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NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

Tragedy, Then the Triumph

Lucas can share his Oklahoma State success with his famous father, a recovered addict

March 31, 2004|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

It took Oklahoma State junior guard John Lucas III a split-second to release the three-point shot he made to beat Saint Joseph's on Saturday night in the Meadowlands ...

... and his whole life to prepare for it.

John Lucas Jr. -- his famous father, the former Maryland basketball and tennis star, 14-year-NBA player, recovering drug addict, hired NBA coach, fired NBA coach -- sat in the stands at Continental Airlines Arena and watched the incredible events unfold like a two-half drama:

* First half: John is lost and his insecurities are on public display -- with Jim Nantz and Billy Packer reporting. Three of his five three-point misses have missed the rim.

He's frustrated, too short, only 5 feet 10. Gawd, will I ever measure up?

"He would kill to be 6-3 or 6-4," his dad says.

John III is trying so hard to be man of the house, the man he tried to be when his dad left the house.

Father is watching son flail away in an NCAA tournament regional final game and thinking:

"That first half was kind of like our lives starting out together, me and him. I was the adversity."

* Second half: The redemption. Seventeen points. Why Dad sobered up 18 years ago. Why the son transferred from Baylor to Oklahoma State -- two different, yet tragic, situations.

Why, after Lucas learned last summer that Baylor teammate Patrick Dennehy had been killed, and the primary suspect was a teammate, and that his head coach, Dave Bliss, tried to cover his tormented tracks by secretly painting Dennehy as a drug dealer, Lucas retreated to his bank-shot bunker.

"Just to get it out of my head, I just stayed in the gym all summer," he said. "First thing, when I heard about what was going on, my dad was, like, 'You want to talk?' and I was like, 'Nah, I just want to go to the gym.' I just got a lot of shots up.... That was, like, my thing to get away from it.... "

And maybe even why John Lucas, the father, was canned as coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers in January 2003.

"When I was fired in Cleveland, I thought it was such a curse," the elder Lucas said.

Was it?

Finally out of a job after years on the NBA run, Lucas was able to spend quality time with his son and help facilitate the Baylor-to-Oklahoma State transition.

"I was able to give him back something he gave me 18 years earlier," the elder Lucas said. "He needed me again."

What if Lucas had not been fired?

Well, on Saturday night, while Oklahoma State was beating St. Joe's, Cleveland was playing host to New Jersey.

Thanks to that NBA pink slip, Dad was free to witness his son's heroics in East Rutherford, N.J., and congratulate him afterward with a hug instead of a phone call.

Lucas' three-point shot with 6.9 seconds left was the difference in a 64-62 win.

The victory earned Oklahoma State a trip to this weekend's Final Four in San Antonio. The Cowboys play Georgia Tech on Saturday in a national semifinal game.

Lucas the father, an All-American guard on talented Maryland teams in the 1970s, never led his Terrapins beyond a regional final.

"This is all new territory for me," he joked. "I've gone to speak at the Final Four, but not to play at the Final Four."

If making a last-second shot to send your team to the Final Four takes guts, fortitude, trust, confidence, maturity, toughness and a little bit of been-there, done-that, John Lucas III was ready to make that shot.

Almost everything in his life prepared him for it.

"He had to grow up, like I did, in front of people," the senior Lucas said. "You either have to put up or shut up now."

As the son of a famous basketball-junkie, Lucas' early life was like a load of laundry on quick cycle.

He moved from town to town with the father who played for six NBA teams and coached for four.

Lucas the son ticks off the cities like whistle stops: Washington, Seattle, Oakland, Milwaukee, Houston, Cleveland and Philadelphia.

"I always learned how to adapt to certain things," the younger Lucas said. "One year I'd be in one elementary school and he'd end up getting traded to another team and next year I'm at a different elementary with different people. I just learn how to make friends quick.... "

As John grew up, from maternity ward to Milwaukee, his father's drug addiction and rehabilitation played out on sports pages.

"That last name of Lucas is sometimes a blessing, and it's just as much a curse," the elder Lucas said. "Kids used to tease him when he was in junior high about my drug use because [knowledge of] it was very public. I just told him to take that and understand that people go through a lot. And a lot of those other kids, who were giving his dad a lot of grief, his dad is going to be there to help them along the way. I think it has made John have a fond appreciation for people."

After sobering up, Lucas went a step further and opened a rehabilitation center in Houston, where he has mentored many.

Lucas the son credits his mother, Debbie, for holding the family together (John and the kids: John III, Tarvia and Jai).

John III did his part.

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