John Drew, one of Alabama’s greatest high school basketball stars, needs our prayers

This is a column of opinion.

John Drew needs our prayers.

Born in Vredenburgh, Alabama, the two-time National Basketball Association All-Star and one of the most dominant high school basketball players in the state’s history is in the late days of stage 4 bone cancer.

“The doctor told me there is nothing else they can do,” Keith Drew, the third eldest son, told me this week. His father, who played on a muscular 6-foot-6 and 205 pounds, has lost well over 100 pounds.

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Drew is in Houston, where he has lived with his wife and driven a taxi to make a living since not long after an 11-year NBA career ended in 1986 due to substance abuse. He rarely returns to Alabama – not since 1991, Keith says – because he felt “he failed everyone in his hometown.”

“I told him that,” Keith says. “No matter what you did and what happened, everyone still loved him and wanted to see him. But he was embarrassed and just did not want to come home.”

A few years ago, Drew was inducted into the JF Shields Sports Hall of Fame. “They wanted him to be there to receive the trophy, but he would not come because he was embarrassed.”

Keith says a lot was first discovered on his father’s shoulder ten years ago during a physical. “He said the doctor told him he should do something about it, but he never did anything about it.”

John Drew also kept the discovery to himself, though pain sometimes turned into a fight. “For the past two years, he’s been complaining about his back,” Keith said. “He could walk, but it just hurt so much.”

“It started bothering him about five years ago, but he never told anyone about it,” Keith said. “About a month and a half ago, when he started getting so sore, he had to be hospitalized for a few weeks. That was when the doctor told him he had bone cancer, stage 4, and that there was nothing they could do about it. That’s when we found out. “

John Drew

Former Alabama high school basketball star John Drew (right) with son Sherman

John Drew holds three state AHSAA records from his years (1969-72) at JF Shields High School in Monroe County (career average, 41.0 points per game, 1969-72; single-season rebounding, 764 in 1971-72; and the single-season rebound average, 21.8 rebounds per game, 1971-72), and remains among the leaders in several others. They are single-game scoring (No. 2, 77 vs. Snow Hill Institute, 1971-72), single-season scoring (No. 3, 1,302 points, 1970-71), career scoring (No. 4, 4,018 from 1969 – 72), and single-season scoring average (No. 4, 44.0 points per game, 1970-71).

Drew remained a prolific scorer in the NBA with an average of 20.7 points and nearly seven rebounds per game.

He should have been inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame a long time ago.

No matter how his career ended.

No matter how much he struggled with an addiction that still endured too many.

I started contacting Drew for this column last August. My years as a sports journalist at The New York Times coincided with much of his career, and I interviewed him several times and portrayed much of his struggle with cocaine. He consistently rejected my requests, rejecting almost every interview since he was the first victim of the NBA’s then new, harsh “three-attack” drug policy in 1986. He was expelled by NBA Commissioner David Stern after being on detox for the third time.

During interviews for a story in 1983, after Drew returned from his rehab, he was open to me about his drug use and efforts to stay clean. I even attended an AA meeting with him.

The 25th overall draft pick in 1974, Drew signed a five-year contract for $ 780,000 with a $ 40,000 bonus, a whole lot of money for a child from rural Alabama who went to the small Gardner-Webb University. He told me he did not start using drugs until his third NBA season during a road trip to Portland, but, as I wrote, “The word circulated quickly. Drew was cool.”

Drew was a high-performing addict. Rumors of his drug use abounded, but it seemed to have little bearing on his game. In 1979-80 he had an average of 19.5 points per. fight – even though he was freebasing, he shared. ” I never played while I was tall, ” he said, ” even though I sometimes performed under the influence of what I had done the night before. I did a pretty good job of covering it up, learning all the tricks of the trade. and lied to everyone. ”

He added: ” I have never taken drugs to kill any bad feeling because I was hurt or because I had problems, ‘he says. ” I took drugs because I liked them and they made me feel comfortable. ”

Drew was confronted with his addiction at the beginning of the 1982-83 season – his first with the Utah Jazz after eight seasons with Atlanta (in return, the Hawks received the No. 3 draft pick of the season, Dominique Wilkins) – by Jazz head coach Frank Layden. He missed 38 fights while undergoing rehabilitation at a center in Baltimore, Maryland.

Jojn Drew

Former Alabama high school basketball star John Drew (in bed) with two of his sons – Keith (left) and Sherman.

Drew returned as the league’s Comeback Player of the Year in 1983-84, but suffered a relapse the following season.

He said in 1983 that being forced to face his addiction was the “greatest relief in the world.” Yet it was still a beast that conquered him one too many times. And prevented him from coming home.

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After the deportation, he remained in the Atlanta area for a few years and fought in the wake (he was arrested twice there in 1986, once for selling cocaine to an undercover FBI agent).

He told me in 1983 that being forced to face his addiction in Utah was the “greatest relief in the world.” Yet it was still a beast that conquered him one too many times. And prevented him from coming home.

Keith says his father thought one of the Hawks’ teams should have won a championship. Keith could not remember exactly which, though it was probably the 1978-79 Hawks, who lost to the Washington Bullets at the time in seven games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Drew averaged 22.7 points per game. match in the regular season, but only 15.0 ppg in the series.

“He said the reason they did not win was because of him and his addiction,” Keith Drew said. “He takes responsibility for it.” (The Bullets went on to lose to the Seattle SuperSonics in the NBA Finals; the first finals I covered as a young reporter.)

Although John Drew felt so ashamed of how his NBA career ended that he could not come home, he needs the prayers of his home state.

Keith Drew said his father has been in good spirits. “He’s at peace with that,” he said, adding, “he said that if he had to do it again, he would not change anything.”

Several columns by Roy S. Johnson

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Roy S. Johnson is a 2021 Pulitzer Prize-winning finalist for commentary and winner of the 2021 Edward R. Morrow Award for Podcasts: “Unjustifiable,” hosted by John Archibald. His column appears in The Birmingham News and AL.com, as well as the Huntsville Times, Mobile Press Register. Reach him at rjohnson@al.comfollow him at twitter.com/roysjor on Instagram @roysj.

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