Playing it straight
John Lucas Jr. has stormy past; now the son shines

Jenni Carlson Published: March 8, 2004
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STILLWATER His father would come home drugged up and strung out. There might be alcohol on his breath or cocaine in his veins or both. He would stumble to the bedroom and crawl under the covers.

John Lucas III would crawl in with his father.

"Don't worry, Dad," he would say, putting his arm around him, snuggling up against him. "I'll take care of you."

Lucas was only 3 or 4 then, surely not old enough to understand what was going on. His father, John Jr., was fighting a very public battle with cocaine and alcohol. The final years of his NBA career played out between rehab attempts, and the relapses made front-page news across the country. But John, his middle child, wasn't even in kindergarten. How could it have affected him?

How could it not?

John Jr. wasn't just his father, an NBA player and eventually an NBA coach. He was more than that to his son. He was his idol.

"I always wanted to be like my dad," Lucas III said.

He emulated everything, the passion for basketball, the excellence in tennis, the engaging personality, the dynamic but stable leadership, the charisma, the intensity, the confidence. Likely to be named Big 12 player of the year later this week, the Oklahoma State point guard plays like John Jr. did, first at Maryland, then in the NBA.

But how was the son supposed to make sense of the father's downfall?

His sister, Tarvia, put cigarette ashes up her nose mimick ing her dad. His mother, Debbie, locked the house so his father couldn't get out and get high. And he went to his father's Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Affected?

You bet.

"I'm scared of it," Lucas III said. "I'm scared to death of it.

"I don't want to go down that path."

He has seen what becomes of someone who does, wasting a potential Hall of Fame career, throwing away everything that's taken so long to acquire. He has done everything to stay the course. Sometimes, though, trouble runs you off the road. And sometimes, the compass that steers you back is one who's already found his way.

Every morning, Lucas III stood in front of the bathroom mirror, lathered his face and grabbed his razor.

Then, he shaved.

Except that the razor had no blade and Lucas III had no facial hair. He was only a toddler at the time, not even in kindergarten yet, but he went through the ritual every morning. He did it because it was what his father did.

So it was with basketball.

"My trade was basketball," Lucas Jr. said. "I've taught my trade."

Lucas III watched every move his father made, then copied it. The earmarks are evident today.

"He knows how the game should be played," OSU coach Eddie Sutton said. "He's like any coach's son."

Lucas III doesn't make many mistakes, evident by his shooting percentage (48.4), scoring average (14.9) and assist-to-turnover ratio (almost 3 to 1). He understands the game, the flow and his role as the Cowboys' point guard.

But he does it with flair.

"He's unbelievable, man," teammate Jason Miller said. "Did you see some of the shots he's made?"

Shots over triple teams and outstretched hands. Shots as the shot clock expires or the buzzer sounds. Shots in big games at crucial times.

His father produced the same heroics, first as an All-American at Maryland, then in the NBA, where he was the first player selected in the 1976 draft by Houston. Nothing rattled him. Nothing fazed him. Folks even called him Cool Hand Luke.

Lucas Jr. was stable and yet dynamic.

"He had extraordinary confidence," his Maryland teammate, Len Elmore, once told The Cleveland Plain Dealer, "one that in almost anyone else would have annoyed other people but didn't bother you with John."

The same goes for his son. The Cowboys remember when Lucas III first arrived on campus last fall, a transfer from Baylor and a late edition to the team. He had a cockiness about him that might have rubbed them the wrong way.

Except that it didn't.

"He's made us such a better basketball team," Sutton said. "We wouldn't have near as many wins if we didn't have him.

"You can't ever underestimate the value of John Lucas."

The Cowboys are better with him, and he is better with the Cowboys.

Tragedy rerouted this path to Stillwater.

Lucas III wasn't in Waco last summer when scandal rocked Baylor's basketball program. Spending the summer in Houston working out with his dad, he watched it play out on national television like the rest of America, the news of a player murdered, another arrested and finally allegations of rampant wrongdoing.


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