Darius Paul is back on track
PORT ARTHUR, Texas — Late last week, Darius Paul moved into his new apartment near Lamar State College’s campus. It’s a little less full than the living quarters he enjoyed the last year at Illinois.
After a whirlwind sequence of events that saw him arrested for underage drinking and resisting an officer on April 22 and ended with him being suspended from the basketball team for the entire 2014-15 season on May 14 by John Groce, Paul left everything behind. Literally.
“All my clothes, everything, I left in Champaign,” he said. “Everything happened so quick, and I just left.”
Paul’s parents, Cliff Sr. and Lynda, collected his belongings, but not before shipping their youngest son off to Houston, where Darius spent the last four months with former NBA coach John Lucas in an effort to get his life back in order on and off the court.
Lucas, who battled his own drug and alcohol addiction problems while a point guard in the NBA during the 1970s and ’80s, has spent the last decade counseling athletes dealing with their own substance-abuse issues.
Paul, who tested positive for marijuana use twice at Illinois before his April arrest, worked extensively on and off the court with Lucas just about every day from the middle of May until last week.
Off the court, Lucas would accompany Paul to meetings, where addicts would share stories of their past and how they’ve turned their lives around.
“A lot of the people from those meetings, they’re successful now,” Paul said.
“It was good to hear their stories and to hear where they were and how they’re doing now,” Paul added.
Lucas spent time with Paul one-on-one, challenging him to make better decisions in life.
“John is an in-your-face kind of a guy, and I think that was good for Darius,” Lynda Paul said. “I appreciate him for keeping Darius focused on what needs to happen. It was a good thing for us.”
On the court, the former coach of the NBA’s Spurs, 76ers and Cavaliers put Paul through extensive basketball workouts, alongside current NBA players Tristan Thompson, Austin Rivers and John Lucas III.
“That part of it was good for me,” Paul said. “To still have basketball and to be able to play and work out with pros was good to have this summer.”
Lucas has helped rehabilitate dozens of athletes at the John Lucas Treatment and Recovery Center in recent years. Former LSU star and current Arizona Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy, former UI assistant and Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie and former Louisville basketball star Chane Behanan are among those who have ventured to Houston to have their lives and careers put back on track by Lucas.
According to his mom, Paul isn’t an easy guy to break down through tough love.
“He’s like one of those wild stallions,” she said. “His tolerance level is high.”
When figuring out how to get Paul back on track, Cliff Sr. and Lynda figured Lucas might be the answer.
“John, we thought, may have been the one who could get him close to breaking,” Lynda Paul said. “Darius can be pretty intense, but John was good with him. He got through to him.”
Since leaving Illinois, Paul reports that he has been free of drugs and alcohol.
“I’ve been good this whole time,” he said.
The goal now is to continue down that path while focusing on academics and basketball at Lamar State College, which begins fall semester classes and workouts Monday.
The community college in southeast Texas, 90 miles east of Houston, is providing Paul an opportunity to continue his basketball career this season after sitting out the 2013-14 season at Illinois. That came after a transfer from Western Michigan, where the 6-foot-8, 245-pounder was named the Freshman of the Year in the Mid-American Conference.
“Once we start practice, we’ll see how good we can be,” Paul said of the Seahawks. “We’ll see if we can win (a national championship).”
Lamar State was recommended to the Pauls by the UI coaching staff. Illini assistant coach Dustin Ford, Paul’s position coach at Illinois, is a friend of Seahawks coach Lance Madison.
“We certainly appreciate the recommendation, and we followed that,” Lynda Paul said.
Paul has remained in contact with the Illinois coaching staff since leaving in the spring. John Groce visited him in Houston this summer to check in on Paul’s progress and to watch him play at Lucas’ facility.
Because Paul is now a recruitable athlete at a junior college, the UI coaching staff and players can’t publicly comment about him.
“It’s good that they’re still in touch, and they’re making sure I’m doing well,” Paul said.
It’s a sentiment shared by his family, too.
“The coaching staff has been extremely supportive, and we can’t thank them enough for that,” Lynda Paul said.
Many families go through situations like the one the Pauls have faced. Most, though, don’t do it in the public eye. But living with their lives on display is old hat. Lynda had a stint as a politician in far North Suburban Lake County. Cliff Sr. is a veteran police officer. Brandon Paul was a star guard at Illinois from 2009 to ’13, not to mention Darius, Cliff Jr. and Brandon were all star athletes at Warren High in Gurnee.
That doesn’t mean this has been something they’ve gotten through easily.
“It’s still a little raw,” Lynda Paul said. “I’ve still not recovered from it, but we’re working through it.”
When he left Illinois, Darius said his wish was to return to finish his collegiate career with the Illini and to receive a degree from the university. Nothing, he said, has changed that goal.
Members of the Illinois staff are expected to make a visit to see Paul at Lamar State sometime this fall.
“I still feel like I’m a part of the program there, and that’s where I want to be,” he said. “I’m Illinois all the way.”
Mom and Dad are on board with that, too, if that’s ultimately what Darius decides.
“With what the University of Illinois coaching staff has done and (athletic director) Mike Thomas, there’s been a lot of support for Darius to help him make better decisions in the future,” Lynda Paul said. “I hope he chooses to go back to the University of Illinois and graduate. I want all three of my boys to graduate from the University of Illinois.”
For his part, Paul understands the situation he put himself in, and the hardest part, aside from hurting his family, he said was letting down his basketball family at Illinois.
“I put in a lot of work there and had high expectations for myself,” he said. “To just have to leave like that, that was real tough.”
Should he get a second chance at Illinois, Paul feels he’ll be better equipped to take advantage of his opportunity.
“It’s not just all about having fun,” he said. “I’ve learned that when you get an opportunity like I had to play in the Big Ten, you can’t mess it up. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to be as successful as possible.”