LOS ANGELES -- John Lucas and LeBron James will be involved in the same NBA game Saturday at the Staples Center. For Lucas, it's 6 ½ years too late.
During the 2002-03 season, Lucas was coach of the woeful Cleveland Cavaliers. He believes team brass had a mission to lose enough games to get a shot at James, then a hot-shot senior 40 miles down the road at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio.
"They trade all our guys away and we go real young, and the goal was to get LeBron and also to sell the team,'' Lucas said in an interview with FanHouse. "I didn't have a chance. ... You can't fault the Cavaliers for wanting to get LeBron. It was hard to get free agents to come there.''
Gordon Gund, then the principal owner and now a Cavaliers' minority owner, denied the team was tanking during that 17-65 season to get James, who would go to Cleveland with the No. 1 pick after it won the 2003 draft lottery. Gund also denied the team then was for sale, a move that wouldn't happen until 2005.
Lucas, now a Los Angeles Clippers assistant, will run into the Cavaliers on Saturday for the first time since they fired him Jan. 20, 2003 after an 8-34 start. And he will face James, a player he sure wishes he could have ended up coaching.
Lucas has varying emotions when he looks back on his 1 ½-season stint with the Cavaliers. He was very frustrated at his belief the team was willing to lose games in order to get James. But, looking back, he can't deny the Cavaliers have turned their entire franchise around with James.
"As angry as I am about the situation of being there, I was there at the wrong time,'' Lucas said. "But, for the organization, it was absolutely the right move. I'm angry because I should be a big boy because I got paid a lot of money (Lucas was fired with 1 ½ years left on his contract). But you want a chance to be able to be there for a while. You knew what the mission was. You just hoped you could get there to get that.''
Instead, Lucas got fired. He didn't take another NBA job until Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy, a friend since the two were Houston teammates in 1977-78, invited him back last fall to serve as an assistant.
"The Cleveland Cavaliers situation really beat me up,'' said Lucas, who was suspended by the NBA for the first two games of the 2002-03 season due to illegally bringing in James for a voluntary workout with Cavaliers players in May 2002, late in James' junior year. "I didn't know until you get into the inner loop, after you take the job, what their real mission is. ... So I was really beat up from the Cleveland situation and so it took me this long to be back (in the NBA).''
The Cavaliers went 29-53 under Lucas in his first season, 2001-02, and he believed they were making strides. But during the offseason, the team traded its top three scorers in Lamond Murray, Andre Miller and Wesley Person, getting little for Person and Murray. Miller had led the NBA in assists in 2001-02 with a 10.9 average.
Lucas said he was told during the 2002-03 season to use young players, and was discouraged from using veterans such as forward Tyrone Hill and point guard Bimbo Coles.
"What you can't talk about is, 'We're trying to get LeBron,''' Lucas said of the climate that season. "You can't say that (to the fans).''
One of those young players Lucas used plenty was guard Ricky Davis, who averaged a team-high 20.6 points. He's now with the Clippers.
"It was tough on (Lucas),'' Davis said. "They were forcing him to lose and I know it's nothing he wanted to do. It's just the position he was forced in. But it's tough. ... It worked, whatever they did (to get James) so it's hard to knock them. They got what they wanted. But it was hard on Luke.''
Gund strongly denied in an interview with FanHouse the Cavaliers had a strategy to get James by losing games in 2002-03.
"You don't try to get the No. 1 pick,'' Gund said. "That's why the lottery was designed. To not allow that. We had a young team that we were developing. ... We did not tank the season. ... To lose to get LeBron James, we would never do that. I wouldn't do that. I couldn't do that.
"In the very last game of the season, we had nothing to gain and we were in sole possession of last place (in the NBA). But we beat (Toronto) and that left us tied with Denver (at 17-65). ... The chances of getting the first pick were only (22.5 percent).''
Gund did confirm Lucas was directed to use younger players because they were the "future of the team.'' But Gund pointed out that, if the Cavaliers were indeed trying to tank that season, why would Lucas have been fired after the team got off to a horrendous start?
"I just didn't think the chemistry was good. The players weren't responding to John,'' said Gund, who didn't elaborate further on why Lucas was replaced by interim coach Keith Smart for the remainder of the season. "This is not a criticism of John. I like John.''
So do the Clippers' players. In his four months with the team, Lucas has developed into a popular guy due to his enthusiasm, honesty and work ethic.
Lucas stays after practice regularly to work individually with players. He's got to be the most excitable assistant in the league, sometimes standing as much during games as Dunleavy.
"He always tells it like it is,'' said Clippers center Marcus Camby. "He doesn't sugarcoat anything. It's good to have a reality check because he always gives it to you raw. He's a players' coach. I mean, you can talk to him about anything. His life has been well-documented. There's nothing hidden about that.''
Indeed there isn't. Lucas, the No. 1 pick in the draft in 1976 and a 14-year NBA guard, has spoken openly about his drug abuse and, since finally getting sober on March 14, 1986, has spent much time helping others with addictions.
Lucas' passion is working out players. He was doing that in his hometown of Houston, having worked closely with about 40 NBA players, during the six years he was out of the league.
Then Dunleavy called.
"Luke and I have been friends for 30 years,'' said Dunleavy, who, after getting to know Lucas with the Rockets, was a Milwaukee assistant when Lucas played for the Bucks from 1986-88. "I thought last summer we were going to get Tim Grgurich, but at the last minute he changed his mind and decided to stay in Denver (where he has been an assistant since 2005). I started going through my list of guys, and I thought John would be great. He's got a lot of energy. That's the key. I was looking for an upbeat guy.''
Dunleavy worked though a mutual friend to get Lucas to come to the Clippers. He finally agreed, signing a one-year deal.
Now, Lucas wants to stick around the NBA a lot longer than that.
"I thought I was done with (coaching) and it was out of my system,'' said Lucas, 56. "But Mike asked me to come back and help, I've loved every minute and didn't realize how much I missed it.''
Lucas, who coached San Antonio from 1992-94 and Philadelphia from 1994-96 prior to his Cleveland stint, is enjoying it so much that he wants one day be a head coach again.
"I think that I was very successful when I had a chance to be,'' Lucas said. "Most players come to me to work on their game anyway. ... I really have gotten upset some times to be honest because I've seen people that have been in tougher situations than me get other chances. But I think that I've done well enough to deserve another chance.''
Lucas points to his success in San Antonio, where he went 94-49 in just under two seasons. He finished the 1992-93 season with a 39-22 run and then led the Spurs to a 55-27 mark the following season.
But then Lucas bolted to Philadelphia, where he also was general manager. He regrets it to this day.
"I left because they fired the general manager (Bob Bass) and they sold the team too, and they brought in (Gregg) Popovich as the general manager,'' Lucas said. "I always felt that anybody that had been an assistant coach who now was the general manager would always want to coach."
Popovich did take over as Spurs coach during the 1996-97 season and since has won four titles.
"I left for all the wrong reasons, though," Lucas continued. "Then I went from thinking that I was a very good coach, a great coach, that I can make anybody win, to realizing you got to have talent to win. And I've been chasing a San Antonio situation ever since. ... I wish I had stayed and built my resume up.''
Instead, Lucas took over one of the worst teams in the NBA. He was fired after the 76ers went just 42-122 in his two seasons.
"They sold the team. The strength coach at the time I fired, and he came back as the boss,'' Lucas said of Pat Croce taking over as team president with the new ownership. "That wasn't a good move either.''
Lucas served as a Denver assistant from 1998-2001. He eventually resurfaced as a head coach with the Cavaliers.
It didn't take long to get the attention of his new players. During the first week of training camp, Lucas held practices at 6 a.m.
"I wanted to change the culture of who we are,'' Lucas said. "I felt like Cleveland at that time was a place where players would go to the graveyard to die. They'd hide out a couple of years and then be out of the league because of age.''
So Lucas had players work the graveyard shift.
"I thought he was joking,'' center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the only player remaining on the Cavaliers since Lucas coached, said of when he first heard the team would practice so early. "I didn't like that too much. ... When you get up at 4 in the morning, you're going to be groggy. ... But I have a lot of respect for (Lucas). He was a good players' coach.''
Lucas endeared himself to players with some more popular unconventional methods, such as sometimes canceling practice if a player could make a halfcourt shot. Lucas said lots of coaches do that but he has got the reputation for being unconventional because he opened all his practices to the media and everything was visible.
Lucas thought the Cavaliers were making strides after they went 29-53 in 2001-02, a season that included Ilgauskas, eventually a two-time All-Star, playing limited minutes as he overcame foot problems. But it was all downhill after that.
In May 2002, Lucas invited James to work out with Cavaliers players at Quicken Loans Arena, then known by its former name, Gund Arena. Lucas claims he didn't know it was against the rules to bring in a prospect not yet eligible for the draft. In addition to suspending Lucas for the first two games of 2002-03, the NBA fined the Cavaliers $150,000.
"I was $250,000 lighter in the pocket for doing with (James) the exact same thing I did with Kobe (Bryant) in Philly,'' said Lucas, referring to allowing Bryant, then a Philadelphia high school star, to work out with the 76ers. "I used to make Kobe come practice with us in Philly. I had Kobe since the 10th grade. ... I was trying to find a better player to come in then and expose them to the pros. ... Nobody ever said anything (about Bryant working out). When LeBron came in, I didn't even know they had changed the rules.''
At 17, James, according to Lucas, was the "best player in the gym'' alongside the likes of DeSagana Diop, Chris Mihm, Bryant Stith and Jumaine Jones. It wasn't long before Lucas believed the Cavaliers set the stage to get James.
"Andre was really coming into his own and we trade him (to the Clippers) for Darius Miles, who had a bad knee, and Harold Jamison, who (was waived),'' Lucas said. "We traded Lamond Murray, who averaged (a team-high 16.6) points, (to Toronto) for Yogi Stewart, who was on the (injured) list. We traded Wesley Person for the 49th pick, which was Matt Barnes (the Cavaliers also got from Memphis Nick Anderson, who was later waived in a money-saving move and never played again in the NBA). ... So I couldn't win.''
Gund denied the moves were made with the idea of helping the team drop games to get a better shot at James.
"I agreed with the trades,'' Gund said of the deals made by then general manager Jim Paxson. "Andre was one that we really wanted but he wanted a max salary (when he would become a restricted free agent in 2002) and we didn't think he deserved a max at that time because he hadn't shown being an All-Star.
"We all liked Andre. But Lamond Murray was not a key player. He and Wesley didn't have anywhere near the seasons they had (in 2001-02) after that.''
Once the season started, Lucas was rebuffed when he wanted to give more time to veterans such as Hill and Coles, lamenting, "I couldn't play Bimbo because I had to play Smush Parker,'' an undrafted rookie point guard. Management also wanted Lucas to give more time to the likes of Carlos Boozer, who was a second-round steal by the Cavaliers before bolting the team in 2004 as a free agent, rookie Dajuan Wagner, who had health problems and never panned out, and Davis.
"Tyrone Hill had been an All-Star for us (in 1995), but he and Bimbo Coles were on the back end of their careers,'' Gund said. "Playing Tyrone Hill and Bimbo Coles wasn't going to make much of a difference in our record. ... We wanted to build for the future.''
Gund said he was modeling that unit after the 1986-87 Cavaliers, who featured top rookies Brad Daugherty, Mark Price, Ron Harper and John Williams on a team that eventually grew into one of the best in the Eastern Conference.
"It's not unusual for a coach to feel that he's being sandbagged by being told to play young players,'' Gund said of the frustration felt by Lucas.
But Gund stressed the Cavaliers did not sandbag 2002-03 season in order to get James.