PHILADELPHIA -- They approach him virtually every day of his life, even during timeouts in packed arenas around the National Basketball Association. John Lucas sees them walk near the bench and stand, and when he turns, their eyes meet. They bring mostly unspoken messages, usually a wink or a nod, sometimes a word or two.

They are strangers, yet they are friends, and they certainly know better than almost anyone about the hell Lucas has survived. He calls them "the world's largest support group" and few other recovering alcoholics or drug users have anything quite like it.

He's so recognizable, his problems so well-documented, that he was never going to be an anonymous member of Alcoholics Anonymous. He jokes about how ridiculous it would be for him to address a meeting with: "I'm John L."

His recovery was going to be as public as his downfall, which was very public, from the failed drug tests to the attempts at recovery to the lost opportunities. John Lucas regrets them even now, talks about how his face looks older than his 40 years "because the drugs and drinking did so much damage." But recover he did.

These days, as he settles into his new job as general manager and head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, Lucas is telling his story over and over as he signs autographs and does interviews to promote his autobiography, "Winning a Day at a Time." It's an often painful look back at an NBA career almost ruined by drugs -- and, more important, an eight-year recovery.

"There was no room for error in my life," Lucas said recently. "I wanted to have the biggest house, the biggest car, make the most money. You can't live like that. Somebody always has more. I was on a journey that was never going to allow me happiness. Recovery has taught me how enough is enough. It's not about drinking. You see athletes who seem to be doing great, at least from the outside. Inside, there's a lot of pain. It's not just the lifestyle. An athlete's lifestyle isn't any different from a doctor's. A doctor is treated special. He gets perks."

His book details all of it, the suspensions, the second, third and fourth chances, the cheating on urine tests, the failed attempts at recovery. He reveals that he took LSD the night before a basketball game at the University of Maryland and went on the court and hit his first nine shots. He writes that the Washington Bullets hired two full-time body guards to keep an eye on him, and he still was wily enough to give them the slip.

Rock Bottom

"I'm looking for my car, but I can't even remember if I had driven it. I'm trying not to be recognized, but here I am, with shades on, filthy, in my suit, urine all over my pants, no shoes, five pairs of socks on my feet, and I don't remember nothing about the night before."

-- Lucas in "Winning A Day At A Time."

Lucas said he took his first drink at 15 and found immediate satisfaction. Until then, nothing he'd done was quite good enough -- at least to him -- even while he was becoming a star basketball and tennis player at Maryland and the NBA's No. 1 draft choice in 1976. He thanks one of his old coaches, Bill Fitch, for throwing him off the Houston Rockets in 1986 instead of covering up or making excuses -- a move that led to his enrollment in a recovery program that finally worked.

"I don't have a drug problem today," he said. "The problem I have today is the living problem. How to live life on life's terms on a daily basis. I look in the mirror and I'm 40. I'm dying. I'm going bald. If I can't accept those things that come with age, I'm going to die. That's what is so exciting about recovery, which is what I try to convey at the end of the book. Each day is a new challenge. I don't know what I'm going to have to stay sober about. Will it be losing my job and having to leave San Antonio? Will it be losing a close game? Will it be something that happens with my family? Dealing with everyday life is what recovery is all about."

He speaks in staccato bursts, gesturing, touching, laughing, cursing. He has been going since early morning when he rose for his usual 6:30 AA meeting, and since then he has done interviews, made an appearance for the 76ers and attended a book-signing downtown.

And now, it's mid-afternoon, and his white dress shirt and yellow tie are still neatly pressed. He's sipping on a Diet Coke, and talking fast, at times answering questions that haven't been asked.

Addictive Personality

Spend 10 minutes with John Lucas and it's not hard to understand why he tried drugs.

He's so full of energy that 24 hours can't exhaust him, and he's competitive and obsessive, and most of all, very, very hard on himself.

"I ask myself if I haven't been addicted -- or had addictive behaviors -- ever since I was a young kid. I didn't have one or two baseball cards, I had to have them all or I didn't want any. I didn't want to play in one or two of the tennis tournaments for the summer, I wanted to play all of them."

-- Lucas in "Winning a Day at a Time."

He's asked why he has written a book, or rather, why it took him so long to write one.

"I had plenty of opportunities," he said. "But this is different. I really struggled with how to do the book. A lot of bigger publishers wanted to do the book, but I didn't know if they understood what I wanted the book to be. It's not a basketball book. It's not a black book. It's about recovery."

Lucas chose Hazelden Publishers, a division of the renowned Minneapolis drug-rehabilitation center that has worked closely with the NBA. Lucas himself has never spent time there, having chosen a facility in Van Nuys, Calif., for both his in-patient stays.

"I chose Hazelden Publishers because they {deal with} recovery and they do a lot of recovery books," Lucas said. "They're a nonprofit organization. I got a free gift -- my life -- and I wanted to be able to share it with other people. My story isn't really any different from that of other addicts -- it's who I am that makes my story different."

The son of a high school principal father and a junior high school principal mother, Lucas played four seasons at Maryland and 14 more in the NBA. He played for six different teams because he could never stay out of trouble and was constantly claiming to be in recovery and looking for one more second chance.

Lucas had so many second chances that he laughs at a three-strikes-and-you're-out policy.

"Yeah, people will give up on someone pretty fast," he said. "Unless that someone is their son or their daughter they're talking about. Unless you've been touched directly, you won't have the sensitivity to what someone goes through, the pain that not only affects that person, but their family members. I think both of my parents retired early because of my drinking problem.

"The desire to drink has left me. The desire to be perfect hasn't left. The desire to be a people pleaser hasn't left. The desire to win all 82 games hasn't left. If we lose because I made a mistake, maybe I called the wrong play, I have to accept that I'm not perfect.' "

His recovery began after Fitch threw him off the Rockets in 1986. Lucas believed his career was over, and for the first time in his life, he figured there might not be anymore second chances.

He asked his parents and wife Debbie to accompany him for a second stay at a recovery center in Van Nuys, Calif. He stayed there two months, and when he left, he was different.

"I don't cherish anything today but my recovery," he said. "My ambition wasn't to get back into basketball. That won't work. Everything is second to my recovery. That means family, job, everything. Nothing is more important. I bought a house based on where my meetings would be."

Road to Recovery

He returned to Houston and began attending daily AA meetings. And then he had an idea. He decided that a recovery program should incorporate activities for those post-meeting hours when patients must face those millions of people who weren't in that morning's meeting giving them support and love.

Lucas decided to add a fitness center, and found a Houston hospital that agreed. His center has helped many high-profile athletes, including former Redskin Dexter Manley, with their recovery.

He also formed his own professional basketball team -- the Miami Tropics -- for recovering addicts. Two years ago, the San Antonio Spurs telephoned and offered him their head coaching job. He was an unlikely choice, having been banished from the NBA and with a reputation less than sterling.

But he got the job because the former Spurs owner, Red McCombs, was a recovering alcoholic himself and because Spurs General Manager Bob Bass was a long-time Lucas fan.

He took over the Spurs early in the 1992-93 season and led them to a 94-49 record in two years. He did things differently, giving players more decision-making power, allowing them to set fines. He traded for Dennis Rodman and then made some practices optional. He's not much for video tape or scouting, and many in the NBA believe his style will succeed.

"Coaching is about people skills," Lucas said. "It's not all about X's and O's. Everyone wants to talk X's and O's. It still comes down to basics. It comes down to guys putting the ball in the hole."

McCombs sold the franchise last year, and when Bass was fired after the season, Lucas quit. The Sixers quickly hired him, increasing his salary from around $400,000 to an estimated $1 million.

"Right now, I've been wearing more of a general manager's hat," he said. "I want to sell sponsorships and help our team. We need some identity in this town. We need to develop a star. We've got a lot of work to do. We've got to learn how to compete again. We've got to re-sell the city on our commitment to winning. We've got to re-sell the team on not just playing three quarters and being the Washington Generals -- content to lose.

"But I believe in miracles because I'm a miracle. That's why I go to meetings and that's why I wrote this book. I know my story, and I need to remember where I came from. People who go back out and use drugs lose their gratitude for what they have. They also forget where they've come from. I'm working so hard on me all the time, I can't see how I've grown. I have to give myself a pat on the back. Look at where I was. The league that told me I'd never play for them again has let me back in. I couldn't have told you that would happen on March 14, 1986 (the date he stopped drinking and using drugs). I just wanted to get out of pain. I didn't want to drink again, and I've gotten so much more out of it."