Monday, July 15, 2024

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.”

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