- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2004

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — John Lucas III sank soft jumpers during a shootaround at Continental Airlines Arena yesterday in preparation for tonight’s Sweet 16 game with Pittsburgh. The slender son of Maryland’s former All-American point guard flashed an innocent smile as he glided around the floor.

It was impossible to tell the trials the baby-faced point guard had endured to reach this point.

Lucas remembers being teased and called a “drug baby” because his NBA star father and namesake fought public battles with drug and alcohol addictions. Then Lucas went to Baylor and wound up in the middle of last summer’s murder/ cheating scandal that left teammate Patrick Dennehy dead, teammate Carlton Dotson charged with his murder and coach Dave Bliss caught in a cover-up that led to his firing.

Now Lucas is once again getting attention, this time the welcome kind. The 5-foot-10 point guard is the Big 12 Player of the Year and leader of fourth-ranked Oklahoma State, which meets third-seeded Pittsburgh in tonight’s East Rutherford regional semifinal.

“I feel like it worked out for me for the best,” said Lucas, who is playing in his first NCAA tournament as a junior. “Going through all that just made me mentally tougher. Where if I get down, I know how to get back up. I know how it is to be on the bottom. I know how it is to be put down.”

Lucas calls landing at Oklahoma State a “blessing” after dealing with the tragedy at Baylor. He came to Stillwater after the NCAA ruled that transferring Baylor players need not sit out a season.

“When you think about it, how could you not know some of this stuff was going on when you were on campus,” said Lucas, who is averaging 15.3 points and 4.5 assists. “That’s the scary thing, how you put your trust in [Bliss] and he goes out and tries to say your teammate [Dennehy] was a drug dealer. … I gave this man my word I would play my heart out for him. Then he goes and does this. That really hurt me.”

Lucas went back to his home in Houston while events were unfolding and worked out with his dad, a former NBA coach with San Antonio, Philadelphia and Cleveland. The younger Lucas spent time playing against Rockets players like Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley. He dealt with an uncertain future and concerns for his friends by improving his game.

Late last summer Oklahoma State was recommended by former Cowboys player Jimmy Williams, who worked out with Lucas. The point guard never considered Maryland because his father “wanted me to have a name for myself.”

Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton needed a point guard but was unsure how Lucas would fit in. Lucas had been somewhat erratic at Baylor and might have looked to shoot too much. But the coach knew he was talented, and Lucas immediately fit in with his teammates on and off the court.

“It was like Christmas came early,” said Sutton, whose Cowboys have a 29-3 record. “We would not be here today if it wasn’t for John Lucas.”

Lucas has transformed from a shoot-first point guard to one more concerned with running the team. He still scores and makes 40.8 percent of his 3-pointers but also looks more to penetrate and set up teammates.

The change in his approach on the court was partly due to watching old tapes of his dad play. Recently on ESPN Classic, Lucas saw Maryland’s 103-100 overtime loss to N.C. State in the 1974 ACC tournament championship, regarded by many as the greatest game in college basketball history.

“I was like, ‘How did you all lose that game,’” Lucas said. “He was just telling me that David Thompson was too much for him that night. I watched those games and [my father] did a lot — rebounds and steals. I want to be like him, an all-around player.”

The son also has learned from his father’s mistakes. John Lucas was the first overall pick by Houston in the 1976 NBA Draft but battled drug and alcohol problems through much of his NBA career. Later the elder Lucas turned around his life and started a treatment facility for other victims of alcohol and drug abuse.

The son used to react to the taunting by fighting and getting in trouble, and feels it built his character to a point where he can move on from a situation like at Baylor.

“I knew what was going on, but I really didn’t know what was going on,” said the younger Lucas. “It molded me into the man I am today. His struggles with drugs and alcohol made me a stronger person. … I don’t fear anything.”

The father and son have vastly different games. The former Maryland star was a quirky left-hander with a set shot and an unconventional style. The right-handed Cowboys guard is more fundamentally sound and a better outside shooter. But both have shown the ability to direct their teams and make teammates better.

“He has a quiet confidence that wasn’t there last year,” John Lucas told the Daily Oklahoman about his son. “He’s found a niche in Coach Sutton’s system. John is grateful they showed interest in him. He has great pride playing for OSU. That’s the biggest thing.”

The son also hopes to go to the NBA like his father. But first the family can celebrate the son’s accomplishments as the Cowboys go deep into the NCAA tournament with him at the helm.

“He’s my hero,” said Lucas, who wears No.15 as a tribute to his dad. “He’s my idol. He’s the person I look up to. You can’t say anything bad about my dad without me getting mad. Because I love him.”

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