Of all the key moments in the development of John Lucas, the journeyman point guard signed by the Jazz last month to back up Trey Burke, perhaps the best starting point is when he found himself trapped in a Chicago barbershop surrounded by a mob of people, all desperate to see an NBA star.
It was the 1980s and Lucas was about 5 at the time, far from the start of his NBA career. The fans were not there to see him, or even his father, John Lucas II, a former No. 1 overall draft pick then playing for the Milwaukee Bucks.
The attraction was Michael Jordan, a native North Carolinian like Lucas II, who was spending the day with the pair.
Even for a young Lucas, who grew up around the NBA, serving as a ballboy in every city his dad played and, later, coached, this was an eye-opening moment.
“Just seeing how the fans reacted to him in the barbershop,” Lucas said, “I was like, I want that. It was unreal. I wanted that life.”
Lucas, 30, has spent five seasons in the NBA, played overseas and in the D-League for parts of three others. He’s never come close to “that life,” although he had his own successful stint with the Bulls from 2010-12 as a popular backup for All-Star Derrick Rose.
He still prefers to go to the barber, eschewing the common NBA move of hiring someone to come to him. He says he waits in line. No mobs bother him.
The Jazz signed Lucas to a two-year contract late in free agency. He has never averaged more than 14.8 minutes a game nor more than 2.2 assists. Former coaches sing his praises as a teammate and a leader. They say he will be a valuable mentor for Burke, the National College Player of the Year whom the Jazz traded up to acquire on draft night.
“John’s been around the pro game all of his life because of his dad,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said.”And he’s had to fight and claw for everything he’s gotten. He’s a smart player, he’s a great worker, I think it’s the perfect fit for him.”
Lucas was a safe choice for the Jazz, in as much as he won’t threaten Burke or expect to be the point guard for the long-term. But the Jazz believe they have more than a capable stop-gap and more than a positive locker room influence.
To understand what John Harding Lucas III has to offer the Jazz an observer would have to go back more a decade.
To the haircut he didn’t want to get.
Changed by tragedy
It was 2003 and Lucas was freshly arrived in Stillwater, Okla., a refugee from a Baylor program shattered by the shooting of player Patrick Dennehy and the subsequent arrest of forward Carlton Dotson for his murder.
Dennehy had transferred to Baylor from New Mexico that summer, and spent time training with Lucas and his father in Houston.
“I still think about Pat Dennehy and Carlton Dotson to this day,” Lucas said.
The murder led to an NCAA investigation that revealed numerous violations, and Lucas was one of four players who opted to transfer from the program without sitting out a season. Which is how he found himself at Oklahoma State in a face-off with Eddie Sutton. Lucas describes himself as “still kind of wild.” He wore his hair in braids.
Lucas remembers Sutton telling him, “We want you here, but you got to do one thing: You got to cut your hair.”
“It didn’t really hit me,” Lucas said. “Iverson, everybody got braids. What are you talking about?”
This turned out to be a critical time for Lucas. He led Oklahoma State to the 2004 Final Four, hitting the game-winning shot in the Elite Eight to beat St. Joseph’s.
Asked how the tragedy and transfer impacted Lucas, former Oklahoma State coach Sutton said, “I didn’t give him the fifth degree asking him about it. He just epitomized what everybody looked for in a student athlete.”
However, he considered for a moment more and added, “No way it couldn’t affect you some way.”
Made his own way
While Jazz fans may be quick to look at Lucas’ numbers to support an argument that the Jazz should have made a bolder move at point guard, the number for which Lucas will always be known is the one behind his name.
The first John Lucas, now 93, was an important Civil Rights figure in North Carolina and sits on the board of the National Educators Association. The second was a basketball star who overcame a cocaine addiction to become a coach and personal adviser.
“I take pride in my name,” Lucas said, “because I’m also named after my grandfather. I never want to do anything to let him or my father down.”
That discounts, of course, the time LeBron James dunked over him. It was January 2012, and Lucas, then with the Bulls, was providing baseline help when James took a lob and went up and over the 5-foot-11 point guard.
“Our family just joined the witness protection program and changed its name,” Lucas II quipped to the Chicago Tribune.
Lucas now jokes about the play, and it catapulted him to a certain level of fame, leading, he said, to being a verified member of Twitter.
“Every time I see him I’m like, ‘Thanks for the check,’” Lucas said, “‘the blue check next to my name.’”
With verification in hand, Lucas is still looking for validation. He backed up his strong two seasons in Chicago with a nondescript year in Toronto, averaging 5.3 points in 13.1 minutes per game.
Jazz General Manager Dennis Lindsey had a bigger pool of information from which to draw, however. He knew Lucas since he was a child, and Lindsey worked for the Houston Rockets. Lucas II ran the tennis club where the Rockets practiced, and Lindsey became acquainted with his sons.
And that’s part of the undeniable truth about John Lucas III, which is no different from any story about a son following his father’s footsteps into business. For all that Lucas III overcame on his own and accomplished through his own hard work and dedication, it was on a trail previously blazed by the men in his family.
“It was a gift and a curse, too,” Lucas said, “because people would be like, ‘He’s just there because his dad was in the NBA.’ But it’s not like that. I knew a lot of coaches’ kids and players’ kids who don’t have that shot.”
Lucas is known for being a fearless shooter, even to a fault. But that doesn’t necessarily equate to being selfish.
“I know in Chicago all his teammates loved him,” Thibodeau said. “I think his confidence comes from his work.”
And that is Lucas’ defining characteristic.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “I want people to know I worked hard. My dad didn’t pull any strings for me. He never did, he never would.”
John Lucas III file
Point guard, Utah Jazz
Age • 30
Hometown • Houston
College • Oklahoma State/Baylor
Career • In five NBA seasons has averaged 5.1 points, 1.5 assists. ... Played for Houston (2005-07), Chicago (2010-12) and Toronto (2012-13). ... Also played in Spain, China, Italy and the NBA Development League.
Personal • Son of former NBA player and coach John Lucas II.