Why We Watch: John Lucas III Is Trying

John Lucas III has a distinguished NBA bloodline, and is also shaped entirely wrong for basketball. He's in the league anyway, or despite that, or because of it.
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Of all the tidy, preconceived narratives imposed upon basketball—by fans looking for some reflection of our better selves in people far better at basketball than we are; by media looking to sell us that particular funhouse-mirror experience—perhaps none is more ubiquitous or shallow than the undersized scrappy-do-gooder archetype. You know this guy: powered by hustle and heart, perpetually and courageously playing well over his head, kind of getting dunked on a lot. It’s easier to look at that sort of player and see yourself, if that’s what you’re after, than it is to see any of our workaday selves in, say, LeBron James’ implacability or Dwight Howard’s vacant, bully-boy bigness. It’s even easier, far too easy, to look at John Lucas III, who is under six-feet in height and appears to be having a blast on the basketball court, and see someone who is just like us.

This is not the case, of course, but it’s not the worst impulse in the canon of contradictory American fan-emotion. Fans identify with winners and underdogs at the same time, aspire to Goliath-hood while celebrating the Davids -- Eckstein, for a literal example -- who sneak a lucky shot in. We want to be the colossus and we want to topple it. This is strange, and probably explains a lot of things about Joe Buck, and has much to do with the inherent pull of a player like John Lucas III, who is a professional athlete but also resembles Aziz Ansari crossed with an infant and a 55-year old man at the same time. In a league widely considered to have the best athletes in the world, Lucas, like many height-challenged hoopsters before him, stands out on the court like Tyrion Lannister at a Dothraki orgy. But this is not quite, or really at all, who John Lucas III is.

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Like many people, the overwhelming majority of whom did not make it to the NBA, John Lucas III has had his sights on the league ever since he was four years old. Another thing that sets JLIII apart is that his father, John Lucas II, was taken first overall in the 1976 NBA draft by the Houston Rockets; he went on to play 14 productive and problematic seasons in the NBA. The problems, mostly with addiction, kept Lucas from becoming the star he was supposed to be, but he has accomplished much in the game all the same.

When he was done playing, John Lucas II turned his attention to coaching where he served as head coach for the Spurs, 76ers, and Cavaliers throughout the 1990s, giving his son a privileged and comfortable front row seat to the NBA, and an unusually concrete sense of what his NBA dreams would look like. Lucas III considers his big brothers to be Allen Iverson, Steve Francis, and Damon Stoudemire; as a tot he grabbed rebounds for Jordan, Magic, Bird. His godfather, George “The Iceman” Gervin, reportedly taught him the finger roll. If John Lucas III had wanted to be anything but a NBA player, it would have been a shock, and a rebuke. While still in middle school, Lucas the Younger began getting up at 4:30am and going to the gym, shooting 1,000 jump shots a day. Somebody call Malcolm Gladwell.

Growing up around the NBA gave John Lucas III a singular purpose and goal—for better or worse—for life. It did not, however, make things any easier. His father’s large and looming shadow, coupled with a body that would turn out to be a terribly inconvenient size for an aspiring baller, have attached a curse to Lucas’ birthright. Everything that he has accomplished, which at the moment is a scattershot five-year NBA career spent with three different teams, has been a result of him working past all that.

For athletes like Lucas, the word “perseverance” gets thrown around an awful lot. Years of Hollywood cinema and network television consumption have conditioned us to appreciate all varieties of the Hero’s Journey for how that journey reminds us of our own constant struggle to make it, or to make sense of this wicked world, or otherwise do what we aspire to do in a world that does not seem especially eager for us to do it. This does not mean that perseverance in sports is a myth, but rather that the identifying characteristics of such overcoming—race, class, size, drugs, whatever—are infinite and varied.

John Lucas III has fought to change perceptions and against genetic inevitabilities, has been forced to hustle and adapt in the face of ossified and inflexible systems and unfair biases and institutional prejudices. In this sense, we can actually find something in John Lucas III that relates to our individuated experiences, whatever they may be. And yet this story doesn’t quite move the way it’s supposed to move. Lucas’ position as simultaneous basketball insider and inexorable outsider has shaped not only his elliptical career path but his baffling and exhilarating on-court presence. This constant fighting and hacking away at the dense foliage of a path less traveled has defined his career. It’s what makes John Lucas III different, and both more and less like us.

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As a high schooler in Texas, Lucas ran point alongside future NBA players Emeka Okafor and Lawrence Roberts; Roberts went with Lucas to Baylor University. But their time there would be short lived, and in the wake of the program’s collapse -- and the horrible murder of teammate Patrick Dennehy at the hands of teammate Carlton Dotson -- in 2003, Lucas transferred to Oklahoma State University. The next year, Lucas hit a game-winning 3-pointer against St. Joe’s that sent Lucas and a Cowboys team that featured future NBA weirdo Tony Allen to the Final Four.

Despite his success and high-profile heroics at the collegiate level, Lucas was left untouched in the 2005 NBA draft; he played with Minnesota’s NBA Summer League entry and made it to training camp, but was cut. He went on to be waived by the Rockets a bunch of times and subsequently spent time bouncing back and forth between the D-League (Tulsa 66ers, Colorado 14ers), Italy (Snaidero Udine, Benneton Treviso), Spain (TAU Ceramica), and China (Shanghai Sharks).

So that’s it: a life spent playing the same game against various different levels of competition, in various time zones. It’s a living, but it’s complicated all the same. So it is all the more fitting and paradoxical that, in his reintroduction to the NBA on November 26, 2010—when Derrick Rose’s stiff neck prompted the Bulls (and former Lucas II assistant Tom Thibodeau) to sign Lucas III and fly him to Denver the same day—Lucas played roughly 5 minutes and missed two crucial free throws with 12.9 seconds left in a bitter 99-98 loss. How could or should this ever be easier than it previously had been? Lucas would go on to play in one more game that season and was waived in January. This cannot have been the basketball life young John Lucas had dreamed of.

And yet Lucas was re-signed by the Bulls in March 2011, and things changed. He quickly became an infectious and positive bench presence, wearing all manner of dress shirt and sweater combos when inactive, and routinely being the first one up off the bench after every showstopping dunk and over-reactive Thibodeau timeout, clapping hard and shouting words of encouragement as his diamond earrings—even a marginal basketball living is a good living—glistened under the United Center’s lights.

And then Derrick Rose got hurt, and all that try-hard effort found its way to the court. In his first ever NBA start—in which Thibs famously responded “Lucas” to the pre-game question of who was backing up Lucas—on January 11, 2012, Lucas III played 45 minutes and dropped a stellar 28/8/8 line (with just two turnovers) in a 78-64 win over a bad (as in: they scored 64 points) Washington Wizards team. That Lucas led the Bulls to victory thanks to a hilariously awful 11-of-28 shooting performance was not of material consideration. Lucas III was asked to play basketball, and play basketball he did: fearlessly, confidently, quickly, inefficiently, memorably—that is, just as he must have imagined playing it all those years in the D-League, and Spain, and China, and Italy, and anywhere but unemployed.

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This was not an isolated incident. Lucas was once again in the national spotlight later that month when, while playing a total of 3:27 against the Heat, he managed to get dunked on, and over, by LeBron James—Lucas II, NBA vet that he was, called his son and informed him that the family had entered the witness protection program. In the post-game interview Lucas shrugged it off with a resigned smile, referencing that time Josh Howard teabagged him in his rookie season, and so suggested that his journey had been far too long and hard to let such a minor incident stop him.

And, improbably, Lucas continued to defy expectations, filling in admirably for the Bulls whenever and wherever. The 2012 season would not be a Scalabrine-circus or just another pit stop for Lucas, but a season in which he contributed meaningful and memorable minutes, highlights of which include but are not limited to: shooting 40% from 3pt on the season; hitting a ridiculous, Majerle-range three against the Celtics; going HAM against the Grizz; and of course, leading the Bulls to a 106-102 victory over the Heat in which he scored 24 on 9-12 shooting, hit a shot-clock beating, revenge-fueled fadeaway over LeBron, all of which was so beautiful and overwhelming that it sent one particular twitter user into a hyperbolic fit.

Die-hard Bulls fans and league-pass fanatics were not the only ones who took note of Lucas’ contributions, and this past offseason he was rewarded with a guaranteed contract to play for the new-look and newly not-so-terrible Toronto Raptors. Backing up the oft-injured Kyle Lowry and Jose Calderon at point guard, it appears likely (if not inevitable) that Lucas’ mini-Microwave act will get another chance to perform and perhaps even flourish; Lowry has already spent time on the sidelines with injury this season, and Lucas has had his moments in relief. This does not mean Lucas will pull himself up by his bootstraps to become a star or a starter or something else he demonstrably is not. But he will have more time on the floor in which to be himself, which is a very good thing. John Lucas III is the rare breed of NBA player who belongs more to poetry and fiction than the truth of the box score. Stats, after all, are for superstars; what’s left belongs to Lucas and his peers.

Those peers, of course, being the NBA’s fellow misfits and misshapes and improbables; the NBA’s most-human superhumans. Lucas has proven time and again that he is not only the inefficient, pint-sized scrapper on the end of the bench that fans can easily (and superficially) identify with, but also a player who performs with ecstatic truth and unmistakable and intoxicating joy. He is not, and never will be, the best player on the floor, but he is here, and he is staying, and that is enough.

It was enough when he tried to fight LeBron James, for fuck’s sake; or when he off-the-radar dropped 60 on Kevin Durant & Co. at Nike Pro City; or how about this improbable pre-season buzzer beater; or maybe when he nailed a clutch 3-pointer to send the Raptors to triple OT. It is honestly enough, after everything, that John Lucas III is there at all. Not for John Lucas III, admittedly, but for those of us who find ourselves in his struggle. He fights and we fight. He plays, as well as he can as always, and we would do well to watch.

Illustration by Lehr Beidelschies of Everything Is Terrible.


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