The loud, sustained applause that accompanied John Lucas' name Friday night at Capital Centre seemed to be nothing less than appreciation for a man who has endured so many sommersaults in recent years, but seems to have landed on his feet. Again.

Lucas is back in Houston again, where he is the starting point guard for the Rockets, the team with Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon.

There was good reason to suspect, not too long ago, that Lucas -- one of the most celebrated players ever at the University of Maryland -- would be finished with basketball.

After all, there had been an admission of cocaine use back in 1982, enough missed practices and games that the Bullets waived him in 1983, a trip through the netherworld of the Continental Basketball Association last year and, as a result, more mistrust than most people could overcome.

"It hasn't been a day at the beach," Lucas said Friday night, after the Rockets beat the Bullets in an NBA preseason game at Capital Centre. "I really felt I could come back and play. I feel I've won a spot now. This returns my credibility.

"But I'm not all the way back," he said. "I've set a personal goal for myself. Once, I was one of the best. And at 31, I can still play. I want to play four more years. And most of all, I want to win a championship. If I can help do that, then I'll be all the way back."

Houston Coach Bill Fitch said he hasn't seen any evidence of Lucas' old problems. ("I'm always an hour ahead of schedule," Lucas said.) Fitch knew the Rockets needed a veteran point guard and said he didn't consider signing Lucas "that big a gamble.

"I think John's biggest concern is that he wants to get his game back," Fitch said. "He's gotta be able to do something besides just lob the ball. But he wants to be tested. I can tell, he wants to."

Lucas envisions another season like the last, at least. That's when he escaped the Lancaster team in the CBA, signed with San Antonio as a free agent (when starter Johnny Moore was hurt) and nearly won comeback player of the year honors in the NBA.

In 63 games, Lucas averaged nearly 11 points -- his highest total in three years -- and 10.7 assists, which placed him fourth in the NBA. But with Moore healthy again, Lucas decided to take a dare and see who would accept the dare and sign him.

"I don't think people are just waiting for me to do something bad," he said. "Only eight guys signed offer sheets as free agents this year. I think people realize I'm serious."

Lefty Driesell, Lucas' coach at Maryland, came out to see his former player Friday night. Lucas calls Driesell once or twice a week. Driesell always has advice.

Driesell recalled the summer of 1983, when he had Lucas helping with his summer camp. "I told him if he was going to work for me," Driesell said, "he'd have to be on time. Well, after the third time he was late, I told him to get lost. I sorta fired him.

"He came back this past summer and I told him I didn't want him to work with the camp. And he said, 'Coach, if I'm late one time, one minute, you can fire me.' He was 10 minutes early for everything."

"I noticed a big difference," Driesell said. "He just might have felt he could still play. I know he wanted to prove he wasn't the type of guy people thought he was. He wanted to get his reputation back. I know he was worried about that more than anything."

Reputations are formed with time. But Lucas seems as popular as ever. He received the loudest ovation of the night, larger than any Bullet, Sampson or Olajuwon.

After the game, Lucas was so excited he had slipped into his black leather suit and was out of the dressing room in less than five minutes. For the next 20, he kissed cheeks and shook hands and said, more than once, "Thanks for sticking with me."

A little later, when the lights were dimmed, Lucas reflected a bit on what he now calls "basketball burnout and that other problem.

"It was two summers ago I realized I had to grow up. I had lived a life a roses; all-America in basketball, the tennis circuit in the summer. Everything wasn't going to be so easy.

"I remember telling The Washington Post one time, how I wanted to do everything once. Those last things, I could have done without."