Taking Drug Rehab on the Road

updated 07/13/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/13/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

YOU WON'T SEE ANY OF THEIR PLAYERS on the pro-studded Olympic squad that is preparing for Barcelona. But the Miami Tropics, a member of the nine-team U.S. Basketball League, don't measure their success solely by the star power they put on the court. More impressive is the fact that most of the starters are on the court at all. As constructed by owner-coach John Lucas, the Tropics have become an athletic halfway house for recovering drug abusers. Lucas, 38, not only knows basketball—he was an all-star guard for the NBA Houston Rockets—but he also knows full well, from his own decade in thrall to cocaine, that sometimes only a thin white line stands between the halls of fame and those of shame.

Clean since early 1986, Lucas has lapped his experiences to create an innovative project that has become for jocks what the Betty Ford Center is for show folks. His Houston-based aftercare program, which has contracts with both the NBA and NFL, blends intense daily workouts with psychological and career counseling. Says Lucas: "My work is to help a player find a sense of self-worth aside from being an athlete. The game doesn't last forever, but most of these guys, if you ask them, that's their only identity."

Last year he bought the Tropics to give drug-banned players like Roy Tarpley (formerly of the Dallas Mavericks), Duane Washington (New Jersey Nets), Grant Gondrezick (L.A. Clippers) and Richard Dumas (Rockets) a final exam of sorts. "If you're in pro ball, you don't have to go out and look for drugs—they find you," says Lucas, who stays with his team during the season and tests the players three times a week. "It's one thing to stay sober at home and another thing to stay sober on the road. This way, I can have the guys prove that they can handle it."

Born in Durham, N.C., to a family of educators (his father, John, was principal of a high school; his mother, Blondola, of a junior high), Lucas was a much recruited two-sport jock, in basketball and tennis. Trouble was, he says, "I never knew when good was good enough. I was never happy unless we won, unless I was the best player. It was back then that I drank my first beer, at age 15, and discovered it made me feel better because it took away some of that pressure." At the University of Maryland, Lucas earned both a B.A. in business administration and All-America honors in both his sports.

In 1976 he became the NBA's No. 1 draft choice, signing with the Rockets for a then record approximate $1.5 million. But, he says, "I didn't see another goal to reach for—so I reached for drugs and alcohol." They did not rob Lucas of his athletic prowess, though he was three times temporarily barred from playing because of drug use. Remarkably, he played on the pro tennis tour for two years during the NBA off-season. In 1978 he married his grade-school sweetheart, Debbie Fozard. "I knew John long before his drug problem," she says. "I knew he was a good-hearted person." Lucas finally retired in 1990. In a 14-?eason career he compiled 6,454 assists, making him No. 10 among the NBA's all-time assist leaders.

Today the Lucases live in a two-story, six-bedroom brick house in Houston with their children, Tarvia, 13, John Jr., 9, and Jai, 3. Says Debbie: "Our phone rings at all hours of the day and night. Sometimes it's somebody from John's AA group here. Sometimes it's an athlete calling from another city, wanting help." Her husband's single-minded devotion to reclaiming addicts isn't a problem, she says. "I'd rather he do that than drugs."

When he's not on the road with the Tropics, Lucas's day usually begins by way of a 5:30 A.M. workout with the men in his rehab program. (In addition to hoop stars, enrollees have included former college coach Kevin Mackey, ex-referee Richie Powers and onetime Washington Redskin defensive end Dexter Manley.)

Lucas's schedule is so light that his BMW 735i is a virtual office in which he catches up on phone calls, and even reads mail, while driving Houston's freeways. "It took me 10 years to put together five years of sobriety," says Lucas of the long time it took him to cope with the problem once he recognized it. "Will power alone will never work. I tell people who say that, 'Next time you get diarrhea, try using will power to overcome it. Because that's how much control you have over drugs and alcohol.' "

ANNE MAIER in Houston

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