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Back FROM THE Abyss : John Lucas Couldn't Stop Using Drugs When He Was in the NBA, but Now He Counsels Others on How to Stay Clean


HOUSTON — There was that beeping again. From where he sat, behind the wheel of his blue, four-door BMW, it really appeared as if the only thing John Lucas is addicted to these days is his car phone.

After a brief conversation, Lucas hung up the phone. The way he looked, in his neatly tailored suit, he could have been a businessman, lawyer or developer. He didn't look like a recovering addict.

"Before, it was like we didn't understand it was a disease," said Lucas, who played in the NBA for 14 years and six teams and twice lost his job because of drug problems.

"I'd hear, 'You just don't have any willpower.' I tell coaches all the time at coaches' seminars, 'Coach, the next time you get diarrhea, you call on willpower.'

"That's the same thing. My medicine for my disease is to go to meetings and being around other people who have the same problem I have."

The phone beeped again. It was somebody with the same problem Lucas has.

The NBA, the most progressive of the professional sports leagues in its approach to drug problems, instituted the first comprehensive policy in pro sports in 1983 as a result of landmark cooperation between the players' union and the league. Although the NBA's official dependency treatment center is A.S.A.P. (Adult Substance Abuse Program) in Van Nuys, a looser relationship has evolved with one begun by Lucas three years ago.

Lucas claims to have treated 40 athletes in his recovery center and after-care program with a 100% success rate. The list includes former NBA stars Mitchell Wiggins, Lewis Lloyd, Micheal Ray Richardson, Jim Price and George Gervin, and football players Dexter Manley and Reggie Cobb.

Another notable sports figure, former Cleveland State basketball Coach Kevin Mackey, has been in Lucas' program for 11 months. Until last week, Mackey was serving as unofficial coach for another highly public addict, 24-year-old Chris Washburn, who unexpectedly left Lucas' care and has not yet returned.

Washburn, who is banned for life from the NBA as a result of violating league drug policy a third time, was drafted No. 1 by the Golden State Warriors in 1986, the third player chosen in the first round after leaving North Carolina State as a sophomore.

During an interview shortly before he left Lucas' program, Washburn said that in quiet times, he had many painfully pensive moments.

"How good could I have been if I had been a normal-type person?" Washburn said.

"If I had of stayed in school longer, you know, been more responsible, especially on the court," he said. "If I made all the strides that I made doing some type of drugs, smoking weed or drinking beer, and I still made No. 3 in the draft, if I wouldn't have done anything, I could have been No. 1 maybe. At least I still would have been in the NBA right now."

Washburn disappeared days later, although Lucas said he has spoken to Washburn since and wants him to return. Because the NBA will no longer pay $1,000 a day to the A.S.A.P. program, in which Washburn failed three times, and Washburn's $1 million in NBA money is long gone, Lucas said he will take Washburn back again with no fee.

For now, Lucas waits by the phone for another beep. Maybe it will be Roy Tarpley calling back. Tarpley, of the Dallas Mavericks, is suspended without pay for violating his after-care program by drinking. With two strikes against him, Tarpley is one drug violation away from joining Washburn on the banned-for-life list. Lucas has offered his help in getting Tarpley straight.

But there is always the chance Tarpley is another Washburn. Lucas didn't hear Washburn when he told a reporter in a long interview: "I can talk my way, basically, out of any trouble situation I'm in."

The last time Lucas was in any kind of trouble was the early morning of March 13, 1986, when he awoke from a blackout in downtown Houston and tried to find his car. He had spent the night drinking and doing cocaine after leaving his house wearing a suit, five pairs of athletic socks and no shoes.

He tested positive for cocaine and the Rockets released him. Two years later, here he was, an addict starting his own drug-treatment center. Lucas has been sober for five years and is still tested once a week, saying that he must be above reproach. Skeptics abound when a recovering addict runs a drug clinic, Lucas reasoned.

"What leaves me open for criticism is that I'm not a doctor, I'm not a nurse," Lucas said. "I just know how not to drink one day at a time, how not to do drugs, and I can share that.

"People can hear me because I've been there. When I called Dexter and asked him if he wanted to get some help, he said 'Man, you were really, really sick.' I said, 'Yeah, but that's not who I am today. The shoe is on the other foot today.'

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