The guard is the sparkplug. At least that's what all the basketball coaches say, mainly because most of them are ex-guards who would like to be remembered as former sparkplugs. Guards grow up to become coaches and work for a living. Dunkers retire at 37 to play volleyball. The guard runs the team like an operator at a switchboard, doling out the ball on offense and plugging the first line of defense. His other duties include kneeling in the team picture. But the guard does have some advantages: he doesn't have to stoop to give autographs and, best of all, he can talk to the referees on their level, give or take an inch.
Fans relate to the guard, the smart little fellow full of guile. They are in awe of the center...such a big fellow—but if the galoot were a few inches shorter he couldn't even make the team. Now the guard, there's an athlete! He hustles, never wears knee pads, makes all his free throws and doesn't do dumb things like goaltending. Just think how good he would be if he were a few inches taller.
John Lucas of the University of Maryland is a sparkplug, the best playing college basketball this year. He is so quick that he has not had to learn to shoot a jump shot; his passes seem to come equipped with handles; his defense is so tenacious, so rife with bedevilment that last year North Carolina State Coach Norm Sloan told a flustered substitute who was attempting to dribble against Lucas to go stand in the corner of the court "and don't touch the ball." And Lucas is, finally, a senior.
It sometimes seems as if John Lucas has been with us as long as Jerry. Atlantic Coast Conference coaches have prayed and the pros have cajoled, but he has refused to leave Maryland, where he has been a star since way back in 1972. During that time Lucas has accumulated 1,458 points, 250 assists and more national and international honors than Jonas Salk. His trophies and awards fill a room at his parents" home in Durham, N.C. In a way, they are the best indication of how good he is, because he earned them despite the fact that he was overshadowed—but not outplayed—for two seasons on his own team by a pair of giants named Tom McMillen and Len Elmore and for three seasons in his league by the Atomic Bomb, David Thompson. In the 1974 World Games he was named most valuable player, and his coach there, Gene Bartow, now at UCLA, says of Lucas, "If I were an NBA general manager and I had the No. 1 pick in the draft this year, I wouldn't care if there were five seven-footers coming out of college. Lucas would be my pick. He's a winner, a leader and a great person."
Thompson is gone from the ACC now and Lucas at last has the microphone to himself. Loquacious, personable and handsome enough to be voted the league's "Best Body" in a poll of coaches' wives, Lucas has more than star ability. He has star quality. "I want them to forget about Joe Namath," he says.
With sophomore Brad Davis and seniors Mo Howard and Lucas, Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell has one of the best backcourts in college history. He uses a three-guard offense, and Lucas is its hub, shooting his old-fashioned no-jump one-hander from the outside, penetrating to pass off and leading the fast break. On defense, Driesell often puts Lucas on the opposition's best player, usually a forward much taller than he is, like Notre Dame's Adrian Dantley, although, as he says, "Coach tells me I have the white man's disease. I can't jump. I'm probably a step away from being just another guy on the street, but I think I have the fastest hands of anyone in the country."
To top it all off, Lucas is a man for all seasons—or at least two. He is an accomplished tennis player who won the ACC singles championship as a sophomore and has a 64-25 record in college matches. After basketball season, Lucas saunters onto the tennis court, picks up a racket for the first time in months and starts blasting winners. "Playing part time, he already has accomplished more than any player in Maryland's history," says Doyle Royal, his tennis coach. Phoenix of World Team Tennis drafted and tried to sign him last year. Arthur Ashe has played several exhibitions with Lucas and gives this assessment of his talents: "He could be good with a few years of work. It might be too late for him to be great, but he could make a good living out of tennis."
The sport offers him a physical advantage, for while Lucas is a "small" basketball player at 6'3½", he is a big man on the tennis court. And it was in tennis that he was the more precocious athlete. A month after picking up a racket in the fifth grade he won a city tournament; a few months later he upset the defending junior champion in a state event. Not long after that, the 12-year-old Lucas won the Southeastern Junior tennis tournament's 14-and-under and 16-and-under singles titles and finished second in the 18-and-under. At 14 he entered Durham's City-County tournament and won seven events. His opponent in the men's singles finals, a former college player, approached Lucas' father the day before the match and counseled him to prepare his son for a dismal defeat. The man said he hated to take advantage of a small boy, but he planned to go all out since "it means so much to me." Lucas blew him off the court, and the chagrined tournament committee subsequently limited the number of events a player could enter.
In high school Lucas won 92 straight matches, losing only one set in the process. He was the state schoolboy champion every year, and in the summer of 1971, following his junior year, he was named to the seven-man U.S. Junior Davis Cup team. He believes he can be as good a tennis player as anyone, as much because of his unyielding psyche as his athletic gifts. "Look, tennis is a game played mostly by white rich kids," he says. "When they lose, they shrug and walk away. When I lose, I die."
But basketball remains Lucas' first love. He entered Maryland as a member of the first wave of freshmen eligible, under a new NCAA ruling, to play varsity sports. Back then few people thought that freshmen could crack a college lineup, much less a professional one. Lucas made nine of 10 shots in his first game and was a distinguished starter all year for a team ranked among the nation's top five. More than anyone else, he started pro scouts wondering if the prime cuts really needed the seasoning of college. Last year Moses Malone became the first beneficiary of the change in thinking initiated by Lucas' freshman performance. That turned out to be slightly ironic. Malone made a brief appearance on the Maryland campus before he signed a pro contract with the Utah Stars. While Moses was deciding whether to take a million dollars or trigonometry, Lucas called a team meeting. Under his guidance, the players agreed to donate their $15-a-month laundry money to a Save Moses Fund. "Look," Lucas said to Malone, "we'll give you the money each month and you can lead us to the Promised Land." At those prices, Malone was a reluctant savior. "I'm out of here," he told Lucas.
Without Moses, Maryland still won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championship before losing to Louisville in the NCAA Midwest Regionals. Now Lucas is back for one more try at the NCAA title, even though he has been on the merry-go-round so long that he must be getting dizzy. "I tell Brad Davis, you got to be 15% to 20% better the next year just to be the same, because everybody is going to be gunning for you," he says. "It's easy to say, 'I don't have to play as hard because I know what I'm doing now.' You'll be good. But it depends on what you want to be, good or great."
There is no question which Lucas wants to be. He presides over endless pickup games in the Maryland gym during the off-season, playing with the likes of former Maryland stars Elmore and Owen Brown, Mike Riordan and Kevin Grevey of the Washington Bullets and miscellaneous local college athletes in games so good they attract audiences of 50 or so. But this is Lucas' court and Lucas' show, and he all but preens as he plays. He won one game with an amazing shot from the corner, falling over backward after he was fouled. He quickly leaped up, hurried to a friend in the stands and said in a delighted whisper, "I told you I'm the best from East to West." Said Elmore a couple of minutes later, "In two years he'll be the first-or second-best guard in the pros." Told of Elmore's assessment, Lucas feigned surprise: "Two years. That long?"
The college coaches whose teams have played against Lucas must be asking themselves the same question. Considering the tense games that the Wolfpack and the Terps have been involved in during the past three seasons, perhaps N.C. State's Sloan pays Lucas the highest compliment. "I can never remember him having a bad game against us," Sloan says. "But I never realized how complete he is, what kind of defensive ability he has, until I saw him guarding David Thompson last season."
It is a basketball axiom that a guard with the ability and audacity to take on a forward like Thompson has to come from someplace where no one would choose to live. But Lucas was raised in a pleasant middle-class section of Durham, where the loudest noise was the slamming of a screen door. His father, John Sr., is the principal of nearby Hillside High School, which has more than 1,450 students. He was Durham's Father of the Year in 1972. His mother Blondola is assistant principal at Shepard Junior High School. She was the city's Mother of the Year in 1975. "All the stories about blacks are the same," says Lucas. "They all come from the ghetto. They all grew up with roaches and rats and pimps and pushers. All blacks aren't like that, and my family background is not like that. I had to be home when the streetlights came on. The first time I didn't, I got whipped."
Lucas' closely knit family and jet travel aided Driesell in his successful campaign to divert John from any of the four ACC colleges within 75 miles of his doorstep. Lucas' older sister Cheryl worked then, as she does now, in the Washington area. His decision to attend Maryland allows her to watch every one of his home games, where she is easily identified as the girl surrounded by people who wish they were wearing earmuffs. The family had decided that Lucas would go to school within an hour's plane ride of Durham, and on his first trip to the Maryland campus John carefully timed the flight and reported back that it took only 48 minutes. "Lefty was the first coach who made John smile," the elder Lucas recalls. "They joked about both being lefthanded." And while Driesell was busy making Lucas laugh, he did not forget to make a firm impression on the important adults in the boy's life. "Other coaches shook your hand like it was the thing to do," says Lucas' high school coach, Carl Easterling. "When Lefty shakes your hand you can feel it right up to your shoulder."
Driesell and Lucas maintain a respectful relationship, even though the coach has a perturbing habit of pulling John over to the sidelines to bawl him out for mistakes. "He doesn't get on the other players, just me," says Lucas. "But he knows I can take it. It just makes me try harder. And I still respect him because he never quits working. He'll see you in the hall and call you into his office to talk about a new play. He never quits, and he makes me so I'll never quit." Says a former Maryland player, "John has a lot of Lefty in him—the charisma and the high energy level. They're a lot alike."
About the only disagreement between the two that anyone can remember occurred at practice one day when Driesell told Lucas to call "Gather" to signify a certain play. "Gather," said Lucas in a mocking, high-pitched voice. "Lucas," yelped Driesell, "gather yourself right out of this gym." As Lucas walked off, Owen Brown muttered repeatedly, "He kicked out the star."
In Maryland's opening game last year Lucas suffered a cracked collarbone, which forced him to miss five games. It was his first injury, and it figured in his decision to finish school with something besides his old uniform and a pro contract. "I learned that I am not invincible. It taught me that life isn't only bouncing a basketball," says Lucas, who is majoring in business administration and should complete the requirements for his degree about the time he ends his college tennis career.
The decision greatly pleased his parents. John Sr. is a small, animated man who gives off energy like a crackling fire. He has been working in schools for 36 years—25 of them as a principal—and is a former president of the North Carolina Association of Educators. As an academician, he could make a lot of all-star teams. And like many people in Durham, he is an unabashedly proud fan of his son. He wears a ring from John Jr.'s high school class and is the unofficial curator of the trophy museum located in the Lucas dining room. Recently John Sr. was showing a visitor around the city, introducing him to the man who tacked up John's first basketball goal on the garage in back of the Lucas' house, to the Hillside High football coach who, because of fear of injury, prudently refused John a place on the team even though he was the school's best passer, and to other former teachers and coaches. Among them was Eugene Tolbert, the principal of Fayetteville Elementary School. When he was asked about the younger Lucas, Tolbert jumped from behind his desk, spread his arms in evangelical fashion and gave out a litany of compliments. The father looked on with a wide smile.
The person outside the Lucas home who had the most influence on young John was Easterling, his tennis and basketball coach in high school and his informal coach for many years before that. It was Easterling who first put a tennis racket in Lucas' hand and first explained to him the nuances of the layup. The day that John graduated from Hillside, Easterling retired from coaching. Now 68 years old, he runs a small restaurant, and his dark face beams when he talks of his protégé.
Easterling enjoys telling many of the countless stories about Lucas that circulate in Durham. John did things like wander over to a nearby firehouse one rainy afternoon, play his first game of Ping-Pong and then enter and win the state tournament. "Oh, yes, I was a smart coach," Easterling says. "Of course, all I did was tell John to take charge. Once we were down 12 points in the second quarter against our big rival, Raleigh Broughton. John comes by the bench and says, 'Coach, I think I'll shoot a little bit.' I said, 'Somebody better, because we're gettin' run out of this place.' Well, John made his next six shots and we wound up winning."
Confidence that sometimes borders on arrogance is an important part of Lucas' game. Away from the court, he has told teammate Steve Sheppard, "You'll be remembered as the second-best ever to go to school here. Guess who'll be first?" On the playing floor, he knows the limit to which he can flout his opponent, pushing it just enough to leave his man flustered but not enough to provoke a fight. "Basketball is an ego game," says Lucas. "You're trying to beat your man, to embarrass him, to see how bad you can make him look." North Carolina's star guard Phil Ford played against Lucas in high school. Lucas was a heavily publicized senior, Ford a sophomore whose reputation was still to be made. The younger man outplayed Lucas during the first quarter. "C'mon All-America, you can't play," taunted Ford. "Young man, I'll teach you the game of basketball," replied Lucas. He went on to score 57 points in that game and later that year broke Pete Maravich's state high school scoring record.
In three preseason scrimmages last year Lucas averaged 50 points. Brad Davis was a freshman and already so good that it would not be long into the season before he would force Driesell to install the unconventional three-guard lineup. Lucas did not want Davis to have any doubts about who was Maryland's star. Soon, perplexed because Davis was stumbling around in a daze after Lucas' third scoring outburst and afraid that John would forget about the assist column, Driesell told Lucas to turn off the bubble machine. "If you let me go," said John, almost straight-faced, "we'll win a national championship."
This year Lucas has stepped up his Spartan training. He used to badger his father for the keys to the high school gym and practice there until late at night. Now his dorm neighbors complain that he bounces a basketball in his room at odd hours, and he is up at seven each morning to lift weights. Other times he dreams. There is a framed picture of the Knicks' Walt Frazier sitting on a bureau in his room. Frequently he stands in front of it and, shifting his shoulders back and forth like a man dribbling a basketball, says, "I'm coming, Clyde. There's gonna be 19,000 in the Garden, and you're gonna try to steal it from me. I'll take it behind my back and hit the one-hander on you. Whoosh. I'm coming, Clyde. Get ready."
Thank goodness he's not a few inches taller.
Lucas concentrates on basketball, but he has been the ACC's best on another court.