- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2001

There are good reasons for basketball fans in these parts to rejoice that the Cleveland Cavaliers have made John Lucas an NBA head coach once more.

First of all, Lucas is sort of an adopted Washingtonian, by way of Durham, N.C. He was an All-American guard for Maryland in the mid-'70s, one accomplished enough to be the first pick in the 1976 draft by Houston.

Second, he deserves another chance after being summarily dismissed as coach of the San Antonio Spurs and Philadelphia 76ers, the latter because of a change in team ownership.

Most of all, he is an admirable figure a superstar athlete who, after doing his best (worst?) to wreck his NBA playing career because of cocaine addiction, yanked himself from the depths and opened drug treatment centers to help others.

There is a neat twist, too, about how Lucas became the Cavaliers' coach recently after spending three forlorn seasons as an assistant in Denver. He was hired by general manager Jim Paxson, who attended Lefty Driesell's Maryland basketball camp when Lucas was a counselor there in the '70s.

While being interviewed for the Cavaliers' job, Lucas reminded the GM that he always picked Paxson for his camp team because he wanted to win. And so it was fitting that Paxson opened the Cavs' recent news conference by saying, "I'd like to introduce John Lucas as our head coach because I want to win."

Winning immediately could be a problem for the Cavaliers, who finished an unsnappy 30-52 last season under Randy Wittman. After losing Clarence Weatherspoon to free agency and the New York Knicks, Cleveland has holes to fill at power forward, small forward and shooting guard, among others. But you'll probably never know it by watching Lucas.

In a business where too many coaches embrace a rock-rumped, Lombardian persona, Lucas insists that his players have fun. When he became boss of the Spurs a few years back, half the NBA went into shock over his laissez faire methods. Some guys, such as George Karl, rely primarily on strategy to win. Others, such as Pat Riley, do it with a commanding presence. Lucas' strength is an overabundance of boyish enthusiasm, even at the relatively advanced age of 47.

"You don't understand the passion I have to get this done," he said at his introductory news conference. "I've never failed at anything."

That depends on how you define failure. His coaching stints with the Spurs and Sixers produced a 136-171 record, but Lucas began constructing teams that subsequently went to the NBA Finals.

Nowadays most players tend to rebel, or at least chafe, against a coach who tries to crack the whip, vent his spleen and gnash his teeth in their presence. Rightly or wrongly, hot is out and cool is in just ask Larry Brown. One of the best things about Lucas is that most guys fall all over themselves, figuratively anyway, trying to play for him.

"He was my favorite [choice] from the start," said Cavaliers forward Robert "Tractor" Traylor, "because he's positive and has an upbeat attitude. I've heard nothing but good things about him."

Here's how Lucas himself puts it: "Basketball's fun, and we're going to have some fun. Yeah, I'm a little different than your conventional coach. I told every [Cleveland] player I talked to they were all too stiff, they were all too rigid. No smiling."

Of course, a positive attitude can only take you so far; you also need talented players who are willing to work hard to improve. Ex-Cavaliers forward Chris Gatling, now a free agent, noted how much Lucas helped him develop his perimeter game in Denver. "John will get the best out of his players," Gatling said. "He's the kind of coach who gets down and plays during practice. He knows the ins and outs and ups and downs of being a player."

In particular, Lucas could be a boon for point guard Andre Miller, who hasn't always gotten the most from his impressive skills. After all, Lucas finished among the NBA's top 10 in assists seven times and ranks 10th in the league lifetime.

For those of us who knew Lucas a long time ago, his rampant enthusiasm is nothing new. What's surprising, even decades later, is how he allowed himself to trip over drugs for so long. He was a remarkably engaging two-sport star (tennis being the other) at Maryland, where teammates and fans loved him. Heck, this charming chatterbox even made tough Lefty Driesell smile once in a while.

I only remember Luke being speechless once, when Muhammad Ali turned up at a Maryland basketball banquet while training for a title fight here. Introduced to Lucas, Ali snapped, "They tell me you're the star of this team. If I played basketball, I'd never miss a shot."

"That's because you're the greatest, champ," squeaked Lucas, totally awed.

Now Ali delivered the zinger, complete with ferocious scowl: "Hey, boy, you ain't as dumb as you look."

Things have almost always been fun where John Lucas is concerned. It's good to have him back in charge somewhere.

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