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‘Let everybody know who you are’: Jai Lucas builds on his family’s hoops legacy
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‘Let everybody know who you are’: Jai Lucas builds on his family’s hoops legacy

‘Let everybody know who you are’: Jai Lucas builds on his family’s hoops legacy

DURHAM, N.C. — Jai Lucas needed to make one final call.

It was April 2022, and the Kentucky assistant coach was debating whether to leave one blue-blood basketball program for another. He’d been offered a job at Duke, under first-time head coach Jon Scheyer.

As he called his inner circle — including head coaches such as Marquette’s Shaka Smart, Texas’ Rodney Terry and SMU’s Rob Lanier — he gradually realized the stakes. Duke rarely hires an assistant coach who didn’t play there; that hadn’t happened in over two decades. Plus, in the wake of Mike Krzyzewski’s retirement, Lucas knew he’d be getting in at the onset of a new era and the kind of career springboard that could be. But was he really going to leave Hall of Famer John Calipari to work for a rookie head coach?

Torn, he called the person he knew would set him straight.

To the rest of the world, John Lucas II is known for being the No. 1 pick in the 1976 NBA Draft and later the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, Philadelphia 76ers and Cleveland Cavaliers. A veritable hoops icon. “In basketball circles,” Terry says, “you’re gonna know Big John.”

But to Jai, that basketball legend had always been just Dad. So he called, spelling out his rationale in meticulous detail. It wasn’t until Jai went silent that his father finally spoke: “I don’t even know why you called me. It sounds like your mind’s already made up.”

Jai chuckles now, retelling the story from his fifth-floor Duke office. “That was the whole conversation,” he remembers. It was also all the confirmation he needed.

Jai took over Duke’s defense in Year 1 A.K. — After Krzyzewski — and orchestrated a top-20 unit nationally, per Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. Then in June, just 14 months after Jai arrived, Scheyer promoted the 34-year-old to associate head coach, making him second-in-command for the nation’s second-ranked team. “He always tells me the truth,” Scheyer said this summer, “and that’s what you need when you’re a head coach.”

If the Blue Devils play to their potential this season, that may be where Jai finds himself soon. But taking the Duke job wasn’t merely about professional considerations.

It was about family. Getting back to his roots. “The opportunity,” Jai says, “to kind of keep the name legacy alive here.”

Almost 30 years later, Debbie Lucas’ one-liner still endures.

This was Philadelphia, March 1995, and John Lucas II’s wife had just returned home from picking up their daughter, Tarvia, after high school basketball practice. John — in his first season coaching the 76ers — was watching TV with his sons, John III and Jai. That’s when Debbie turned to her husband and said:

“I think I’ve seen a better high school basketball player than you.”

Impossible. John had been Mr. North Carolina, breaking “Pistol” Pete Maravich’s state high school scoring record while at Hillside High School in Durham. John earned more than 300 college scholarship offers before becoming an All-American in basketball and tennis at Maryland, and then the first point guard ever drafted first overall in the NBA. So the idea that someone was better than that? “Excuse me,” John remembers thinking, “but you’re out of your f—— mind.”

He had to see. John loaded his sons into his wife’s white Land Cruiser and drove to Lower Merion High School, just minutes before that night’s game. Walking in, John spotted Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, one of his former NBA peers who was coaching at nearby La Salle. He inquired why he was there that night.

“To see my son play,” Jellybean responded. “His name’s Kobe Bean.”

As in, Kobe Bean Bryant.

John and his sons took their seats, right as Kobe — then a high school junior — walked to midcourt for tip-off. “He won the jump ball, he outran the big, they threw the ball ahead to him, and he did a windmill dunk,” John III, Jai’s older brother, remembers. “The first play of the game.”

That one game was all any of the Lucases needed to see. John, recognizing the guard’s supreme talent, invited Bryant to practice with his 76ers. And as for the boys? “I say my love for basketball started then,” Jai says, “because we lived five houses from Kobe.”

Bryant became close friends with Tarvia, the Lower Merion team manager, and like an older brother, of sorts, to John III and Jai, coming over for family dinner, swinging by in the morning before 76ers practice to pick up John, or even sneaking the boys onto the Lower Merion bus for away games, hiding them under baggy letterman jackets. “We’d been around, like, star players,” John III says, “but watching him as kids, we’re like, oh, sh–.” Even for kids who learned the finger roll from George Gervin, who had had dinner with Michael Jordan and played in the driveway with Larry Bird, growing up in Bryant’s atmosphere was transformative.

This, as much as anything, was Jai’s introduction to basketball. Even at 6 years old, Jai watched everything Bryant did, soaking it in. It was one of the defining relationships of his life.

The others? Well, those were back in Durham — the place the Lucases made their name.

When John Harding Lucas returned from the Asiatic-Pacific Theater at the end of World War II, it wasn’t long before Hillside came calling, hiring him as principal in 1962.

Before desegregation and two years before the Civil Rights Act, Hillside was one of the oldest Black high schools in the South. It was John Sr.’s job to integrate it. John still remembers picketers demonstrating outside his childhood home on Fayetteville Street, across from well-known HBCU North Carolina Central University.

Before long, John Sr. became a major player in desegregating not just Hillside, but all the state’s schools. It was his idea to form a new, integrated education organization, rather than merging the two racially segregated ones that existed at the time. The North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) was founded in 1970 — desegregating Hillside while John II was attending. “The first year of integration was almost integration in reverse,” he says. “Hillside was 90 percent Black, 10 percent White.” Already a budding basketball star by then, John’s Hillside team played Durham High (a predominantly White school) at Cameron Indoor Stadium in one of the first integrated games in state history.

After John left for Maryland, his father continued his mission; he was named the fourth president of the NCAE, and later interim president of Shaw University in Raleigh. John Sr. was also heavily involved in the contentious merger of Durham’s city and county school systems, which operated with separate — and racially aligned — funding until 1992. For his efforts, John Sr. earned several lifetime achievement awards — including the prestigious N.C. Award for Public Service in 2013 — but one honor stands above the rest:

Having a school, Lucas Middle, named after him in 2012.

“When you get older, that’s when you really start to realize it,” Jai says of his grandfather, now 102, who still lives less than two miles from Duke’s campus. “He started to get all these awards and he started to get all this recognition, and then you started to understand his impact on the community.”

Every summer, John brought his children back to Durham.

“It’s where our family’s at. It’s our roots,” John III says. “It’s who my parents are, it’s where they come from. I think Durham raised my dad and my mom — and you never forget where you come from.”

Durham, in a way, became a reprieve from basketball. Because everywhere else? Be it in Philadelphia, Cleveland — where John earned his third head-coaching job, five years after leaving the 76ers — or the family’s de facto home base of Houston, hoops was the priority.

Though Jai was too young in Philadelphia to seriously train with Bryant, in the years after the family left, he committed himself to basketball as relentlessly as his idol had. Some of that came back in Houston, where John let Jai join the NBA workouts he ran, as part of his player development and substance abuse clinic, John Lucas Enterprises. More came in Cleveland, when Jai joined the Akron Shooting Stars AAU program, coached by LeBron James’ former high school coach.

But it wasn’t until 2003, when John was fired by the Cavaliers and the family moved back to Houston, that Jai got the full experience of being coached by his father.

At that point, Jai was entering high school. John wanted to be there for his son — and so he took a break from the NBA (although pros continued to flock to Houston for his infamous conditioning and skills training). “I told him I wanted to play,” Jai says, “and then he really invested in me and my basketball.” John treated Jai just like any of his pros. Suddenly, teenage Jai was playing against the likes of T.J. Ford and Damon Stoudamire, two smaller yet highly successful guards. John had done the same thing with Jai’s older brother, John III — pitting him against pros, clipping at the edges of his comfort zone — but he immediately noticed the difference in his two sons’ approach. “John had a Kobe mindset: Bravo-y, in your face,” their father says. “John’s gonna talk to you and tell you what’s going to go on with him; Jai’s just gonna do the work.”

It didn’t take long for John to realize that was just his sons’ opposite personalities manifesting on the court.

“I always used to get on Jai,” John III says, “like c’mon, you gotta let everybody know who you are — because that’s how I played. I was the smallest, so I felt like I always had to be the loudest. But Jai’s quiet; his personality, how he is now — in the real world — that’s how he played.”

John attributes some of the personality difference between his sons to one specific part of their upbringing: his drug use and subsequent recovery. John’s career was marred by alcohol and drugs, a matter he’s been open about since getting sober in the late 1980s.

“My discipline through my recovery is what Jai knew, and my attention to detail. Always aware of my surroundings, always trying to be accepting of others, believing in something greater than myself, and learning how to care about others unconditionally,” John says. “John saw a different dad, one that had to pick himself back up. Jai just saw the other side — the results of picking yourself back up.”

The similarity, then, was in how John prepared them both. How they’d go to the gym with their dad every morning, and not leave until they’d made 500 shots. Jai’s father treated him like he would his NBA pupils. “He always told me, whenever we’re in the gym, I’m not Dad; I’m Coach,” Jai remembers. “When we leave, I’ll be your dad again.” It was intentional tough love, from a man who knew how difficult it was to achieve basketball greatness.

“Jai and them hadn’t ever seen a tough day in their lives. I told them, if you’re going to play basketball, you’ve got to get an edge and a hunger. … These (other) kids are fighting,” John says. “So the competitive level you’ve got to get to, has to match them. And because of your last name, every time you get out there, their dad is telling them, ‘You measure yourself by that Lucas boy; you kick his a–.”

So John always told his sons one thing, the same thing he’d learned from his father back in Durham:

“Protect the last name.”

Jai Lucas, 34, was promoted to associate head coach before his second season with Duke. (Lance King / Getty Images)

It was an offhand comment, facetious even, but one Jai took to heart. He was at Rob Lanier’s house during his freshman year at Florida, when Lanier — then an assistant on Billy Donovan’s staff — let it slip:

“I’m gonna hire you one day … when you’re done playing in Switzerland,” Jai remembers Lanier saying. “I’ll never forget the statement, because I’m still thinking I’m going to the NBA.”

It wasn’t a far-fetched idea. Jai had turned himself into a top-25 national recruit; per ESPN’s rankings, he was one spot behind Blake Griffin, and two ahead of James Harden, in the Class of 2007. He arrived at Florida on the heels of consecutive national titles by the Gators, and almost immediately became a starter. Yet Lanier already had an idea of the long-term path Jai was on.

“I thought he would have a better coaching career than a playing career, quite honestly,” Lanier says, “but that has more to do with how good of a coach I thought he could be.”

All the things that made Jai an attractive recruit and player — despite his 5-foot-9 frame — carried over to the coaching world. “If you didn’t like Jai,” says Smart, who briefly coached Jai at Florida, “then there was something wrong with you, not him.” Emotionally, he was mature beyond his years. “He watches, he analyzes, he processes — and then he figures out a solution,” John III adds. “It’s very strategic.”

He also knew the game. In his father’s gym in high school, Jai was sometimes responsible for teaching drills to younger players, tweaking their missteps and offering advice. John wasn’t sure his youngest son was taking to coaching — until Jai’s freshman year of high school, when he wore a suit to his first fall league game, same as his dad had in the NBA. “Because,” John says, “he respects the game.” Jai was named to the SEC’s all-freshman team that year, despite the Gators missing the NCAA Tournament.

Then, after his freshman season, Jai transferred closer to home, to Texas; Terry — then an assistant on Rick Barnes’ Texas staff — was his lead recruiter. He saw in Jai what Lanier had. “Jai was always cerebral, you know?” Terry says. “He wasn’t the most athletic guy, things of that nature, but (his game) really wasn’t about that.”

Jai barely played his final two seasons at Texas — one start in 58 appearances, and less than 12 minutes per game — but still pursued a professional career. His first stop was overseas, in Latvia. John knew Jai’s uphill climb to the NBA would be steep.

He gave the tough advice only a dad can: Maybe it’s time to start a new dream.

And then a call came. It was Lanier, now at Texas. He was keeping his promise.

Jai re-joined the Longhorns as a special assistant in 2013 and quickly endeared himself to Barnes’ staff. When Lanier asked him for anything, even something as small as a video cut-up of a player, Jai did it exactly as instructed — despite never taking notes. “It always got done the way I asked it,” Lanier says. “Always.” In 2015, Barnes left Texas for Tennessee, and Jai opted to stay, becoming the director of basketball operations on Smart’s new staff in Austin. Before long, Jai’s connections started paying dividends on the recruiting trail; Smart promoted him to assistant in 2016, and Jai soon helped UT land lottery talents like Jarrett Allen, Mo Bamba and Jaxson Hayes. In 2020, Kentucky offered Lucas its recruiting coordinator position.

Not even two years later, it was a battle of the blue bloods for Jai’s services.

“Being able to be selective in this business is a real luxury, and he has that,” Lanier adds. “So he can really be true to who he is.”

Jai doesn’t take that for granted: that his cousins compete for Duke tickets, that they’re 10-deep behind the Cameron Indoor bench, that he’s liable to see a family member on any Target run. But the most special connection of them all? Jai’s 5-year-old son, Jaxin, spending time with John Sr., the family patriarch — bookends on four generations of Lucases.

Back in his office, Jai is asked if he feels like he’s earned a branch of the family tree yet. He pauses.

“Not yet,” he finally says. “I think the branches on the tree have already been established … and my part is almost like watering it. Just making sure I’m taking care of it.”

(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photos: Courtesy of the Lucas family; Lance King / Getty Images)