Lucius Allen: A Career Almost Up in Smoke, 1971

[Today, smoking pot for “recreational purposes” is legal in 18 states. In most states, possessing an ounce or two of weed won’t land you in jail or prison. But in the 1960s, possessing  a small amount of weed during a traffic stop could be life-altering, especially for athletes. Just ask Lucius Allen.

In the spring of 1968, Allen had just been named a second-team All American for helping UCLA to back-to-back NCAA men’s basketball national championships. Allen, a 20-year-old junior guard, was known as Mr. Outside for his feathery touch. His roommate Lew Alcindor was Mr. Inside. 

But Allen struggled academically and needed to get his head straight to graduate. That’s why Allen withdrew from spring classes in mid-May and announced he had joined the National Guard for a six-month stint (ostensibly, while no longer a student, to avoid being drafted into the military and sent to Vietnam.)

Then, on the evening of May 23, 1968, Allen and four other mostly female college kids piled into a sedan and drove off for a birthday celebration. The sedan cruised down Los Angeles’ fashionable Wilshire Boulevard, then hit the gas and spun down an alleyway. Officers Kimball and Lewis, having noticed the packed sedan, followed in their police cruiser and red-lighted the vehicle for speeding near the corner of La Brea and Adams. The officers smelled reefer and quickly extracted a joint from Allen’s pocket.

Allen spoke up, “I’m a basketball player at UCLA.”

“You mean, you were a UCLA basketball player,” Officer Kimball quipped. 

All passengers were arrested on the spot, and Allen was booked an hour later into Central Jail, where he was soon released on a $1,250 bond (today about $10,000). UCLA officials went into damage control. The UCLA’s SID told the press that Allen was no longer a student, which was technically correct, and the school pulled Allen’s scholarship. Their All-American was sadly on his own. Or, as the Los Angeles Times reported, “Lucius Allen apparently has played his last basketball game for UCLA.”

Allen, who earlier pled not guilty, finally copped a plea on September 17, 1968. The court dropped its felony possession charge for Allen’s guilty admission on the misdemeanor of “opening or maintaining a place for the sale or giving away of narcotics.” On October 17, 1968, Superior Court Judge William Munnell gave Allen a stern lecture about the dangers of drugs, but the chastened All-American walked out of court with a suspended sentence, a $300 fine, and a basketball career in tatters.

“I thought my entire career was gone,” Allen later recalled. “Now, I thought, ‘I got no education, no job, no nothing.’ I had to give up my scholarship. I thought, ‘You, fool, you.’”

To his credit, Allen would beat the label of being “a pothead” and launch an NBA career. In this article, published in the magazine Basketball Sports Stars of 1971, Associated Press reporter Charlie Barouh tells how. Interestingly, the how involves the big helping hands from two soon-to-be basketball supervillains named Sam: UCLA booster Sam Gilbert and Seattle SuperSonics owner Sam Schulman.]

Allen arrives in court in May 1968 for his arraignment on two counts of possession of marijuana.

Most of the boy has left the easy smile of Lucius Allen. The eyes still twinkle from behind his specially-made sunglasses. The mouth turns up in a quick grin. The laugh is deep, rich, throaty. But the laugh, the grin, and the eyes are reflective. The age of innocence ended in a Los Angeles courtroom October 17, 1968, when Lucius Allen pleaded guilty to a marijuana charge. 

Suddenly, Lucius Oliver Allen, star guard for the UCLA Bruins, possibly one of the greatest college basketball teams ever, knew things would never be easy again. He found out what being a man is. “I realize now that you have to grow up and be a man and not run around trying to hide out and do this and that—that you have to come out and face your responsibilities,” he said after one year’s quick growth to maturity. 

That was the problem with going to UCLA, or any other school, as a high school All-American, he said. He really didn’t have to grow up. There just wasn’t any reason to. Everything was done for him. 

“You have people taking care of everything for you. You have people taking care of your scholarship. You don’t have to worry about the money. You don’t have to worry about eating. You don’t have to worry about anything, except playing basketball and going to school,” Allen said in his surprisingly husky voice. 

There are a lot of surprising things about Allen. He is listed as 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds. But when he walks into a room, it looks like a lot more than that is standing in his shoes. And there’s an almost imperceptible ducking of his head as he walks through a door. Allen admits he hasn’t been measured lately and thinks he has grown in size, as well as wisdom.

Lucius maybe should have been a big enough boy that junior year to know what he was doing. Maybe he knew, but didn’t think about it. “It’s on such a large scale,” he said, “the kids don’t think about it. That was the case with me anyway. Almost everybody around me was doing it, therefore I didn’t really think about the professional implications involved.”

The Los Angeles police gave him a quiet place to meditate. He and four friends were stopped in their car one night. It was a year to the day after he was arrested on similar charges. The first time, Allen said, some grass was left in his car by a friend, and he didn’t know about it. That charge was dropped later. It wasn’t the next time. He received a 60-day suspended sentence, a $300 fine, and a lecture. A probation report said Allen “went through some very serious mental changes” during that period of meditation. 

“I was sitting in jail, and I figured that I’d thrown away all that I had worked to gain,” Lu said. “Where do you go from there? I didn’t know.”

Sam Gilbert, a friend, did know. He contacted Sam Schulman, owner of the National Basketball Association Seattle Sonics. After Allen pleaded guilty and dropped out of school, he became a free agent. He signed a personal services contract with Schulman, played AAU ball for a potato chip company [the team was called the L.A. Chippers] during what would have been his senior year, and did some more growing up. 

“I think that year I matured a lot more, simply because I got to see both sides. I saw the Sam Gilberts, who help you when the chips are down. And I saw the rest of them, those people who say, ‘Man, why did you do this and throw your whole life away?’ I learned a lot about people. It was a big turning point in my life.”

Allen’s bonus wasn’t gigantic. But it was enough for a trip around the country that year, with a comfortable bit left. One of the places he went was back home to Kansas City. Allen, the third of nine children, went to see his mother and to see the place where he was raised. More growing up. 

“I had a chance to go home and had a chance to see my old friends,” Allen said. “I realized then how much I had in comparison to them, because a lot of them were pimps and hustlers and guys that didn’t want to do anything and therefore wouldn’t. 

“But I remembered them in high school,” Allen recalled. “They were all intelligent guys. It’s just that I had the opportunity to go off and play basketball and had the opportunity to do something with my life. Then I realized I had a lot more—even depressed as I was and as things happened—than most of the people I had grown up with. It helps you see both sides. It helps you pick and choose.”

Allen was grabbed by the lowly Sonics as their first choice in the NBA draft in 1969. The Sonics were pretty sure he would still be available to them by their turn. For one thing, Lew Alcindor, Lu’s great teammate, was available to whoever picked first. With the lower teams hunting for big men, the Sonics reckoned Allen would be around. If he wasn’t, the personal contract would have been worked out with whoever drafted him. When the Sonics drafted him, they called Allen a “calculated risk.”

Allen (bottom right) joins the Seattle SuperSonics.

Whatever calculations there were, Allen said at the time he was no risk. He said he didn’t expect anyone to hassle him about the past. If they did, he was prepared to handle it. 

“I expect a minimum amount of problems,” Allen said at the time. “Most people realize—or will realize when they meet me—that the reception won’t affect me. If it is cool, that will be okay, as long as they come to see me. If it is warm, that will be all the better.”

As it turned out, the reception appeared to be warm. People rarely seemed interested in the marijuana incident. Whether it is the nature of the times or his own warmth, people simply accepted him. Maybe they just wanted to see him play ball. 

During that year between the time he left the Bruins and joined the Sonics, when the incident was still fresh enough to evoke questions, Allen refused to become involved in moral arguments about marijuana. If he talks to the youth about it, he just tells them the way it is. 

“I recommend that they stay away from it because of the simple fact it’s against the law. And anything that is against the law, they shouldn’t be messing around with anyway.”

Before Allen played a game in the NBA, he was sure he had the ability to play. For one thing, he thought the year of AAU ball might have helped him because its rules make for a very physical game. There is a lot of body contact. Maybe not as much as in the NBA, but more than in college ball. 

Before the season started, Allen had definite ideas on what would be the toughest part of the game. “The thing I’ll have to work on most is keeping possession of the ball,” he had said. “The pros are smart. They know what you’ll do before you do it.”

Someone once mentioned that people at UCLA thought one of the problems with Allen was that he was so likeable. It was said that he could get away with a lot because he could talk his way out of things on sheer charm. True or not, you can’t charm your way through the NBA. 

Allen hadn’t ever had any real experience at losing or sitting on the bench. Through high school and his abbreviated college career, Allen was on the short end of only three games. And he was always a starter. No one except Alcindor had ever overshadowed him. It was different in the pros. 

First of all, the Sonics lost a lot. They lost more on their first roadtrip than Allen had lost in his entire life. And Allen was a sub, vying for the position with a guard named Lee Winfield. Insiders say Allen took the bench well, under the circumstances. His reputation around the Sonics is a good one. He’s not a grumbler, and he hustled. Allen was used to being a winner, and he desperately wanted the Sonics to be winners. That was the hardest adjustment for Allen to make—losing. 

“Yeah, it was kind of tough,” Allen said. “I wasn’t used to it. But it’s not something you should get used to. I guess you have to accept the fact it’s going to happen once in a while and try to avoid it.”

A little while into the season, Allen changed his mind about the hardest part of the game. Like other rookies, Allen realized that while he had to improve everything he did, learning the hard, pro defense was the toughest part of the game. It took a while, naturally, before Allen felt he was making progress, but the feeling eventually came. 

“I think the first time I felt I was improving on defense was the second time we played Cincinnati,” Allen said. “They put me in against Oscar (Robertson). You can’t stop Oscar or a guy like Jerry West. You can only make him work hard for his points. I remember feeling that game that I was making Oscar work hard for his points.”

The fact that he was playing against Robertson at all took a while to sink in. This was the idol of his youth. Allen called playing in the NBA “interesting.” He said it as if it was the one word that he could think of to describe the maze of emotions. 

“The people that I’ve always looked up to so much, I’ve found that they’re really people. I can get along with them,” he said in a mixture of happiness and maybe surprise. “I speak with them, with people like Oscar and Jerry West. It’s like, you know, I’ve been accepted. 

“I didn’t think this would happen for at least three years. I heard all the rumors about them taking the rookies and cutting off all their hair and breaking their toes. I thought it would take me a long time to get used to being with all the big-time pros that were my idols.”

Other things took time for Allen, his hair and toes intact. He made the mistakes rookies make. But people around the Sonics said they were the mistakes of trying, sometimes too hard. Player-Coach Lenny Wilkens worked with Allen and seemed satisfied with Lucius’ progress. 

There were also the things Allen had to learn for himself about himself. “In college, if you had a bad game, you just shrugged it off as a bad game. You can’t do that in the pros. You know you have the talent or you wouldn’t be there. You have to tell yourself that if you had a bad game, it was because you weren’t concentrating enough, or working hard enough.

“But, at the same time, you can’t brood about it. You just have to do better next time. If I made a lot of mistakes and had a bad game, I would carry it with me for the next three games. It took a long time to get over that.”

So, Allen finished a promising rookie year. The statistics weren’t astounding, but they were nice. He was in 81 of the Sonics’ 82 games. He started eight of them. He finished with an average of 9.8 points a game and was second high on the club with 342 assists. His high was a 28-point effort against San Francisco. 

But behind that were the flashes of instinctive basketball brilliance. He showed he could make the big play. He is wonderfully quick with tremendous body control. And the Sonics know there’s a rich reserve of talent to be exploited. 

“The way I look at myself now, I’m really proud of the way I evolved. If all the things that happened to me hadn’t, then I don’t know what kind of person I would be.”

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