Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah (13) affectionately hits Chicago Bulls… (Nuccio DiNuzzo, Chicago…)
John Lucas' basketball career—not just his NBA career—has taken him all over the world. He's played in major cities and in obscure locales that many people have never even heard of and couldn't find on a map.
His latest stop is here in the Windy City, where he's become a Bulls fan favorite. And Lucas is keenly aware of what it means to wear a jersey with block letters spelling out "Chicago" and "Bulls" on the front of it and the fans' expectations of the players who wear it.
"When you put that Bulls jersey on, there's a lot of responsibility that comes with that and I don't want to disrespect or let anybody down by not playing as hard as I can," he told RedEye after practice Monday.
In other words, John Lucas III "gets it."
His play on the court has proved it. Especially when the Bulls have needed him most.
The condensed, hectic, nearly practice-free 66-game NBA schedule this season had players dropping like flies across the league. But no team was been bitten by the injury bug more than the Bulls—and at arguably the most critical and most crucial position on the floor, no less: point guard.
Reigning MVP Derrick Rose missed 26 games with a variety of ailments, most recently a sprained ankle. And Rose's backup,C.J. Watson, missed 17 games with a left elbow sprain.
But the Bulls never missed a beat with those guys out, and they have Lucas to thank for that.
"I just wanted to come in and be there for my team like they've been there for me for the past two years," said Lucas, whose dad is former NBA player and coach John Lucas. "This atmosphere we have—this chemistry we have as a team, this unity—we all think of each other as brothers, and when one brother goes down, it's time for the next one to step in and pick up where he left off.
"That's just been my mentality, and plus I love the game of basketball. When you get an opportunity to play, you're gonna want to make the most of it."
Making the most of his opportunities has earned Lucas well-earned praise from his teammates and coach Tom Thibodeau.
"He's been terrific all year, and it doesn't surprise me," said Thibodeau, an NBA coach of the year candidate. "He's been around the game a long time, and wherever he's been, he's always excelled; whether it was theD-League, overseas or Summer League. He's a great worker, a great practice guy, and he stays ready. I always felt confident that if we had an injury or had to plug him in that he would play well and have the team play well."
Carlos Boozer, who's started every game this season, said Lucas has not only played well but probably saved the Bulls on a few occasions.
"He's been one of the biggest surprises for us this season," Boozer said. "Obviously we've had D. Rose out for 20-plus games and C.J.'s been out, too. But 'Luke' has done a great job of hitting big shots for us in fourth quarters, and he's probably had four or five games where he's really won the game for us."
Case in point, the Bulls first home game against arch-rival Miami at the United Center on March 14.
Lucas shot 9-of-12 from the field and connected on three of his five 3-point attempts, finishing the game with 24 points off the bench. But the lasting memory from that game was 5-foot-11 Lucas going one-on-one against 6-foot-8 LeBron James and nailing a key step-back jump shot over the King that proved to be the dagger in the ballgame.
It served as Lucas' coming-out party.
"The fans didn't really know that much about me, but I had to show them that this is what I bring to the table. This is what I bring to this team," Lucas said of that Heat game.
The Bulls likely won't need Lucas to repeat such heroics in the playoffs, but if they do call on him, he's ready.
"I play hard for everybody, not just for my teammates," Lucas said. "I play hard for the fans, for the coaching staff, for the organization."
The fans—and Bulls—have stood up and noticed. After a transient career that's taken him from city to city and even country to country, Lucas seems to have found a home with the Bulls.
"People say the hardest thing is getting into the NBA, and yeah, that is the hard part. But the second-hardest thing is staying [in the NBA]," he said. "You see guys who bounce around; they'll be here one year, and the next year they're gone. But you just have to stay with it. If you love something, you don't get discouraged, you don't get down, you just keep fighting.
"You just keep fighting."
Bryan Crawford is a RedEye special contributor.