Washington Bullet guard John Lucas, one of the most honored players in the history of Maryland basketball, says his use of cocaine is the reason for his problems the last two years in the National Basketball Association.

"I started last year when I was depressed about a lot of things," he said. "I don't want to keep doing it because it's gotten me into a lot of trouble. I know now that it's time for me to make myself stop.

"I don't free base or shoot up anything, though. I would never do that. I'm not crazy. It's not affecting my play at all. There are a lot of guys in this league who go out on the court all messed up. I'd never do that."

Lucas, 28, an all-America at Maryland in 1976, was acquired from Golden State in October. He missed six games and a dozen practices last season with the Warriors and says now his use of cocaine at the time was the reason. He became a free agent at the end of last season when Golden State did not exercise its option to sign him.

Once called "a solid citizen" by Warrior Coach Al Attles, and "an ideal person" by Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell, Lucas now finds himself at the crossroads of his life.

Lucas told his teammates about his use of cocaine on Nov. 3 in a dramatic locker room scene after he arrived late at Capital Centre for a meeting before the home opener against Philadelphia.

"Luke apologized for being late, then told us he had a cocaine habit and we all had to help him," one Bullet said. "He asked (Coach) Gene (Shue) and us for our help. I couldn't believe it. A lot of guys in this league do a little coke, but I've never, ever, heard anyone admit it, especially to his coach."

Lucas, who appears to have lost some of his confidence on the court, insists he isn't an addict and doesn't consider himself a heavy user. But he does say he has a problem with cocaine, which costs about $100 a gram.

He also said his use of cocaine is the reason he missed a game and a practice, missed a flight to a game and was late for another so far this season.

Lucas was late for a home game Nov. 3. He missed a flight in Detroit Nov. 18, but got there on his own the next day and played. He also missed the bus and didn't show up for a game in Philadelphia Jan. 6, and missed practice Jan. 11.

"Every time I've messed up it's been when I used that stuff," said Lucas, who now is accompanied on Bullet road trips by a bodyguard who also lives at his suburban Maryland home.

Cocaine is a crystal white powder derived from the leaves of the coca plant. According to a spokesman at the National Institute of Drug Abuse in Rockville, it often acts as an antidepressant that, if taken long enough and in heavy enough dosage, may in some cases cause psychological dependence. But as long as it is just sniffed, it normally isn't physically addictive, the spokesman said.

"There are people who can go to a party and can't control themselves after one drink, but they aren't alcoholics," David Falk, Lucas' attorney, said. "They just have trouble handling liquor. That's the way it is with John and cocaine. His tolerance for it is low, and when he uses it, it makes him out of control. He's got a problem with it because he can't cope with it adequately, but he isn't hooked on it. He doesn't need it to perform.

"He's like a guy who can't swim, so he should stay away from the water. John shouldn't even go wading."

Lucas understands his future is in his own hands.

"All we can do is develop a game plan, but he has to implement it," Falk said. "He has to learn from his mistakes. That isn't always as easy as pressing a button, though.

"This is a real unusual case. You've got a good kid who's had problems along the way. He likes people and they like him, and as a result, they look the other way when he does wrong."

The Bullets also are concerned. Lucas plays under a four-year contract for $300,000 a year, with the first two years guaranteed.

"I've talked to Luke and tried to reason with him," Bernie Bickerstaff, the Bullets' assistant coach, said. "He always seems so agreeable and understanding. He knows he has a problem and he seems sincere about trying to overcome it, but once he gets tempted, he just doesn't have the willpower to say no."

"John's problems are to the point where they're very critical and he knows it," Bob Ferry, the Bullets' general manager, said. "We've talked to him, but . . . as far as a drug problem goes, I don't have any comment. Based on his known problems at Golden State, we checked him out as much as we could before we got him. We knew we were taking a risk, but we thought whatever problems he was having would be stabilized with his coming home where people could watch over him."

Falk also recognizes the severity of the situation. "It's at a critical point," he said. "There's simply no room for him to miss a game or a practice again."

Lucas was the first player picked in the 1976 draft, taken by the Houston Rockets. After two years in Houston, he was sent to Golden State as compensation when the Rockets signed free agent Rick Barry. In Lucas' first two years with the Warriors, he led the team in assists and enthusiasm and was considered a team leader.

He missed only two games his first four seasons in the NBA. But that has all changed the last two seasons.

Before the start of the 1980-81 season, the Warriors acquired Lloyd Free and Attles named Free the team captain. Lucas admitted that upset him.

During that season, he was involved in a paternity suit that was later settled out of court. He also was deeply affected by the death of close friend Carl Easterly, his coach when he was a youngster in Durham, N.C., and then the death of his grandmother, who helped raise him.

"I was depressed and that's when the problems with cocaine got bad," Lucas said. "Until that time I had done it socially but I was always able to do what I was supposed to do when I was supposed to do it. When all of those personal problems came down, mixed with the cocaine, I couldn't handle it as well."

Lucas denied at the time that his behavior was drug-related, saying only that he was having personal problems.

"The problem manifested itself when all of the pressures converged on him," Falk said.

The Warriors eventually suspended Lucas, then reinstated him. When he failed to show up for another game after being reinstated, they gave up on him and didn't exercise an option in his contract, thus making him a free agent.

Lucas went three months without receiving an offer from an NBA team.

"We heard from many players in the league that John was starting to have drug problems," Donald Dell, one of Lucas' attorneys, told Sports Illustrated for its June 8, 1980, issue. "John always said it wasn't true. Finally I said, 'John, whether or not it's true, 99 percent of the people in basketball believe you're on drugs. That's what I have to deal with. Not whether it's true, but with what they all think.' "

Lucas' attorneys sent him to Dr. Robert Strange, a Falls Church psychiatrist who specializes in drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

Lucas entered a Fairfax hospital under an assumed name and underwent mental and physical tests. Strange diagnosed Lucas as having a "depressive illness associated with stressful, personal, family and career issues," according to Sports Illustrated.

Strange told the magazine that in his evaluation, he found "no evidence that Lucas' problems were caused by drug abuse, and it is my professional opinion that he doesn't have any chemical dependency on alcohol, cocaine or other drugs."

Dell and Falk said they accepted those findings and word went out around the league that Lucas did not have a drug problem and was fit to play.

Dr. Strange is still seeing Lucas, but when he was contacted last week, he said he wouldn't answer any questions about Lucas.

The Utah Jazz, at the insistence of then-coach Tom Nissalke, who had drafted Lucas when he coached the Rockets, offered Lucas the four-year, $300,000-a-year contract.

Under terms of the NBA's right of first refusal, the Warriors matched the Jazz offer, then traded Lucas in October to the Bullets for two second-round draft choices.

Falk said Lucas came to him in September and told him he had a problem with cocaine. He also told Falk it was getting to a point where he couldn't handle it.

"He said he was sorry for stringing us all along like he did, but he didn't want to blow his chances of making it with the Bullets," Falk said. "He said he'd do anything we wanted him to.

"Early in the summer, when the stories saying Lucas was only suffering from depression, all of the information we had at hand said he was clean. He somehow fooled everyone, even the doctors. He was so good at fooling people that he just didn't let the problem surface.

"Depression is what he was diagnosed as having. That was only 95 percent accurate, though. The other five percent was the drugs."

Lucas apparently had no problems in his first three weeks with the Bullets. Then he was late for the game with Philadelphia, missed a flight, and on Jan. 6 missed the bus to Philadelphia where the Bullets played the 76ers that night.

Lucas also failed to show up for the game without notifying the team. He got himself to Cleveland for a game the next night but was fined nearly $4,000 for the incident and lost his starting job to rookie Frank Johnson.

At that point, Falk and Dell decided a bodyguard might help. After Lucas missed the game in Philadelphia, he called Falk and said he wanted the bodyguard to start working immediately.

The bodyguard, whose identity is not known, moved in with Lucas and his wife and daughter. He also travels with Lucas to road games at Lucas' expense.

"We approved of the situation because we felt it might help John," Ferry said.

The bodyguard had been on the job less than a week when Lucas had another problem. The day after the Bullets played the Knicks in New York Jan. 10, they were scheduled to take a 10 a.m. Eastern shuttle flight home. Lucas, however, left the hotel on his own. He had no plane ticket but talked his way onto the 8 a.m. shuttle by showing his uniform as proof he was really a Bullets player. He insisted someone would be bringing his ticket later.

The rest of the team took the 10 o'clock flight and then went directly to practice. Lucas never showed up.

The Bullets reportedly told him this was his last chance.

"When he's taking it (cocaine), it's usually with some unsavory characters," Falk said.

"He's got a lot of strange friends away from the team and they don't do him any good," Bickerstaff said.

As soon as he told Falk and Dell about his cocaine problem in September, Lucas was put in a special counseling program at a local hospital. He is still being treated as an outpatient at a local counseling center.

"It's time to stop," Lucas said. "I've tried before, but now I have no choice. Everything I ever stood for is at stake. I didn't build an image for 27 years to have it be destroyed like this."