Sinking A Long Shot

He squandered as much talent as any player in National Basketball Association history. John Lucas began his career as the very first collegian selected in the 1976 NBA draft, so gifted an athlete that he played pro tennis in the off season. He wound up a two-time loser in the league's drug-test wars, bouncing through nine teams in 14 seasons. Despite posting some decent numbers along the way, "Luke" will always be remembered, he admits, "as the biggest and best alcoholic and cokehead in the league."

Now, at the age of 39, he's writing on a different page in the record book, After his own recovery seven years ago, he established a prominent treatment-and-rehabilitation center in Houston. And two months ago he took on a job that seemed guaranteed to drive a man back to drink, when he became the head coach of the NBA's San Antonio Spurs. He's stayed straight and, far more amazing, has taken a sub-.500 team and rattled off a sizzling 24-4 record, including a team-record 10-game winning streak. "I searched my soul," Spurs owner Red McCombs said of the coaching decision. "But in my experience," says McCombs, himself an alcoholic who took his last drink in 1977, "a person who recovers and stays sober is a far more effective person after than before the problem."

In Lucas's case, that wouldn't take much. On March 13, 1986, he hit bottom. Lucas missed a team practice, flunked a drug test and was released by the Houston Rockets. He went on a coke binge and woke up the next morning, shoeless and urine-soaked, in downtown Houston. A few days later Lucas checked into a treatment center, his fifth such shot at sobriety. He hasn't faltered since. Early in his recovery, he even had a root-canal operation without Novocain rather than risk taking any drug. Still, Lucas's wife, Debbie, keeps as a reminder the old red and white Pumas that John forgot to wear as he fled home that final drug-ravaged night. She hauls them out if John appears a little too impressed with himself. "Whenever she sets them things up there," he says, "I get my butt right to a meeting."

The coach has proved equally adept at getting other butts moving, too. At his first practice, after taking over for the fired Jerry Tarkanian, Luke chided the players for being out of shape. Then he introduced them to his favorite drill, 17 Across, which requires them to run from sideline to sideline 17 times in a minute. And, he ran it with them. He made even more of an impression when he singled out the team's superstar, Dream Team center David Robinson, chiding him, "David, don't loaf on me."

Lucas delegates real responsibilities to Robinson, whom he calls the team's CEO. When veteran guard Dale Ellis was late for a charter flight, it was Robinson who decided how long the team would wait. After 45 minutes, Robinson told Lucas it was time to go. "Tell the pilot, not me," said Lucas. "It's your team." As a result of his new role, Robinson says he is truly happy for the first time since he entered the league. "This feels the way it's supposed to be," he says. Lucas says it's simply a question of "treating guys the way I wanted to be treated." "Besides," he adds, "it helps me keep my ego out of it for my own recovery."

Not that Lucas lacks for ego. He relies less on scouting reports and game films than his rivals, preferring to coach "from feeling." During games he struts the sideline at a pace that would wear out the Energizer Bunny. Lucas screams out plays and encouragement-no good move goes unacknowledged-and punctuates it all with a swirl of finger-pointing and arm-waving. "Every single guy is playing better since he came," says McCombs. No guy is more improved than Avery Johnson, who had been traded once and dropped three times, including by the Spurs, before San Antonio picked him up again early this season. Tarkanian publicly disdained Johnson-ignoring Robinson's lobbying on his behalf-as a solution to the Spurs' point-guard woes. A couple of weeks into his tenure, Lucas made Johnson a starter; now he's running the team offense.

Lucas's attitude toward basketball inevitably mirrors his approach to recovery. He believes that on-court success is forged in off-court relationships. "There are going to be some bumps," Lucas says. "We have to have the quality relationships to get us through." This week the team plays league-leading Phoenix at home, then takes off on a seven-game, 11-day road trip that will test its mettle. Also, McCombs is selling the team to a partnership of local businessmen. Their credit is good, but any change can prove unsettling to a team. Still, the players appear extraordinarily loose. No one is exempt from their constant banter-surely not Lucas, whose bald spot and graying hair attract a great deal of ageist comment. But the team, which boasts a number of devout Christians, moves comfortably from trash-talking to talking with God. The players pray together before and after each game, and no one yet appears confused over who is the coach and who is the deity. One day at a time, Lucas is the answer to a franchise's prayer.