Who is John Drew, you ask? Well, Drew was one of the game’s tragic figures, an extraordinarily talented player who got caught up in the wave of drug use that plagued the NBA in the early 1980s. Along with Micheal Ray Richardson, Drew was one of the first players to be banned from the NBA for life under David Stern’s drug policy in the mid-eighties; coming at roughly the same time as Len Bias’ cocaine-overdose death, the expulsions of Drew and Richardson represented the turning point in the NBA’s quest to shed its image as a drug-infested league.
But before he made history in such a negative way, Drew proved he could play well at the game’s highest level. Selected by the Hawks out of tiny Gardner-Webb University with the 25th overall pick in the 1974 draft, Drew was thrust into a starting role when Lou Hudson was lost for all but 11 games with an arm injury. The rookie responded by averaging 18.5 PPG/10.7 RPG and earning 1st-Team All-Rookie honors, plus leading the entire league in offensive rebounds along the way. Think about that — a 6’6″ rookie swingman leading the league in offensive boards! The following year, Hudson returned, and Drew established himself as a rock-solid starter alongside “Sweet Lou” in his second NBA season.
J.D. showcased his full game that year, scoring 21.6 PPG on .502 shooting, to go with only slightly less gaudy rebounding totals and the 10th-best Steal % in basketball. He also proved to be a master at initiating contact and drawing fouls, finishing 2nd in the league in FTA; and since he made 74% of them, Drew’s .570 TS% placed him 7th in league. The overall package was compelling enough to earn him MVP consideration, along with his first All-Star Game appearance, and it looked like Atlanta had a future star on their hands.
Unfortunately, while Drew would continue to be a good player, never again would he produce like he did in 1976. It’s not clear when Drew began using cocaine, but by the early 1980s he was a full-fledged drug addict, even as he was averaging 20 PPG for the Hawks. The team signed him to a 6-year contract in 1978, but they would tire of his behavior before the deal ran out, and in 1982 Atlanta made perhaps the best trade in franchise history when they shipped Drew and Freeman Williams to the Utah Jazz for the draft rights to Dominique Wilkins, a player who (unlike Drew) would maximize his talent and become one of the decade’s defining stars.
Things did not go well for Drew upon arriving in Utah, as he missed the first 38 games of the 1983 season due to drug rehab. When he made it back to the court, Drew played reasonably well, averaging 21.2 PPG, and in 1984 he was a finalist for the now-defunct Comeback Player of the Year Award, ultimately losing to teammate Adrian Dantley. But just as it looked like Drew had put his substance problem behind him, he fell off the wagon before the 84-85 season and was arrested for drug possession. In late 1984, Stern banned Drew, to be followed less than two years later by Bias’ untimely demise and a lifetime ban for Richardson (whose career followed a similar arc — flashing tons of potential early, falling into cocaine addiction, making a comeback that had everyone convinced his troubles were over, but relapsing and getting kicked out of the NBA).
The league had taken the difficult but necessary steps to clean up its image, though Drew’s once-promising career was a tragic casualty of the NBA’s age of excess. According to Charles Barkley in I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It, Drew was actually homeless for an extended period of time during the 1990s; Barkley was shocked that a once-proud athlete of Drew’s caliber had been laid so low:
“… we were on the road in Houston one night, we were right in front of the hotel at the Galleria. And this homeless guy walks right up to me and grabs me. I mean, the guy is just a bum, dirty and shabby. It’s John Drew. I was in total shock. […] A man who was a two-time NBA All-Star, a guy who had a productive eleven-year career […] and he was homeless, a bum on the streets.”
Wikipedia says Drew finally came to control his addiction and is now working as a cab driver in Houston. If it’s true, then I’m glad to hear it, because Drew deserved better than to live on the street. Once a very good basketball player, his story is one of a man who simply got swept away by the culture of drug use that pervaded the NBA during the era in which he played. The fact that he is now one of the more anonymous members of the Top-5 PER Club has to go down as one of the more tragic stories in NBA history, because his addiction caused him to waste a great deal of talent.