The story behind John Lucas’ 2004 game-winner against St. Joe’s

The story behind John Lucas’ 2004 game-winner against St. Joe’s

The point guard’s shot is the biggest in Cowboy basketball history. To him, it meant even more.

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| Mar 25, 2024, 6:00am CDT

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

Mar 25, 2024, 6:00am CDT

John Lucas wanted to take the shot.

When St. Joseph’s splashed a three and took the lead with less than a minute remaining in that memorable regional final 20 years ago, the Oklahoma State point guard hoped he’d look at the bench and see a play call for him. But when he saw the signal for a play designed for Joey Graham to get downhill and get to the basket, Lucas had a twinge of disappointment.

It wasn’t caused by ego or pride.

Rather, Lucas felt this deep sense of responsibility for the Cowboys.

“When Oklahoma State took me in, I made an oath to myself,” Lucas said recently on a phone call, “that I want to do whatever it takes to put this team on my back and go as far as we can with guys that took me in in some of my darkest times.”

But much like his college career, the play that day in East Rutherford, N.J., didn’t go as planned.

And much like his college career, it turned out much better than Lucas could’ve dreamed.

With March Madness in its glory, there are bound to be memorable shots. Buzzer beaters. Game winners. But there won’t be a shot that carries any more weight, any more meaning to the shooter than the one Lucas drained two decades ago this March.

Yes, The Shot means a lot to Cowboy basketball fans. It’s as memorable as Big Country’s halfcourt buzzer-beater to force overtime against Missouri in 1993 and Byron Eaton’s falling-out-of-bounds, over-the-back shot-clock beater in that triple-overtime thriller against Texas in 2007. But the stakes of those shots weren’t nearly as big as what Lucas did in the 2004 East Regional Final.

He sent that beloved OSU team to the Final Four, and recent days and Cowboy struggles have reminded us how such success should be treasured and celebrated.

Lucas doesn’t have to be reminded of that.

‘That year was very, very tough’

John Lucas was in the middle of his sophomore season at Baylor when he knew he wouldn’t play another year in Waco.

After making the Big 12’s all-freshman team in his first year, Lucas saw his playing time go down midway through his sophomore year. He even lost his starting spot.

He got so disenchanted with Baylor that he started making the two-hour drive to his parents’ home in the Houston area each day after class and practice. He had to wake up at 5 a.m. every morning to make the drive back to campus for early workouts, but Lucas did it.

“Because I couldn’t stand Baylor,” he said.

“That’s how much I did not want to be there. I was very discouraged about it.”

The situation went from bad to much, much worse in the summer of 2003. That’s when Baylor forward Patrick Dennehy went missing, and a month later, teammate Carlton Dotson admitted that he shot and killed Dennehy. Along the way, it was revealed that Baylor head coach Dave Bliss tried to orchestrate a coverup.

Losing Dennehy crushed Lucas.

“You lose somebody that you go into the huddle with and everybody’s like, ‘Ohe, two, three — family!’” Lucas said. “Those people become your family those four years of your life in college because that’s who you’ll be around the most.

“That year was very, very tough.”

Lucas decided to transfer to Memphis. John Calipari was coaching the Tigers in those days after spending a few years coaching in the NBA. Lucas’ dad, John Lucas II, a longtime assistant in the league, got to know Calipari and the family felt good about Memphis.

But that spring and summer, the elder Lucas happened to be working with former OSU point guard Victor Williams. He was training and preparing to make a run at pro basketball, and while Williams and the younger Lucas had played against each other for two years in the Big 12, they became tighter during Williams’ time in Houston.

Williams tried to sell Lucas on OSU from the start, but when the scandal broke at Baylor, Williams really started pushing the Cowboys.

“Man, what about O-State?” he repeatedly asked Lucas.

Finally, Lucas relented.

“All right, I’ll take a visit.”

Lucas never expected to play there. But he fell in love with everything on his official visit. The school. The program. The coaches. The vibe.

He felt called to OSU. 

“Something in my spirit, God talked to me — ‘This is where you need to be. This is the structure you need,’” Lucas remembered.

He credits divine intervention and Victor Williams.

“Man, if it wasn’t for you,” Lucas tells Williams when they talk nowadays, “I probably would have never gone to Oklahoma State.”

But in his early days in Stillwater, Lucas questioned whether he should’ve gone.

‘Knocking that wall down’

John Lucas clearly remembers his first practice at OSU.

“It was rough,” he said with a chuckle.

Yes, he was in a place he loved. Sure, he was joining a team loaded with talent; Tony Allen and Ivan McFarlin were returning starters while the Graham twins and Daniel Bobik were transfers coming off their redshirt years. 

But the Cowboys had been practicing all offseason together. They had gelled. They had bonded.

“The first day of practice, I went in there and I was like, ‘This is my team now,’” Lucas said. “And Tony felt like it was his team.

“It was rough because I’m an alpha male, and Tony Allen’s an alpha male.”

But even as the Cowboys tried to figure out their roles and balance their chemistry with a new element on the court, Lucas wasn’t exactly trying to fit in off the court. 

And that’s by his admission.

“I didn’t go out as much because I didn’t trust anybody,” he said. “My first couple months, it was just me by myself. I see them in the gym. I see them at practice. But I didn’t hang out because I just didn’t trust anybody. 

“I came from a situation where you put your trust in everybody and this person murdered this person and the coach tried to cover up a lot of stuff, so why am I letting my wall down?”

But one of the guys kept knocking on Lucas’ door inviting him to hang out.

“C’mon, man, we’re gonna go to Eskimo Joe’s,” the teammate would say one day.

Lucas wouldn’t go.

“Hey, man, we’re all going to get some wings,” the teammate would say the next day. 

Lucas still said no.

Nothing stopped Tony Allen from asking. Day after day, the same guy who was butting heads with Lucas at practice was urging him to join the guys off the court. Allen told Lucas that the Cowboys had a chance to do big things but not without him.

“Just brick by brick,” Lucas said, “he started knocking that wall down.”

And once the season started, Lucas, Allen and the Cowboys started knocking down opponents. They won the Big 12 title and the Big 12 Tournament and the first three games of the NCAA Tournament by double digits. (Ironically for Lucas, OSU’s second-round opponent was Memphis.)

The Cowboys got big-time play throughout the season from a variety of players. Joey Graham. McFarlin. Bobik. Janavor Weatherspoon. Jason Miller. Stevie Graham. But Lucas and Allen became the linchpins.

Allen led the team in scoring with 16.0 points a game with Lucas right behind at 15.1.

Allen won Big 12 Player of the Year honors from conference coaches while Lucas won the league’s player of the year honor given by the Associated Press.

But when Lucas looked to the bench after St. Joe’s hit that three and took that late lead in East Rutherford, the play was for Joey Graham.

“To try to get downhill,” Lucas recalled.

Graham was good at that. Powerful. Explosive. If he could drive his defender to the basket, there was a good chance he’d make the basket or get fouled or both.

Graham popped out at the top of the arc with about 15 seconds left, and Lucas threw the ball to him. Graham surveyed, then started his move toward the basket.

But he slipped.

And in that moment, the defender guarding Lucas, who was beyond the arc on the left wing, helped off ever so slightly. Maybe he thought he could swipe the ball. Maybe get a steal.

Graham, however, managed to control the ball and pass to Lucas.

“And he hit me,” Lucas recalled, “and it was like … ” 

He paused just as Cowboys everywhere held their breath that day.

“I just shot it. I didn’t second guess it. I wasn’t nervous. I didn’t think.

“It was just another shot to me.”

But it became one of the biggest shots in OSU history, falling through and sending the Cowboys to the Final Four after St. Joe’s last-second shot only grazed the front of the rim.

Lucas grabbed the rebound, and as the final buzzer sounded, he tossed the ball high into the air, then sprinted toward the OSU bench.

Lucas had to find his dad.

‘I’m relentless’

John Lucas didn’t have to look hard because his dad was looking for him. 

Lucas threw himself into his dad’s arms and buried his face in his dad’s neck. Tears already streamed down Lucas’ face. Cameras caught the hug and streamed it around the country.

Folks figured the tears were the joyful variety, but that’s not really the case.

“It wasn’t about me hitting the shot and ‘We’re going to the Final Four,’” Lucas said all these years later. “That didn’t hit me till I got to the hotel. What hit me is what I just went through.

“From the coaches (at Baylor) turning on me to my team losing a teammate to one of my teammates going to jail … and I didn’t know where I would be or what situation I would be in. That was the emotion that came over me.”

He realized something.

“Damn, I’m relentless,” he remembers thinking in those moments after the final buzzer.

And because his dad had been through his own struggles, overcoming a drug addiction sidetracked his NBA career numerous times, the elder Lucas had been a constant voice and a daily example to his son.

“He’s the one who kept saying to me, ‘You’re gonna have to walk through this yourself. We can help you, but you will have to get through it. You’re either going to let this situation discourage you or you’re going to use this situation as motivation,’” Lucas said.

Lucas kept going when the going looked hardest.

And when that shot fell and the Cowboys won that night in East Rutherford, it felt like Lucas was able to let the world know that. He was able, too, to deliver for the Cowboys, to do everything possible to help the team that helped him.

Now, when he sees the shot pop up as it does many years during March Madness, Lucas loves reliving that moment. His life now revolves around the NBA — after playing professionally for 12 years, he’s been an assistant coach in the association since 2017 and is in his first season with the Phoenix Suns — but that game-winner 20 years ago stands as a cherished memory.

Because of what it did for the Cowboys.

Because of what it meant for him.

“When I came into campus,” he said, “it was like a second chance for me.”

A second chance he wasn’t going to miss punctuated by a shot he didn’t.

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Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

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