John Lucas may be the only player to admit it, but he is not the only professional basketball player who has used cocaine.
The NBA says it is impossible to determine the percentage of cocaine users among its players, but interviews conducted by The Washington Post with more than 50 players, coaches, front office people and league officials indicate that a reasonable estimate would be between 35 and 50 players.
A report in The Los Angeles Times in August 1980 estimated that 40 percent to 75 percent of the NBA's players used cocaine.
"I don't know how many other people are doing it, but I'm not the only one," Lucas said in a recent interview before his latest problems--missing Wednesday night's game in Philadelphia without an excuse and a subsequent $4,200 fine from the Bullets. "I never believed that 75 percent figure, but I believe about maybe 20 percent."
"When that story about the percentage of drug use in the league being as high as 75 percent first came out, we conducted a full-scale investigation," said Jack Joyce, the NBA's chief of security. "My investigations showed that it just wasn't true.
"There's no realistic way to come up with an accurate survey, but we can't deny that some of our guys are using cocaine . . . we're concerned and we want to help the players," Joyce said.
Golden State Warriors Coach Al Attles said, "If one person is involved, that's too many, but it does happen. There are too many guys who just do their jobs and take care of themselves to say that there is an epidemic of drug usage in the league, though."
A number of sources inside and outside the NBA said that drugs, particularly cocaine, are readily available to any player who wants them.
The players don't have to deal in secret or take unnecessary risks. "All the player has to do is say yes," said one player. "It's as easy as making a layup. You either have the strength or sense to say no, or . . . "
The big question is, why would a professional athlete in a sport in which the average salary is $212,000 a year and physical condition is so vital, get involved with drugs and jeopardize his career?
In an interview last month, Lucas said depression, stress, loneliness and "plain old everyday problems" have contributed to his difficulties with drugs. Those pressures, which affect athletes differently, often seem to be magnified among professional basketball players.
Drug use isn't the only way those pressures have manifested themselves. Alcohol, marital and family-related problems are also in evidence in the NBA.
The game itself; the fast-paced, often-away-from-home life style; and, to a great degree, basic human needs and weaknesses all contribute.
"There are a lot of pressures on an athlete," said Julius Erving of the Philadelphia 76ers. "You come into the NBA making a minimum of $40,000 a year. It can either alter your perspective of what you really need or what you want. You start taking the attitude that you have a right to all of the things you've ever wanted, and you start confusing what you need with what you want."
"It's easy to get involved in drugs," said Spencer Haywood of the Washington Bullets. Haywood started playing professional basketball when he was 19. He is now 32 and has played in the Olympics, the old American Basketball Association, the European professional league and the NBA.
"The drugs are out there, and a lot of guys are easily influenced," he said. "They want to be a part of things. It used to be cool. In the '70s it was cool to smoke dope, and the last couple of years it was cool to freebase (cocaine). I dabbled in some of those things, but now it's cool to be normal, so everyone is trying that approach. You learn, grow and change. Everyone does what he has to do to get along."
Lucas, a model player throughout his career until last season when he was at Golden State, first started acting in an uncharacteristic way early in the 1980-81 season. He missed practices and games, often offering no acceptable excuses. His coach, Attles, said he tried to remain as patient as possible.
Attles said he heard the stories that Lucas was using cocaine, but when he asked Lucas, the player vehemently denied them. Attles said he did all he could to help Lucas, but finally decided he didn't want him back this season, "because he had let his teammates down too many times and I felt a change may have been the only thing that could help him."
Attles said he is still close to Lucas and still would do anything he could to help him.
"All we can do is try to recognize the problem and then help the player deal with it, not matter what it is," Attles said. "That's what I tried to do with Luke, but he just wouldn't or couldn't admit he was having a problem."
The Lucas case is an isolated incident, but the pattern is a familiar one for cocaine abusers: The player suddenly starts acting strangely. Then he starts missing practices and sometimes, games.
The team usually covers for the player by saying he has an injury or personal problems, and the player either stops his drug usage, gets help and controls it, or is eventually traded or released. The better the player, the longer most teams will give him to straighten out his problems. Players with bad reputations or whose skills are marginal usually don't get a second chance.
Lucas' admission of his problem with cocaine shocked the NBA's front office, and the repercussions came at a time when the league's image couldn't stand much more tarnishing.
"I look at the drug stories and I think they're blown way out of proportion," said Larry Fleisher, head of the NBA Players Association. "But the thing we have to face is that there is a percentage of players who do use drugs. We aren't passing moral judgment on them, but we have an image to uphold, and we will not support any player found guilty of using cocaine."
NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien said he was "concerned" by Lucas' admission. "My first rection was, 'Here's a kid having a problem, asking for help,' " he said. "I spent several hours with him and told him his actions reflected the image of the league and of the Bullets, but it also reflected on him as a human being."
O'Brien decided not to suspend or fine Lucas, but put him under the supervision of Dr. Steven DuVall, the head of the employe assistance program of the Life Extension Institute. The institute is a national health organization that entered into a working agreement with the NBA a year ago to provide confidential drug, alcohol, and other counseling and rehabilitative services to NBA players.
"John met with Dr. DuVall and convinced him he wasn't on drugs at the present time, and was sincere about wanting to stop for good," O'Brien said. "That was good enough for me to take no further action than to put him (Lucas) under DuVall's care with the stipulation that if the problem surfaces again, publicly, Lucas will be suspended."
"People in the NBA who have drug problems get the publicity," said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Los Angeles Lakers. "We are all highly visible, but we are no more or less susceptible to the problem than the rest of society."
O'Brien agreed, but said that because NBA players are looked up to and worshipped by so many, they have to set higher standards for themselves.
"If you're a public figure you've got to have higher standards," O'Brien said.
All major sports leagues have a security department and the NBA's, under the direction of Joyce, is one of the most effective.
"What we've tried to set up is a preventive program, rather than allow an incident to occur and then try and correct it. We are in no way a law enforcement agency," Joyce said. "We can't tell a player he can't go anywhere, but we maintain contact with vice squads, narcotics and gambling squads, and pretty much know where dope pushers, ex-cons and undesirables hang out, and we warn our people about these places. There are certain types of people we don't want our players associated with, not just the players, but officials and all league personnel."
Still, there is very little Joyce or the NBA can do to stop players from associating with people who can supply drugs. In many cases, the suppliers are well-to-do white-collar professional people who like to be associated with professional athletes. They invite them to their homes, to their parties, to their clubs. This is not your stereotypical sleazy, gutter-bred dope peddler.
But people still get hurt. Ask John Lucas. Next: NBA life styles