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The first pure point guard ever taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft was John Lucas out of Maryland in 1976. That was an era that valued pass-first players at the point and Lucas defined such a role, although the game was by far the domain of the big man and size was paramount. When the Rockets made Lucas the choice, legendary Celtics boss Red Auerbach exclaimed: “A point guard No. 1? What’s this league coming to?”
Lucas’ stint in Houston would initially be short and later repeated twice more, as he fell prey to substance abuse, became a journeyman and saw his career constantly interrupted. Although he played 14 years total, he became more known for flunking two drug tests and being released in March of 1986, the year the Rockets reached the NBA Finals. Lucas was averaging 15.5 points, 8.8 assists and 1.2 steals as a starter in what was perhaps his finest season before the plug was pulled.
Rather than become a statistic, Lucas salvaged what was left of his career; at age 33 he averaged 17.5 points for the Bucks. After retirement, he devoted his life to helping other athletes overcome abuse and addiction or other issues: Ty Lawson, Tyrann Matthieu, the late Roy Tarpley and Mitchell Wiggins, the father of Andrew Wiggins, among others. He made Houston his base for that, and became a mentor for talented yet troubled souls. Eventually, he formed a company that also helped train young players for college and professional ball a made a name for himself in Houston basketball circles.
Lucas also had three stints as a coach, first with the US Basketball League’s Miami Tropics (where a number of his players were former substance abusers) and then the Spurs, Sixers and Cavaliers. His timing was poor in Philly and Cleveland; he was fired before the Sixers drafted Allen Iverson and by the Cavs before they drafted LeBron James.
Lucas is now a Rockets assistant coach in charge of player development and has the unique position of having ties with both Houston and the Warriors in this second-round series; Lucas played for Golden State in the late ‘70s.
He sat for a recent interview and discussed his sobriety, his stint as a professional doubles player in tennis — Lucas was a singles champion in the Atlantic Coast Conference while also playing basketball — and when he coached the Spurs and dealt with the country’s tabloid couple at the time, Dennis Rodman and Madonna:
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Shaun Powell, NBA.com: You’ve had a front-row seat for the last three years to see James Harden. What do you know about his game that others might not?
John Lucas, Houston Rockets coach: He’s got the fastest feet I’ve ever seen for someone who scores as much as he does. I’m not talking about footrace speed. Just basketball speed and movement. It aids his step-back jumper. I’ve worked with Kobe and LeBron and his feet are faster than anyone I’ve ever worked with. And he uses his body well. His size is perfect for his game.
SP: You were just 6-2 and 175 in your day. Could you guard Harden, and what advice would you give for anyone trying to guard Harden now?
JL: I would just holler `Help!’ And that would be my advice for anyone else. Get help. Lots of help.
SP: As a former point guard, what do you appreciate most about Chris Paul?
JL: Chris is the one whose game reminds me of the way I played, although I wasn’t as good as he is. He’s going to beat you with his brain. He’s athletic but not the most athletic. He is the most cerebral. He’s going to find out where you are and he has a knack for knowing what the other team’s going to do. Some of the things I’ve learned from him that I’ve passed onto young point guards is him knowing how to stay a step ahead of the other player. Chris is always one step ahead of you.
SP: But center Clint Capela gives you the most pride, correct?
JL: He’s had to travel a longer road than James or Chris, and he’s come a long way from when I first got here. We’ve worked together and I saw the growth. It’s all because of his work ethic and his desire. That made him into the player he is today.
SP: Do you still remember draft day, 1976?
JL: The draft was done on the phone. There was no TV show with hosts and commercial breaks. You just got a call. That’s it. And the whole thing took maybe an hour. They didn’t take point guards that high back then, but then came Magic (Johnson) and Allen Iverson and a few others after me. There’s two positions you gotta have, point guard and the center. Even with the analytics, that hasn’t changed.
SP: You were in denial about your substance abuse troubles; you were suspended by the Warriors after missing six games and showing up late for practices in 1981, but that wasn’t rock bottom. When was that?
JL: I missed a game March 14, 1986. I was with the Rockets. I woke up on the street and didn’t know what happened. The game was in Portland and I didn’t make the trip. I had a $3 million contract on the line but only if I could stay sober for the season. We went to the NBA Finals that year but I wasn’t around for it.
SP: What was the reaction from the Rockets?
JL: Bill Fitch was the coach and he said, `We’re out of the rehab business.’ Well, he saved my life. I tell him that all the time. I love him for that.
SP: And you never looked back?
JL: I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. They say you never recover until you hit rock bottom and I didn’t know how to help myself until I hit rock bottom.
SP: This obviously made you qualified to help start and serve as an advisor for the NBA’s drug program, and also help others, right?
JL: I tell the people I help that you can’t fool somebody who has been everywhere you ever thought about going. I always thought `denial’ was a river in Africa. I’ve lived it. I’ve gone through it. Only 1 out of 10 of us make it back, make it through recovery. A lot of them save their lives but lost their career. Some that have had both gone. You don’t want to be where I’ve been. I’ve seen the devil.
SP: And you’ve never looked back. How’s life in recovery?
JL: Every day is a new start in your life. What you did yesterday doesn’t define who you are. That’s who you used to be. That’s not who you are.
SP: We’ve seen a number of successful athletes have issues, when seemingly they have it all. Why is that?
JL: Being a star is probably the most depressed world you can live in. Because now you don’t know who’s going to be there as your friend and who loves you as a person.
SP: While you were still playing in the NBA, you dabbled in pro tennis in the World Team Tennis league and was the mixed doubles partner of Dr. Renee Richards, the transexual player who entered the US Open as a woman in 1977. Explain that experience.
JL: For my recovery from drugs and alcohol, I had to accept people for who they are. I just wanted to be loved because I’d screwed up so bad, and so people from same sex marriages and someone like Renee, I could identify with, because like them, who are often rejected by society, I wanted to be loved. I wanted someone to accept me again. We were great as partners and got along well. Tough to beat us on the court, too. Both of us lefties. Big serves. We went something like 28-1. A great time.
SP: You coached the Spurs right before they hired Gregg Popovich to be the team general manager, and right after Larry Brown left. You had David Robinson, a straight arrow, but also Dennis Rodman on that team. And he had a special guest, right?
JL: He was going out with Madonna at that time. I brought her in the locker room. I introduced her to the guys. But I didn’t know it would become such a distraction, all the attention she brought from the media. It really hurt us in the playoffs because it distracted us against Utah in the first round. Dennis was ejected from one game and suspended from another game, which we lost at home. It was our year to win it and we lost in the first round.
SP: But at least Madonna was on her best behavior, I suspect?
JL: Very nice, very smart woman, down to earth. Very businesslike. She was trying to help Dennis to help become more businesslike.
SP: What in your past has helped you today as a coach?
JL: I’ve been the No. 1 guy and the last guy and the aging veteran, so I know all parts of the game. I deal with players in all of those phases. Sometimes a player might be upset about his role or playing time. I try to walk through their process of being in the rotation. I understand the feeling.
SP: How far can the Rockets go this season?
JL: All the way. We have an MVP and Chris Paul. Mike D’Antoni is fun to play for because he lets the players get the best out of their abilities. This is a good team, a great team.
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