100 in 100: Durham County’s John Lucas, basketball player, coach and mentor

The Hillside High guard was a dominant player and NBA coach, but he might be best known for overcoming substance abuse and helping others do the same

Durham's John Lucas was the first overall pick in the 1976 NBA Draft and went on to coach three teams. (David Zalubowski / AP Photo)

North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.

Durham County

John Lucas

Like most top athletes, Lucas had a decision to make during his senior year at Hillside High School. Only instead of simply choosing which college he’d attend as a scholarship athlete, he also had to settle on which sport he wanted to play.

A dynamic 6-foot-3 point guard who combined elite playmaking skills with a scoring ability that helped him break Pete Maravich’s state high school scoring record in basketball, Lucas was equally adept on the tennis court, where he was a U.S. Junior Davis Cup team member. Of his 401 college scholarship offers, 350 were in basketball, the rest in tennis.


He decided on Maryland, where he was able to play both. He went on to become a two-time first-team All-American and the Terrapins’ all-time leading basketball scorer with 2,015 points while also playing No. 1 singles in tennis in the spring, winning two ACC individual championships.

John Lucas (15) played 14 NBA seasons with six teams, including three tours in Houston totaling five years. (AP Photo)

Following his college career, Lucas became the first overall pick in the 1976 NBA Draft, going to the Houston Rockets. He played 14 seasons in the league for six different teams and was a member of the Rockets team that went to the NBA Finals in 1986. Although he scored nearly 10,000 points and handed out 6,454 assists as a pro — averaging a career-high 17.5 points per game as a 33-year-old for the Milwaukee Bucks in 1986-87 — he may be best known for his battle with substance abuse.

After undergoing drug rehabilitation, Lucas started his own program to help other athletes battle their drug and alcohol issues. He continues to run a wellness and aftercare recovery program for athletes while also having served as a coach with the Spurs, 76ers and Cavaliers. In 2005, Lucas coached the Houston Wranglers of World Team Tennis with a roster that included multiple major champion Steffi Graf.