HOUSTON — One is a young man, the other an older man, tossed together after meeting just a year ago and for generational reasons have little in common besides a shared love of basketball and a desire to celebrate their rebirth.
The young man says this about the older man: “He helped save my life.”
The older man says this about the young man: “He keeps me living.”
It is an evolving working relationship, filled with big plans and a mutual understanding and also the occasional cuss word exchanged in jest — some of them, anyway. But such is the case in these types of arrangements, and anyway, there’s a lot riding on their ability to connect with one another, namely the future success of the Rockets.
Kevin Porter Jr. is the emerging talent that can help turn the franchise into a winner in a reasonably quick time. He’s an athletic and bouncy guard, blessed with the physical tools required to flourish in today’s rapid game. He can find his sweet spot on the floor to shoot a jumper that’s pure or shake his man off the dribble. He’s an ideal size — 6-foot-4 and a slim-fit 205 pounds — that makes him useful in any system.
Last season, his second, he scored 50 points. That night was notable and not just how Porter dropped buckets on the eventual champion Bucks, but he also became the fourth-youngest player in NBA history to reach 50 in a game.
Yes, that’s the beauty here: Porter is just 21, a precious commodity in a league that values youthful talent.
— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) November 1, 2021
He also brought more baggage than an airport during the holidays when he arrived in Houston. He left a trail of suspensions and other assorted disciplinary punishments for immaturity and insubordination from high school and college and at his first NBA stop, in Cleveland, where the Cavaliers were so anxious to dump this former first-round pick — drafted just the previous summer! — that they basically sent him to Houston in a limo.
Chances are the Rockets, desperate as they were for talent, wouldn’t have bothered if they didn’t have John Lucas to welcome him, nurture him, show him a better way.
Lucas is the senior member of the Rockets’ coaching staff, valued for his basketball smarts, calm demeanor and direction in stressful times. He’s adored for his lengthy commitment both to the organization and in the community.
He also has a 35-year history of being a life coach, too, rescuing athletes haunted by assorted personal demons that either destroyed or delayed their careers and threw their lives into chaos. Lucas became a mentor and expert on all things That Can Go Wrong because he wears the scars. As a former No. 1 overall pick who constantly battled substance abuse back in the days when the league juggled those issues, Lucas knows a hopeless case when he sees one, and also a case worth salvaging.
Lucas took the lead in the support system the Rockets put in place so Porter can reach his full potential as a player, which is considerable.
What’s unique is how Lucas can relate at age 68, and the 47-year gap between them isn’t lost on Porter, who teases Lucas by nicknaming him “old school,” which Porter quickly adds, “and that’s OK.” Because maybe Porter wisely knows that’s the school where necessary lessons are taught and learned.
“Anybody would say this about John Lucas: He’s unique,” Porter said. “He wants the best for you, he’ll push you and push you. He wants you to have that focus.”
It’s proper to say the young man needs the older man’s help to mature and avoid all the traps that kill dreams and goals, which would be correct, although there’s a catch:
“Do I do this for him? Yes, of course,” Lucas said. “But I really do this for me.”
Kevin Porter Sr. was murdered in cold blood, right near the liquor bottles on the shelves, inside a local bar, dropped by five bullets. He was rushing to support a friend involved in a spat that turned tragic. You want to know why his son had issues? That’s a good place to start.
“My upbringing was different,” Porter Jr. said.
This was 2004 in Seattle. The kid was four. His mother kept him from the funeral, didn’t want the son to carry that memory. She only wanted him to know Kevin Sr., though hardly perfect, was a devoted father. The neighborhood wanted him to know Sr. was also a former hoop star at Rainier Beach High School.
A dozen years later, the kid now a teenager with special basketball skills, his mother didn’t want him to go to that school. Too much pressure, too many comparisons, but her son stood firm and demanded to follow the father, so it was settled. Plus, the bonus: Father and son would be linked by the same coach. Mike Bethea is a longtime legendary coach at Rainier Beach which has produced, among others, Jamal Crawford, Doug Christie, Nate Robinson and also Dejounte Murray, who was Porter Jr.’s high school teammate.
“His father was getting his life together and looking forward to raising his family when all that happened to him,” Bethea said from Seattle. “He would always come by and say, ‘Coach, my son’s gonna play for you one day and I need you to look out for him.’
“Every kid wants that strong father role model in their life. For Kevin to not have that, and only have the stories of what a great athlete his dad was, well that’s tough for him. Kevin wanted to have his dad see him achieve the level of success that he’s had. It’s one of those things that burns him up inside that his dad isn’t here to share that with him.”
Tough love was exercised, repeatedly in this case, between coach and player. Porter received a heads-up from Crawford, who warned him, “if you cross Coach Mike, you’re going to lose” and in that sense, Porter went winless.
Rainier Beach was ready to board a plane once for a big national tournament when Porter was tapped on the shoulder by Bethea and told to go home. Porter, the top player in the state by then, had run afoul of team rules. And there were a few other suspensions.
“He was one of those kids who always had his guard up,” Bethea said. “You had to break through the surface. He had his ups and downs. He crossed me a few times but it was a learning experience and taught him how to deal with adversity. With some kids, they’ll get a coach who’ll give them a pass and suddenly he’ll think he’s bigger than the team.
“Let me make this clear,” Bethea said, “when you get to know Kevin he’s really a good kid. He’s a very bright kid but really young. Whenever I’d get on him, he’d say, ‘Coach, I know you’re teaching me this for a reason.’ He was always very respectful to me.”
More incidents followed. Porter was suspended once at USC, where he only stayed a year. Because of the red flags, he fell to No. 30 in the 2019 draft. Then, after a promising rookie season with the Cavs, Porter was arrested after flipping his Mercedes in a late-night crash, made troublesome social media posts that were deleted and had multiple team violations. It all came to a head last January when he was told to clean out his locker following a screaming match with team officials. The Cavs placed him on leave while searching for trade partners; most took a hard pass.
“I heard he was getting ready to be put out the league because of his blowups and stuff,” Bethea said. “I was saying to myself, ‘Man, I hope Luke and the Rockets pick him up. Let me reach out to Luke.’ But before I could even dial him, Luke hit me up.”
Lucas has known many athletes with tough challenges, few harder than his own. He was the No. 1 overall pick in 1976, played on six teams, lasted 14 years and half of those were problematic. There were times when Lucas, dazed from drug use, didn’t know where he was, how he got there and who was with him. Lucas was a crafty point guard with a dependable lefty jumper but cocaine robbed him multiple times of a better career. He was constantly in denial, buying the false notion that “denial is a big river in Africa.”
The Rockets went to The Finals in 1986 but Lucas was left home. He’d missed a practice before the playoffs and, given his history, was ordered to take yet another drug test. He sat on the bench that night in street clothes, waiting for the results, though that was a waste of everyone’s time.
“I knew what the test would show,” Lucas said.
The Rockets suspended him, with coach Bill Fitch breaking the news to Lucas, by now embarrassed, weary from the struggle and desperate for help.
“Bill Fitch saved my life,” Lucas said. “The day was March 14. I knew I’d had enough. Everybody has their born again moment. Some people have to have numerous born again moments and you have to hope one of those moments takes you.”
Lucas wasn’t satisfied with just helping himself. He reached out to others and soon created a recovery program for athletes. He even formed a traveling team comprised mainly of rehabbed players — called the Miami Tropics — that played in the semi-professional United States Basketball League in the 1990s.
Helping others to overcome personal issues became part of Lucas’ own rehabilitation, and that’s why he has remained sober since Fitch cut him, why he makes himself available to those in need.
“For most athletes that are very, very good or people who are good, the same thing that makes them good keeps them from getting better,” he said. “The drive to be successful is the same drive. The competitive nature of the sport drives them, but how do you turn off the competition of life?”
And so after years of counseling hundreds of others who fell to Earth, and road-mapping a new direction for them, Lucas was given his newest student earlier this year when, before a trade between the Cavs and Rockets could become official, a phone conversation had to take place between a young man and an older man. A conversation that one needed as much as the other.
“The only way I could remain sober is to reach others,” Lucas said. “It’s been 35 years since I started my journey and I’ve seen a lot. And the only way to keep it is to give it away. And what you’re giving away is your knowledge of life experience. A lot of people gave me this gift, so my gift is to pass it on. I’d love for Kevin to be the best basketball player he can be but my greatest gift is for him to be the best person he wants to be.”
The first lesson in the School of John Lucas is to acknowledge the issue, to reject the denial. In that sense, the education of Porter is a work in progress.
“The only thing that is never compromised between he and I is honesty,” Lucas said. “Gut-level honesty.”
But there is progress: Porter is contrite and remorseful and to hear him discuss his past, and how soft-spoken he is, makes you realize his biggest “problem” is being too young in a grown-up world.
“I just love being here,” Porter said. “This organization picked me up when I was down. They didn’t just pick me up and talk to me; they gave me love and confidence in myself and the motivation to make myself a better player and person. They invested a lot in me. And I try to give my all every day to repay them in some way.
“I just changed up a lot of my everyday life mechanics and tactics. Just how I wake up everyday, how I interact with people, how I react when the stuff hits the fan, knowing my worth and value. I didn’t know my worth and value where I was at before. I couldn’t grow without coming here.”
There’s plenty at stake: For Porter, it’s a career that could generate a fortune, especially if he maximizes his talent and minimizes the distractions. For the Rockets, they’re rebuilding with youth and banking on a synergy between Porter and Jalen Green, the No. 2 overall pick, to form a dynamic starting backcourt for now and the future.
“He has fun on the court,” Green said. “He’s got the whole package. It’s going to be exciting. We’re young and fast and talented.”
After spending time with Lucas, Porter phoned his old high school coach with this gushing progress report on the new mentor: “He’s that guy who can teach me and help me have success at this level and then take it to the other level. He keeps me grounded and is somebody that can show me the way.”
The player and the assistant coach stay closely connected before games and at practice. Their bond seemingly gets firmer by the day.
“When we first started, I gave him my respect but I wouldn’t negotiate anything with him,” Lucas said, “because I was him before he was him. I’ve been there. And there was trust that had to be built up. He could do things to lose that trust, but he hasn’t done anything to lose it. I’ve asked him to do things and he has done everything I asked.
“Has it been perfect? No. Are there some harsh words exchanged? Absolutely, but the respect is there. Do we always agree? No. Can we agree to disagree? Yes. Can we agree not to talk to one another for a minute? Yes. By no means did I not expect us to have some bumps in the road. But the structure for him to be successful is there. He’s a sensitive and caring young man. It’s been a great ride.”
Lucas keeps good humor about the four-decade age gap with someone young enough to be his grandson.
“There is a form of street cred and then there’s my cred,” Lucas said.
Old-school mentoring can only go so far. Porter drew the line when Lucas suggested he get a haircut. This means the bushy afro and twin ducktails will stay intact and remain a trademark because a 21-year-old does have a right to be 21.
“We have a relationship without walls, but it does have boundaries,” Lucas said, laughing, “for both of us.”
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