The supreme and sad irony about John Lucas is that he can lead strong-willed men, but not himself. He can tell Ralph Sampson where to plant his 7-foot-4 body on a court, but cannot get his own to practice on time. Or off drugs.
Lucas can be a most engaging fellow, spirited and imaginative, without even the slightest hint of mean. He also is one of the genuine artists in sport, capable of turning obvious chaos into something memorable in an instant.
The precious point guards always seem two mental steps ahead of the defense and one in front of their teammates. The player a Lucas frees for an open shot often has no idea how the ball will arrive, or even from where.
But it will get there.
The brave and brilliant lead guards enjoy nothing more than slipping around a plodder near the top of the key and slicing down the lane, hell-bent toward six hands and 750 pounds of trouble.
Mortals assume the worst, that those giants crashing toward poor little Luke will swat the ball into the stands, and not mind much if he goes along.
In a flicker, Lucas becomes an air traffic controller. Just when disaster seems imminent, just when he has suckered those enormous sillies into believing they have a chance at the ball, Lucas flips it to a wide-open pal for an easy shot.
Maybe this is why Lucas exudes an air of playful arrogance during games. He is not very fast, but fast enough; his feet scarcely leave the floor, but he jumps high enough. The one defender Lucas has planted and the three others he has slickered are left muttering:
"How'd that guy beat us?"
Lucas backpedals silently.
If his talent were not so glittering, Lucas would have been out of the NBA at the first hint of drug usage, four years ago. Maybe someone else will be charmed by Lucas in private and bedazzled by his ability.
Preach but don't bury, cautioned the boss, George Solomon.
Still, it's close to impossible to imagine anyone offering Lucas the chance he blew over the weekend with the Houston Rockets. This time, one of the most gifted passers in basketball seems to have thrown his career away.
Lucas always played beyond his years. He set a school record by making 12 straight shots during his first two games at Maryland; he made the Atlantic Coast Conference all-tournament team, as a freshman.
North Carolina State was beaten only by NCAA probation in '73, finishing 27-0. With Len Elmore sidelined with an injury, Maryland lost the title to the Wolfpack by only two points, 76-74.
Freshmen are supposed to melt in such fire; Lucas was 10 for 20 from the field, and had seven assists and five rebounds. David Thompson, Tom Burleson and Tom McMillen were three of the other all-tournament first-teamers; Bobby Jones was second team.
After Maryland lost thrilling games to one of John Wooden's terrific teams and to State in the ACC final a year later, there were whispers that opponents wanted the ball in Lucas' hands at the end.
The pros knew they wanted Lucas to handle it all the time -- and he was the first player chosen in the NBA's 1976 draft. Ahead of Robert Parish, Adrian Dantley, Alex English, Lonnie Shelton, Scott May and Quinn Buckner.
Lucas averaged at least 30-plus minutes until the drug trouble apparently surfaced with Golden State in '80. Still, the Bullets took a chance, and with strict supervision Lucas was their most creative player in limited action during parts of two seasons.
Even they could tolerate his off-the-court behavior only so long, and he was waived in midseason 1983. Most thought stories then were his athletic obituary.
In short time, he was signed by San Antonio -- and averaged slightly more than 30 minutes, slightly more than 10 assists and slightly fewer than 11 points in 63 games.
From bounding back to respectability a year ago, Lucas seemed to hop into hoop heaven this season. No guard with his creativity could ask for more than what he got: the Rockets with Sampson and Akeem Abdul-Olajuwon.
This was a chance to help, and be helped by, the most intriguing young front court in years. Early on, the Rockets played above expectations; Lucas evidently was inspiring them in many ways.
"John's our leader," rookie forward Jim Petersen said in dismay when the Rockets dumped Lucas. "He's the guy that runs the show."
"We all have strong feelings about John," Robert Reid said, "but we can't let this consume us."
They clearly liked Lucas, and so does nearly everyone. Problem is, he can be as exasperating as often as engaging. It isn't asking too much for a player to keep a few simple team rules and stay clean.
Like the Bullets, the Rockets knew they were gambling with Lucas and his two-year, $400,000 contract gave them the right to random drug tests.
The 19th came up positive.
All along, he had been splendid, averaging nine assists and 15.3 points for a team second in the Midwest Division.
Some friends had lamented Lucas' return to Houston, saying that's where his trouble first developed. But if Lucas could not find direction and discipline on a team with such staggering potential, how can he anywhere?
His college coach, Lefty Driesell, is convinced Lucas eventually will lick drugs, and that he will be better off without basketball, away from the temptations waiting outside the locker room.
From afar, it seems as though teams have been exceedingly patient with Lucas. Whether he makes another effort to return or not, the NBA message is clear and wise: John, this time dishing off isn't the right move.