John Lucas was drafted with the first overall draft pick by the Houston Rockets in the 1976 NBA Draft, and they had their eye on the highly talented All-American out of Maryland as a major piece to put alongside Calvin Murphy. When they then traded for Moses Malone at the beginning of the 1976 season, the team thought they might have a championship core in place.
And at first, Lucas appeared as if he might live up to the billing. He averaged 11.1 points, 5.6 assists, and 1.5 steals his rookie season and shot 47.7 percent from the field. He followed that up with a sophomore year that saw his line jump up to 12.4 points, 9.4 assists, and 2.0 steals per game.
To the outside observer, Lucas was fitting in his role quite nicely. But what many outside the locker room didn’t realize was the insidious baggage Lucas brought along with him. Already an alcoholic, Lucas wore out his welcome in Houston and was sent to the Golden State Warriors in the summer of 1978 as compensation for the Rockets signing Rick Barry.
At first, Lucas was keeping his issues separate from his on-court performance, and he had a very good first season with the Warriors, averaging 16.1 points, 9.3 assists, and 1.9 steals per game. Unfortunately for Lucas, he would eventually wear out his welcome in Golden State as well, and as his game began to suffer due to his off-court substance abuse and on-court suspensions, he was traded to the Washington Bullets in 1981.
He spent two underwhelming seasons in Washington that saw his stat line dip to 4.1 points and 2.9 assists per game in 1983, and he was again suspended for off-court behavior, which resulted in his release.
After starting the following season without a job, he was signed by the San Antonio Spurs in December, and he put in a rebound year in which he averaged 10.9 points and a career-high 10.7 assists per game.
Suddenly, Lucas had value again, and the Spurs were able to parlay that success into getting something on the trade market for Lucas, despite his continued off-the-court problems.
The Spurs sent him back to the Rockets, who had just drafted Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon in back-to-back years, and who were in need of an experienced guard to help bring it all together. By now, however, Lucas had also added a serious cocaine addiction on top of his long-established issues with alcohol.
It still didn’t initially show up on the court, as Lucas averaged 11.4 points and 6.8 assists in his first year back with Houston, but he was suspended mid-year after failing a urine test and actually announced his retirement from the league as a result, which ended up being just temporary.
He returned later in the year, and the following season, he had a phenomenal box line in averaging 15.5 points and 8.8 assist while starting 65 games at the point in 1985-1986. And the Rockets were winning games.
Despite all the success, Lucas was still struggling mightily with his demons, and they all came to head on March 14, 1986. Lucas had gone out partying that night, and after another evening spent drinking and doing cocaine, he was found passed out on the street in downtown Houston in a suit with no shoes. He missed the following evening’s game, and the Rockets had seen enough, releasing Lucas that next day.
Lucas would miss out on a special Houston run to the NBA Finals, where they lost in six games to a famed Boston Celtics squad, but many thought of the Rockets (now without Lucas), who were filled with sparkling young talent like Sampson, Olajuwon, and Rodney McCray, as future champions and a force to be reckoned with. That team would later dissolve into a cloud of it’s own issues, but at the time, it was tough for Lucas to no longer be a part of.
He was signed by the Milwaukee Bucks the following season, and though he averaged a career-high 17.5 points, he also only played in 43 games, due to league suspension. Lucas would eventually be released by the Bucks in 1988 and sign with the Seattle Supersonics, and even find his way back to the Rockets in 1990 as he began to get his life in order. But by then — the irony of fate — he was washed up, a spent force, even though he was finally sober.
The Rockets would trade him to the Atlanta Hawks in the deal that brought over Kenny Smith, and he’d never play in another NBA game.
Had he not struggled with substance-abuse, Lucas could have been one of the best point guards in the history of the game. He was certainly one of the most talented. For his part, however, Lucas is just thankful to still be alive:
“I wouldn’t recommend anybody to go through what I’ve gone through, because only one out of 10 of us make it back. 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.”
Lucas has gone on to give back to the game, and he now operates a substance abuse rehabilitation facility in Houston that focuses primarily on athletes.
Then, in 2016, he was hired by Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni as the the team’s Head of Player Development, using his wealth of life experience in overcoming personal challenges to help give incoming young players some perspective and help keep them on the right track. It’s his way of giving back to the game that gave him so much, despite all of his issues.
“I tell the guys here all the time, you can’t fool somebody who has been everywhere you ever thought about going. 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.”