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2017 NBA Playoffs

Rockets assistant coach John Lucas helps athletes fight alcohol and drug addiction

The majority who come into his clinic have a problem with marijuana

In the early morning of March 14, 1986, John Lucas was found blacked out in downtown Houston. He was wearing a suit, athletic socks and no shoes. Cocaine and alcohol shut the then-Houston Rockets guard down before the Portland Trail Blazers’ defense had a chance to do it.

It was rock bottom for Lucas, who was released by the Rockets.

“I was looking for a car I left at home. And I missed the game that night,” Lucas, a Rockets assistant coach, told The Undefeated.

Before Rockets star James Harden was born, Lucas became a household name in Houston, known more for his heavy drug and alcohol use than his jumpers, steals and assists.

Lucas was the No. 1 overall pick by the Rockets out of the University of Maryland in the 1976 NBA draft. He had three stints with the Rockets in a 14-year career that included stops with the Golden State Warriors, Washington Bullets, San Antonio Spurs, Milwaukee Bucks and Seattle SuperSonics. Lucas’ battle with cocaine and alcohol nearly destroyed him and became public after he repeatedly was suspended. He submitted voluntarily to anti-drug and anti-alcohol treatment to stay in the NBA while others were banned for flunking tests in the 1980s.

“I wouldn’t recommend anybody to go through what I’ve gone through, because only 1 out of 10 of us make it back,” Lucas said. “I always say, ‘You don’t want to go where I’ve been.’ Not many of us get back. I’ve seen the devil, and it ain’t pretty.”

After being sober for more than 30 years, Lucas now is best known for helping athletes fight through their alcohol and drug addictions.

John Lucas, center, of the Houston Rockets coaches during an all-access practice Feb. 2 at the Toyota Center in Houston.

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Lucas operates a Houston-based wellness and aftercare program, offering a substance abuse recovery program for athletes. The program of counselors is available primarily in NBA and NFL cities for teams to offer services to pro athletes. Professional athletes, celebrities and public figures have found success in Lucas’ program. Athletes give up their cellphones, cash and keys, check into a Houston-area rehabilitation center for 30 days to detox and then work out with Lucas to release stress and work on behavioral skills.

“I tell the guys here all the time, you can’t fool somebody who has been everywhere you ever thought about going,” Lucas said. “It’s made me much more appreciative about life and has given me insight and intuition to see things before they happen. I’ve lived the experience.”

The Rockets hired Lucas as head of player development in June 2016 under first-year head coach Mike D’Antoni. Lucas, a longtime Houston resident, was an NBA head coach for the Spurs, Philadelphia 76ers and Cleveland Cavaliers. His Rockets face playoff elimination in Game 6 on Thursday night in their best-of-seven second-round series against the visiting Spurs.

Lucas talked to The Undefeated about the Rockets, Harden, drugs in America and how marijuana can “kill you.”

How do you find time to work with your drug and alcohol rehab program while working for the Rockets?

I’m over there all the time. I’m still doing it. We have counselors, therapists and a curriculum that they still use. We have people that come in all the time. The only difference is it’s now specifically for athletes. I’m with players all the time.

One of the things we really focus on is that even if you are in sports, the culture is brought to you. If you’re from the Southwest, you have to be aware of codeine. Marijuana is all over, everywhere. There are not a lot of hard drugs like before. Some performance-enhancing drugs.

What are the majority of athletes who come into your clinic plagued by?


Marijuana is affecting athletes that much?

A lot of kids are picking schools based on the smoking policy because the rule can get you in trouble. The education for now has been changed because people are investing in buying drug companies, marijuana farms because it’s legal. … It’s being legalized, but it’s still like nicotine and alcohol. It can kill you. It won’t kill you from smoking it, but it creates a big form of depression.

A lot of high school, professional and college athletes are coming in because of marijuana, and it’s basically because of testing. Guys say they don’t have a problem, but they’re failing the tests. If you’re failing the tests, getting in trouble and getting kicked out, then there is a problem. It’s really easy to tell if you have a problem: If you can’t change your behavior to meet your goals, but you change your goals to meet your behavior.

Are you worried about the push for legalization of marijuana?

People write, ‘It won’t kill you in a natural death.’ But it will kill you in a slow spiritual. It amputates your spirit. It takes your drive, it takes your will, and now you’re just sitting on the couch.

Do you think it’s a different story for people who need marijuana medically?

People who need it medically, that’s different. But it still has side effects that aren’t going anywhere. They’re just numb to the pain. That’s a great question, because everyone says medical marijuana is used for pain. It’s just like fentanyl. It’s still addictive. It may not be an instinctive addiction, but you’re eating more. The way it gets you is mentally. It tears your spirit.

What role did you have in implementing the NBA’s drug program?

I wrote all the drug policies because nobody knew what to do. We had not one rule in place. I put all the counselors in each city. [Then-NBA] Commissioner David Stern let me put the program together.

How proud are you of the impact you’ve had helping people get over their drug addictions and teaching basketball?

I’m just living life. I take my experience and try to teach basketball with it to the guys who don’t have an addiction. The guys who have an addiction, I try to be an example that every day is a new start in your life. Just because of what you did yesterday doesn’t define who you are. That’s what you used to be. That’s not who you are.

How much are you enjoying coaching for the Rockets in the playoffs?

I love doing this. This is doing that with 12 guys, with a family. It’s been really good because the Rockets are where it all started for me.

What are your thoughts on the Rockets?

We’ve got a chance to be really good. It’s been great with James Harden. He’s been a special athlete. I’ve enjoyed Clint Capela’s growth. The player development for me is more about the basketball side and life for them.

Where does Harden rank among the Rockets’ greats?

I always thought I was their greatest point guard. I can’t say that anymore. He makes me take that one back.

What is your biggest triumph and disappointment with your drug and alcohol program?

My biggest success has been the next guy who wanted to be in. My biggest failure has been the next guy who didn’t want to.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.