HOUSTON -- Still playing point guard, although his uniform now is a loosely tailored suit and black leather shoes, John Lucas spends most days working at his four businesses here. All are related to the treatment of drug and alcohol abuse, which means that nearly every fresh step he takes reminds him of a painful one he took a while back.

"Drugs took a terrible toll," said Lucas, who at age 37 recently retired from professional basketball after 14 years to devote his full energies to running his drug rehabilitation clinics. And although he no longer commands the spotlight, his patients, including Dexter Manley, recently reinstated by the National Football League after serving one year of a so-called "lifetime" suspension for drug use, keep him in the public eye.

Lucas left the University of Maryland in 1976. He was on top of the athletic world as the No. 1 pick in that year's National Basketball Association draft. He didn't stay on top for very long because his use of drugs and alcohol dragged him down, as it did Manley and so many others.

In a recent interview, Lucas talked openly about the highs and lows of his life and how he managed to pull himself up to his present position, in which he sees many athletes in trouble with drugs looking to him for help.

With his familiar wraparound mustache, Lucas looks older than his 37 years. His office ties his past and present. His middle child, 7-year-old John, is seen in separate pictures with NBA stars that include Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Smaller and more casual pictures include one with Manley, who completed treatment at the John Lucas/New Spirit Treatment and Recovery Center and last week was reinstated by the NFL, waived by the Redskins and picked up by the Phoenix Cardinals.

Almost a year ago, while on a road trip with the Houston Rockets, Lucas called Manley and poured out his past. The telephone conversation eventually helped convince Manley to overcome his drug denial.

"Dexter said to me: 'You were really sick,' " Lucas said. "I told him: 'Yeah, but I know someone who is where I was.' . . . I saw a lot of me in Dexter. We con ourselves."

Manley listened, and a few days after NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue banned him from the league "for life" as a three-time drug abuser, he checked into Lucas's clinic.

The irony Lucas now readily acknowledges is how mature he was on two courts, basketball and tennis, and how immature he was outside their boundaries. His basketball was silky, left-handed economy; the assists more cerebral than flashy and the points somehow flowing in spite of the least-springy jump shot of modern times.

In the Atlantic Coast Conference, the 6-foot-3 Lucas made the all-tournament team as a freshman and the regular season all-star team each of his final three years. He was an all-American in basketball as a junior and senior and an all-American in tennis as a senior.

Lucas holds the NBA record for assists in a quarter (14). Twice, he compiled the second-most assists in a quarter (12), joining as runners-up to himself the player who made point guard famous in the NBA, Bob Cousy, and the player who redefined the position's possibilities, Magic Johnson.

Each of these accomplishments came with a different team -- and that hints both of Lucas's brilliance and his vulnerability. So good was he at leading others on the court that six teams took a chance on him during a 14-year career that ended with his retirement before this season. So lousy was Lucas in leading himself that he was with four teams in one year, 1983.

Lucas's rapidly expanding businesses are:

Two treatment centers, one a 35-bed unit at Houston International Hospital and a recently opened 17-bed unit perhaps 20 minutes away.

A fitness system at eight hospitals, including Dominion in Falls Church.

STAND (Students Taking Action Not Drugs), a nonprofit organization in more than 20 school districts in Texas.

An athletes after-care program, which offers counselors in NBA and NFL cities.

"Unfortunately for people on drugs and alcohol," Lucas said, "this is a lucrative business." In some instances, treatment can run to $1,000 a day.

Balloons rise behind Lucas's desk and engulf a small teddy bear. On a bookshelf are "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions" and other Alcoholics Anonymous-related books. An eye-catching painting is of an athletic black man extending from a lofty and secure perch a large hand reaching up to a smaller one.

Plaques and proclamations dot the entrance walls. But the framed message that means the most is the note, on stationery from the Durham, N.C., Board of Education, that begins: "Dear Son and Brother, Congratulations to you and yours for the contribution that you are making to humankind. . . .

"Blondola P. Lucas, mom,

"John H. Lucas, father,

"Cheryl J. Lucas, sister."

The son of two Durham educators, Lucas was an appealing youngster with ambitions as lofty as his abilities. "At 14," he said, "my goal was to be the first black president of the United States."

At 15, he had his first drink.

"The reason then," he said, "is that I wanted to see what it was all about. The last drink I took was at 32 -- because I had to have one."

What a sad and sensational ride in between. Nearly 10,000 career NBA points; fewer than 500 assists shy of Cousy's 6,955. He was one of the first NBA players to have his drug and alcohol turmoil known to the public. So naughty and so good, his frequent pro progression was suspension, denial and forgiveness. Until Bill Fitch, then coach of the Houston Rockets, would tolerate no more. "He saved my life," Lucas said. "I was on a collision course to kill myself. He finally said: 'No more one more chance.' "

Lucas admits first using drugs his senior year at Maryland.

"What really began the downfall for John Lucas," he said, "was when I found out that David Thompson {of North Carolina State} was a better basketball player. I found out I was a failure.

"The disease that got me, the disease that almost killed me was the disease that creates the drug and alcohol problem. And that is not the drink or the drugs. They were the solution.

"My problem was I found out I wasn't perfect. I freaked out. I'm a failure. One of the things I set my sights on to be the best at I found a guy better. I always saw the negative in me instead of the positive. I could go 19 for 20 and be mad about the one I missed. And if I went 17 for 20 the next game, I'd say: 'Oh, man, I'm getting worse.'

"The disease centers where an athlete lives -- in his ego. 'You mean I can drink only one of them beers? No way. I can drink as many as you can.' It became a game of beating the game. People look at me like I was nuts, but I wanted to be the best drug addict. If you had a little bit, I had to have more. If yours was good, I had to have better. If you were gonna be up to 4 a.m., I was gonna be up to 5."

The commonly held belief is that Lucas reached bottom in Washington with the Bullets sometime around 1982, when a series of missed practices got him an audience with then-NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien.

His agent-attorney, David Falk, and his family tried all they knew to change Lucas. Limit his money; direct him toward religion. As others also realized, he could be manipulative in a charming way. Close to the ultimate frustration was hiring a guard to keep Lucas clean -- and learning that they ended up sharing drugs.

Lucas's life began getting better, he said, when he stopped wanting to be the best. First, he had to experience the worst.

"In early February {1986}, Bill {Fitch} put me back with the Rockets," Lucas said. "He hadn't had enough yet. On March 14, Lewis Lloyd had a breakaway layup against the Celtics and Larry Bird tripped him. For arguing with the ref, I got taken out by Bill -- something you don't do to a 10-year veteran.

"I began to drink. My wife usually hides the key {that kept him locked inside at night}, but this time she didn't. So I went downtown. In a suit and five pairs of athletic socks. I got into what I now know was a blackout -- and missed practice.

"I came out of this blackout, in downtown Houston, Texas, at 7 o'clock in the morning, with a suit on, walking in five pairs of athletic socks and wearing shades so as not to be recognized. And looking for my car. That's how bad it got.

"That time I wanted to get caught. I was tired of living the way I was. I'd had enough ego deflation. That night I sat on the bench after telling one of the biggest lies of my life -- that the test I'd been given was going to be negative, but knowing it was going to be positive.

"Next morning, they cut me."

Soon a counselor was being even more harsh.

"I was asked to look in a mirror," Lucas said, "and to talk about what I saw. I said I saw a good-looking young black man, former No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, one of the best point guards to ever play basketball.

"The counselor said: 'I see a guy who just lost his job for the third time and who can't stay sober.' That's when I got sober -- and stayed sober."

Not long after his treatment ended, Lucas started to realize that his experience could be valuable to others and good business for him. Also, he returned to elite-level basketball, averaging 17.5 points and nearly seven assists for Milwaukee in 43 games the next season.

"He's the only guy ever to come all the way back," said Falk.

In the next three seasons, with Milwaukee, Seattle and back to Houston, Lucas's scoring average dipped under 10 points and then to about five. But his assists stayed acceptably high enough for his retirement to be seen as an unintended tease by some.

Lucas says no.

"I finally accepted that basketball and tennis are what I did, not who I am. This time, I wanted to leave basketball through the front door."