Within the past few seasons, professional basketball players started making headlines for things other than dunks, dribbles and enormous salaries. Bernard King had a problem with alcohol, Eddie Johnson with a manic depressive disorder and John Lucas with cocaine.

"Our image was the pits," said Larry Fleisher, head of the NBA Players Association. "We had to do something, not only to help the image, but help the players who were having problems and help those who might have them in the future."

The result was a working agreement with the Life Extension Institute (LEI), an intriguing organization that operates basically as a scouting service: players with problems--involving mental health, marital, financial or legal difficulties--say what they need, and the institute finds people to help them. The National Hockey League and National Football League are looking into the possibility of a similar arrangement; the Minnesota North Stars organization already has a working agreement with the institute.

LEI gained public attention in January, when NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien ordered Lucas to enter a rehabilitation program under its direction.

Stephen DuVall, who has a master's degree and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago's divinity school, is the LEI executive working most closely with the NBA, and is the man in charge of Lucas' case. He says that 15 percent of the league's players have used LEI's confidential service. All except Lucas have done so voluntarily; O'Brien placed Lucas under DuVall's supervision for "intensive rehabilitation," which is not something LEI says it usually deals with.

Although Lucas has missed one game and Coach Gene Shue has said he no longer feels he can trust him, LEI's program has been beneficial to the league and the players, as far as Fleisher and O'Brien are concerned. Lucas, too, says he has seen results.

The idea to get outside help for the players came from the players association and the NBA drug prevention and education committee. Once the NBA agreed, Fleisher said he conducted a nationwide search and concluded LEI's program was the most appropriate.

"Because we have teams all over the country, we needed a program with a national scope," said Fleisher. "We found that LEI was the best one."

The league went along with Fleisher's recommendation and a contract, now in its second year, was signed.

The program is run by the Life Extension Institute's Services Division, which is part of Control Data Inc. Dave Robinson, the director of employe assistance field operations for Control Data, says the program accepts "any issue the player--or significant other in his family--wants to bring up regarding anything he would find a barrier, an obstacle to his or her personal or professional goals. You can just let your imagination run wild."

Robinson says the central office, in Minneapolis, has more than 30 counselors "trained in all walks of life and experience. We have people who are experienced with child abuse, sexual abuse, marriage counseling, serious mental health issues, chemical dependency and financial planning," he said.

However, these counselors do not provide treatment for the players.

"LEI is not a treatment facility," says Dr. Ronald Costin, Eastern Region medical director of the Life Extension Institute Division of Control Data. "It . . . will never provide treatment or therapy of any kind. It is only a facility for assessment and referral."

Most of this is done over the telephone; if a player has a "knotty problem," face-to-face consultations are available in the five cities in which the institute has counseling centers, Costin said. The centers are located in New York, Chicago, Baltimore, San Diego and Philadelphia; centers are scheduled to open this summer in Dallas and San Francisco.

Costin said the telephone service, a toll-free number in the Minneapolis office, is staffed by counselors 24 hours a day. Robinson said that after 7 p.m. CST, phones are staffed by an answering service that takes a player's name and phone number and has a counselor call back "within 10 minutes."

Counselors work with clients only on a short-term basis to determine referrals. Costin said, "Anything longer than 2 1/2 hours we don't do," but Robinson said some face-to-face sessions could involve three or more visits of an hour apiece. "These things can get very complicated," he said.

Counselors make referrals from lists the LEI has compiled during the past 8 1/2 years. Robinson said LEI got its referrals from various agencies, such as the United Way referral service, the American Psychological Association, county medical societies and through follow-up with clients.

In addition, "People call us and ask us to put them on our data base, saying, 'Here are the services we have to offer.' "

When asked how such referrals were evaluated, he said LEI has one staff psychologist whose job includes checking on referrals, principally by phone. "She has a standard way of doing evaluations," he said. He added that managers of the regional centers also evaluate referrals.

LEI has handled Lucas' situation somewhat differently.

"Since we had the agreement with the Life Extension Institute, I felt it was best for all parties concerned to have John Lucas placed under their supervision," O'Brien said.

No one in the league or LEI will say exactly what treatment Lucas is getting. But DuVall does say his primary therapist is Dr. Henry Raymond, who has a doctorate in education from George Washington University and teaches counseling in the education department at Bowie State, but has no background in substance abuse counseling, according to DuVall.

DuVall sees no problem with that, because he says Lucas also is seeing a substance abuse expert and a medical doctor, neither of whom DuVall will name. Besides, Raymond "has an approach that works very well with athletes," said DuVall. "He is superior at getting people to understand their life style and why they do certain things and how they can possibly change their life style."

Raymond won't comment on how he is treating Lucas.

Dr. Torrey Brown of Johns Hopkins, the NBA's medical consultant, said although he does not know Raymond, he thinks highly of DuVall and the Life Extension Institute. "I know Steven DuVall and . . . if he's (Raymond) been picked by DuVall, that says enough about him for me."

Of LEI, Brown says, "There are a number of programs like the Life Extension Institute, but it is one of the better ones in the country. I strongly recommended it when the topic came up and I think it was a very wise endeavor for the league to get involved in."

Lucas is being treated as an outpatient, but some people within the Bullet organization feel this method hasn't done all they had hoped.

A number of nationally recognized experts in substance abuse counseling feel that the best way to treat chronic drug abusers is through a program that requires them to remain in a hospital or clinic.

They add that any program should include counseling for family members; a group support system, preferably one that includes other recovering drug abusers; educational materials relating to the physical and psychological effects of sustance abuse, and therapists who have received special training in substance abuse counseling.

"Not everyone needs a residential program," said Dr. Theodore Williams, who is in charge of Alcohol Rehabilitation Services at the Long Beach (Calif.) Naval Regional Medical Center, where former first lady Betty Ford was treated for substance abuse.

"Heavy recreational (drug) users often can get help in an outpatient program, but if they fail to respond, if they continue to be in trouble as an outpatient they should be put into a residential program. Outpatient counseling does not work well if the patient is not motivated, if he doesn't want to change."