Three days before it happened, everything seemed so normal. John Lucas was teasing his Washington Bullets teammates at practice and seemed to be enthusiastic.
"It's my time of the year now," said Lucas. "I'm ready to play. It's the playoff drive. That's when I'm at my best. That's when they need me. It ain't time to turn old Luke out to pasture yet."
Seventy-two hours later, on Jan. 25, he missed practice. It was the third time Lucas, one of the most popular players in University of Maryland history and a favorite of many Bullets fans, had done that this season. It will be the last.
Weary of being disappointed by John Lucas, tired of his excuses, the Bullets cut him.
During his 15 months with the Bullets, Lucas, who last year told The Washington Post he used cocaine, missed two games during the 1981-82 season, and had, without permission or excuse, missed at least six practices. He had also lost the respect of his coaches.
"I really like John, but . . . I guess he always thought he'd get that one more chance," said a close friend of Lucas. "But there's only so much anyone will take. He had so many chances it was ridiculous. I feel bad for him and his family, but I sure don't feel sorry for him. John Lucas made John Lucas and John Lucas destroyed John Lucas."
At the age of 29, he is out of basketball and out of work.
"The number of chances you get in this league is often proportionate to your ability," said one NBA coach. "Lucas is only an average player, a 6-2 guard with no jump shot. His skills don't warrant taking a big chance with him. You can get a dozen other guys with his talent who won't give you a headache."
Lucas' family (he is married and has two young children) and advisers have helped him remain solvent financially, and he is trying to act as though it's business as usual--joking with friends, laughing and remaining upbeat. But aside from talking about the weather, he won't say much.
He refers all interview requests to David Falk, his attorney and adviser.
"John really feels at this time that he is a private person and after having been in the public eye for so long, he wants to keep that privacy for a while and get his life back together," said Falk.
"We've been in contact daily, though, and there are some things he'd like to say through me," added Falk. "The most important thing, I think, that he doesn't want to retire from basketball. He wants to continue playing in the National Basketball Association.
"We've been looking at player transactions closely and hope that one of them will open a spot for him somewhere. He's running and staying in shape so if that opportunity presents itself, he'll be ready.
"He has to go one step at a time and the first step is just getting back into the league. That's what our game plan is. Beyond that, he isn't a public person anymore and wants to keep his personal life private. He needs a respite from the limelight.
"John's situation with the Bullets didn't work out like we'd hoped, but if he can convince some general manager that he has his personal house in order, I think a number of teams will give him a chance."
Despite his attorney's optimism, it appears Lucas will have trouble finding a fourth NBA team (he previously played for Houston and Golden State). Nevertheless, his former teammates speak fondly of him.
"He's a colorful person," said Bullets captain Greg Ballard. "He has the kind of personality you like to be around. It's just unfortunate . . . "
"He was fun to have on the team, and we'll miss him," said Kevin Grevey.
Lucas' college coach, Lefty Driesell, said he still has an affection for Lucas. "If he's got a problem, I've got a problem," he said.
John Lucas was an all-America basketball guard and an all-Atlantic Coast Conference tennis player at Maryland. He was the first player picked in the 1976 NBA draft, going to the Rockets.
He played as well in his first four years in the NBA as people thought he would, averaging 13.1 points and 7.9 assists, and missing only two games in the four years (two each with Houston and Golden State).
But his world began to come apart before the start of the 1980-81 season when the Warriors acquired World B. Free and Coach Al Attles named Free team captain. Lucas later admitted that upset him.
Other problems bothered him that year, including the death of a close friend, Carl Easterly, his coach when he was a youngster in Durham, N.C., and then the death of his grandmother.
"I was depressed and that's when the problems with cocaine got bad," Lucas said in an interview with The Washington Post in January of last year. "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 those personal problems came down, mixed with the cocaine, I couldn't handle it as well."
Lucas failed to show up for five games and missed nearly a dozen practices and the Warriors eventually suspended, 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, making him a free agent.
In the summer of 1981, Lucas entered a Fairfax hospital under an assumed name and underwent a battery of mental and physical tests. The diagnosis was that Lucas had no drug problem, and was suffering only from a depressive illness associated with stressful personal, family and career issues. He was said to be fit to play.
The Bullets acquired Lucas from the Warriors for two second-round draft choices.
Lucas had no problems his first three weeks with the Bullets. But he shocked his teammates and coaches when he told them about his use of cocaine, in a moving locker room scene after he arrived late for the home opener against Philadelphia at Capital Centre.
Lucas missed a game in Detroit in November, a practice and a game in Philadelphia in January, and after his drug problem became known, NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien ordered him to undergo an extensive drug rehabilitation program and warned him that "any recurrence of his involvement in drugs would result in an immediate suspension from the NBA."
Falk said at the time: "There's no room for him to miss a game or a practice again."
But on March 17, Lucas failed to appear for another game in Philadelphia and although he wasn't suspended, Shue said he wouldn't count on him again.
Lucas finished the season behind Frank Johnson, then started the current season contending with Kevin Porter for the backup playmaking guard spot. Lucas won out because he had a larger guaranteed contract than Porter.
But he missed practice Nov. 30, and then another Dec. 10 and when he failed to show up Jan. 25, the Bullets released him.
"The reasons for this action," said the Bullets' statement, "were a series of unexcused and unexplained absences from practice."
Lucas played in 35 games this season, and averaged 4.1 points and 2.9 assists.
"John created an environment where he didn't allow himself any more chances," said Falk.
"This season creates a false impression of his personal siutuation." Falk added. "He made a real effort to be responsible and dependable. His problems didn't stem from his behavior this year, but from last year's problems, and I think it's important to make that distinction."
By being released by the Bullets, Lucas will lose about $150,000 of his $300,000 salary this year. He also will lose a contract with Nike believed to be worth $20,000.
"It isn't going to be easy for John," said Falk, "but we're still behind him," said Falk. "Our job with him is far from over. We're still obligated to him, and I'll try as hard as possible to find a job for him in the NBA."
Lucas was reminiscing one day at practice a few weeks ago, recalling how he felt when he was first acquired by the Bullets.
"I was ecstatic," he said. "I was so pumped up, I just ran outside and kept on running and jumping.
"This is my home and I always wanted to play here."