Just say No. John Lucas gives the antidrug slogan some thought, his lips pursed around the no. He is trying to remember if there was ever a time when questions had such easy answers. No. "People were always telling me, 'Just say no,' " Lucas says finally. "But the funny thing is, that stuff don't work. I said no."
And when he did say no to his cocaine addiction, his demons came at him with new questions. "They used to sit on my shoulder and say, 'O.K., you don't want any today, how about tomorrow? Or next week?' " he says. Lucas finally began to come up with the right answer to those questions nearly a year ago, he says, when he realized that the only way to overcome his addiction was to accept it. "I had said I accepted it before, but addiction is a cunning and baffling disease," he says. "As an athlete I'd always been taught to try to win at any cost, but in order to beat this disease I finally realized I had to surrender to it."
For the moment at least, he seems once again to have the demons on the run. Since ending a 10-month exile from the NBA by signing with the Milwaukee Bucks on Jan. 17, the 33-year-old Lucas has reestablished himself as one of the league's top point guards. In his very first game, against Atlanta, he came off the bench to help bring the Bucks back from a 16-point deficit to a 100-91 victory, contributing 12 points and 7 assists. He has started almost every game since, and the Bucks are 12-6 with him in the lineup. Lucas is averaging a career-high 18.3 points per game.
Lucas has traveled this road before. He was suspended in 1981 by Golden State for missing practices and games, and drugs were suspected. Last week he acknowledged that he did indeed have a cocaine problem at the time. His subsequent involvement with the drug has been well documented. Washington waived him in the middle of the 1982-83 season, and after a year in San Antonio, he went to Houston, where, in late 1984, the Rockets waived him for drug use, then reinstated him after he underwent rehabilitation.
Last season Lucas was the linchpin of an exciting young Houston team, but with just 17 games left in the regular season, he missed a practice and had to undergo a urinalysis. He was told not to dress for the Rockets' next game until the test results were in. "Sitting on the bench in street clothes that night was the low moment of maybe my entire life," Lucas has said. "I knew what the test would show. I knew what I had done, and that I had let everybody down. I just wanted to get away somehow, but it was too late."
Lucas had played so well all year that the Rockets were stunned when the test was positive. He was waived, and the Rockets reached the NBA finals without him. "We all thought there was no way he'd fail again," says Houston coach Bill Fitch. "If you look at our scrapbooks, John was doing the same things then that he's doing now, speaking to all the groups [about fighting drug addiction]. Like he says, it's a tricky thing. It comes after him."
Lucas knows that not everybody expects him to make it in the NBA this time. "There are a lot of skeptics, and I understand that," he says. "People say, 'What makes this time different?' and the answer is, I don't know. I accepted my problem before, but I accepted it only to get back to playing basketball. I didn't want to come back this time just to show I could still play. That's why I didn't come back when I had offers to play earlier in the year. I didn't think I was ready."
One of those offers was from the Bucks, who had struggled offensively after losing guards Sidney Moncrief and Scott Skiles to injuries. "When we first talked to Milwaukee about the possibility of John coming back, they had a very pressing need for a player," says David Falk, his agent of 11 years. "When John said then that the time wasn't right yet, and that he wanted to clean up his business responsibilities, I knew for the first time that he had really changed. Two years ago he would've been on the first plane to Milwaukee."
Bucks coach Don Nelson contacted Lucas again, "to see if he was ready," after forward Paul Pressey, the team's only remaining playmaker, went out on Jan. 9 with a dislocated right ring finger. The Bucks had lost 8 of 12 games, including one against the Washington Bullets in which they blew a 25-point lead, and seemed badly in need of a steadying influence. Surprisingly, there was little doubt in Nelson's mind that the player who could best fill that need was one with a long history of missing practices and team planes, a player who had twice been through drug rehab and who could barely steady his own jangled nerves. "He had hurt a lot of teams and a lot of coaches because they couldn't depend on him," Nelson says. "But we had lost three games in a row in which we just couldn't get the ball in play. We desperately needed John Lucas."
Nelson first talked to Moncrief, Pressey and Junior Bridgeman to make sure that Lucas's presence wouldn't disrupt the team. After they enthusiastically approved his idea. Nelson called Lucas in Houston and "told him it was time to get serious about coming back." He then flew in to have dinner with Lucas, and they had a blunt discussion about what they expected from each other. "I was totally convinced after that dinner that he had a good chance to make it this time," Nelson says. "I felt we could surround him with the type of quality players who would give him the support he needed if he was going to have a chance." Lucas had always jumped at the first chance to resume his NBA career, even if deep down he knew it meant renewing the cycle of drug dependency, but this time he hesitated.
"I was dragging my feet, but I knew I wanted to play," Lucas says. "Coach Nelson told me that it was time to get on with my life, that if I couldn't exist there, I probably couldn't exist anywhere."
Actually, Lucas had already gotten on with his life and discovered in the process that he could have a life after basketball. During his mandatory month in a drug rehab center in Van Nuys, Calif., he conceived the John Lucas Fitness System, a training regimen geared to recovering addicts, alcoholics, the chronically depressed and the elderly. In the 10 months before he began his NBA comeback, he franchised the business into half a dozen Houston hospitals, doing it so successfully that, he jokes, his return to basketball may actually cost him money. "The business side of my life was going very well," he says. "But whenever people talked about John Lucas the basketball player, it was always in the context of the way I had left. I loved the game so much it almost killed me, and I decided that when I was finished playing basketball I wanted to go out the front door."
Not everyone who knew Lucas well was eager to see him go back to the game. His sister Cheryl once told The Washington Post, "The atmosphere in the NBA leads to destruction. I just don't think it's a healthy environment for anyone. People are paid to produce at any physical cost, no matter what. The whole drug scene is as much a part of pro sports as practice is." And even Falk was uncertain whether he wanted to be a party to his client's doing something so potentially self-destructive.
Lucas might never have returned at all if Moncrief and Bridgeman hadn't called him while he was mulling over his decision. "They made me feel like family," Lucas says. "It was the first time in my 11 years of pro basketball that anybody from the team I was going to join ever called to make me feel welcome."
Lucas has hinted that the better things go this year, the less likely he is to return next season. If he does leave, he will be able to walk out the front door. "I'm still scared every day," he says. "But whether I make it or not, I've got a war on these drugs. I want to carry the torch, and if I drop it, I hope somebody else will pick it up."
After hitting a key three-pointer against New Jersey, Moncrief got a hug from Lucas
Lucas has averaged a career-high 18.3 points a game since joining the team in January.