country.

"But this camp is hard and it's not for everybody. A little too much structure is too much for some guys. The conditioning and all, that is really tough. Some guys aren't ready to make the commitment. But if you do, I'm telling you, there are benefits."

NBA players pay $8,500 a month for the camp. There are varying fees for the pre-Draft camp and for players at other levels.

The players have yoga instruction two days a week, weight lifting, individual skills sessions and games where the up-tempo advocate Lucas insists on a 10-second shot clock. Actually, in the no-frills atmosphere, it's one of the assistant coaches shouting out a countdown. Following each day's workouts, there's an optional Bible study.

Lucas has been an NBA head coach in San Antonio, Philadelphia and Cleveland and most recently was an assistant under Mike Dunleavy in L.A. with the Clippers. He interviewed in Houston this summer before Kevin McHale got the Rockets job. But he's not so sure, really, that one more job on an NBA bench is what he wants.

"Sometimes I think maybe and then other times I come back into this gym and know that this is what I'm supposed to do and where I'm supposed to do it," he says, waving his arm at the court. "This is the family business."

And business is good.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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