'This city saved my life' -- John Lucas on his return to Houston, NBA

Fran Blinebury

There’s a simple reason why John Lucas finally answered one of the calls to get him back in the NBA.

It was the right one. From the Rockets.

“I owe,” he said with a shrug and a nod. “I just feel I owe.”

Through a life and an odyssey that has taken him from college All-American and No. 1 pick in the NBA draft to the depths of drug and alcohol dependent despair, the touchstone and anchor has always been the first team in the league that valued him so highly.

“Whoever chooses you first like they did in 1976 is always going to be special,” Lucas said. “So I’ve chosen them first all the rest of my basketball career.”

At 63, Lucas has come back to the Rockets as director of player development under Mike D’Antoni at a time when others might have figured he’d already found his calling as a personal trainer of young athletes and a life counselor to individuals with substance abuse and other personal problems.

“I’m still coaching,” he said. “I was coaching people to get through life, coaching kids who were trying to make it into the NBA. Now I’m just coaching within the framework of a team again. The basketball hasn’t changed in more than 40 years I’ve been playing. What I’m doing now in player development is something that I think is really needed even more in this era when we’ve got younger and younger players coming in all the time.”

Lucas left his foundation in the capable hands of successors in order to try to help the franchise that has held a special bond try to get back to the top.

“I bleed Rocket red,” he said. “And I have the city of Houston pumping through my veins. Because, quite simply, it saved my life. Maybe I can help with some others, because a lot of these kids need to learn what it means to be a professional, need to learn all those things to cope.”

The young Lucas had a pair of standout seasons in Houston before the Rockets signed All-Star Rick Barry as a free agent and, under the NBA rules at that time, commissioner Larry O’Brien awarded Lucas to the Golden State Warriors as compensation.

“We all knew the Rockets were going to have to give up something good,” Lucas said. “Real good. The fact is they wanted either me or Moses Malone. And I didn’t like the idea that some people thought Moses was better. Though he clearly was.”

Lucas never blamed O’Brien or the move to the West Coast for his problems.

“No, I was already headed to disaster,” he said. “That just speeded the process up. But it was a lesson that I had to learn and it’s one thing I talk to young player about all the time. You might get traded. You might get cut. All of a sudden you fee like somebody doesn’t want you. It can do a lot of different things to your mind. What I want to get through is that it can also be an opportunity.”

Lucas tells everyone that his life really began on March 14, 1986, the day Rockets coach Bill Fitch cut him from a team that would go on to play the Boston Celtics in The Finals.

“Yes. I didn’t know how to stop myself,” he said. “I needed somebody to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ You know how you know that you know what you’re doing is wrong, but you can’t stop? There were people around saying maybe you need to do this. Or maybe you need to do that. What I needed was for somebody to just step up and say: ‘No.’ That was Bill.”

Steadily, the city of Houston picked him back up with support and understanding.

“People look at me like I’m crazy when I say it, but this city saved my life,” Lucas said. “When I was going through the bad it was almost as bad as other things other people in sports have gone — or are going — through. Guys like Johnny Manziel today. For me, where I screwed the basketball piece of my life, the city kinda like said, ‘We’ll raise you, John.’

“They put my treatment programs into place. They gave me an opportunity to have another future. The greatest gift I got from the city was I was more than a basketball player. And as a result I’ve learned that I’m more than a basketball coach.

“Not my family, not any of my kids ever had any ill will against us. I don’t know that kind of love from anyplace else.”

He laughs.

“The only time I got any grief is when we lost in those Finals. That could have been the Rockets first championship in ’86. Should have been. Would have been. We were that good. But nothing anybody ever said was with malice. It was good natured ribbing. People in Houston were looking out for me.”

There were head coaching stints in San Antonio, Philadelphia and Cleveland. He was let go by the Cavs just before they drafted LeBron James. He spent a season (2009-10) as an assistant under Mike Dunleavy with the Clippers. There were always other calls from other teams every season.

After he was close to the team a year ago as a tutor to Ty Lawson, team owner Leslie Alexander and general manager Daryl Morey, reached out to expand his role.

“Didn’t think twice,” Lucas said. “Hey, my history with this city and this franchise is deep. I was there when Rudy T got hit. I was there when the commissioner said I had to go. I was here when they won in ’94 and ’95. When the Rockets played the first game in The Summit (1977). I was there to play in that very first game. I was here when they opened the Toyota Center (2003). I’ve always been here. I just have been watching from a distance in recent years, but I’ve never been far away.

“Most of the guys that are on the team now have come up through one of my programs. Not necessarily the drug or alcohol programs, but through player development. I’ve known James (Harden) forever, Trevor (Ariza) forever. Nene I almost drafted in Cleveland. Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, Bobby Brown, Sam Dekker, Kyle Wiltjer. So it wasn’t like starting out on something all brand new. It was coming home to repay the debt.”

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

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