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Original Issue

Rocket with a racket

An All-America in basketball and tennis, John Lucas is now both NBA and WTT

It was 6:30 p.m., an hour before his team would play at Madison Square Garden, and Houston Rocket Guard John Lucas was packing his bag for the taxi ride downtown from his hotel. The last time he had made that trip was in mid-March when he played 47 minutes, scored 17 points and handed out nine assists in a 112-101 loss to the Knicks. Tonight would be quite different. Lucas would sit on the bench while his New Orleans Nets teammates beat the New York Apples in World Team Tennis.

Bench-warming is as foreign to Lucas as a professional tennis career would be to the other 241 NBA players, but he is content to sit as he polishes his summer game. And sit he did, through all but two of New Orleans' first 11 matches this season. In Biloxi, Miss., with the Nets hopelessly trailing Phoenix 24-16, Lucas played mixed doubles with Renee Richards in the last match of the night. He held his serve and volleyed strongly to help win the Nets' first match of the evening, a 7-5 victory over Butch Walts and Kristien Shaw. In El Paso, Lucas teamed with Marty Riessen in a 6-2 loss to Rod Laver and Ross Case of the San Diego Friars.

Back in September when the basketball training camps opened, Lucas didn't expect—or want—to be playing professional tennis this spring. Although highly interested in a two-sport professional career—in 1976 he was All-America in both tennis and basketball at Maryland, the only two-sport honoree in the country that year—what Lucas hoped was that this spring he would be exactly where he was a year ago—playing against Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference finals of the NBA playoffs. But, by the time Lucas arrived at Madison Square Garden in March, all hopes of even a first-round playoff berth had vanished, a succession of injuries having crippled the Rockets.

While the Houston front office was mailing out "Get Well Rockets" brochures—which included a 1977-78 injury calendar as justification for the team's last-place finish—the hyperactive Lucas wasted no time in finding a profitable way to use his unwanted free time.

WTT is not new to him. In July of 1976 he played as the third man on the Golden Gaters, although then, as now, he spent most of his time on the bench. "The second-best black tennis player in the country"—the description offered by his lawyer, Donald Dell—was finding that the only way to compensate for a lack of playing time was to spend hours in practice. In September the rookie millionaire (he gets about $375,000 a year with Houston compared to $15,000 or so from tennis) was off to his first NBA training camp. His second shot at WTT would have to wait.

Last year Lucas was playing basketball well into May and decided to skip WTT entirely. As long ago as last November, however, he was making plans to resume his tennis career. At that time his contract was with the Phoenix Racquets and contingent on when the Rockets were eliminated from the playoffs. However, when Chris Evert shifted her allegiance from Phoenix to the Los Angeles Strings, the Racquets' needs changed and the deal fell through.

But on April 8, the final day of Houston's dismal season, everything fell into place. Lucas learned from Dell that he would be the third man behind Player-Coach Marty Riessen and Andy Pattison at New Orleans. It was perfect timing.

"Timing has been the most important thing in my life," says Lucas. "When I came out of high school I was contemplating what to do. Then the NCAA changed the freshman eligibility rule."

Lucas, who had broken Pete Maravich's North Carolina high school scoring record and also had been a U.S. Junior Davis Cup team member, had received 401 college scholarship offers, 350 in basketball, the others in tennis. He decided he wanted to star on a major-college basketball team as a freshman. He chose Maryland, and four years later he had become the Terrapins' alltime leading scorer. At Maryland he also played No. 1 singles in tennis in the spring, winning two Atlantic Coast Conference singles titles. Some schools would have allowed Lucas to compete in both sports, but not all. UCLA, for example, wanted him for basketball or tennis, but not for both.

"When I finished college I didn't know if I could make more money playing tennis or basketball," Lucas says, "but when Houston traded for the No. 1 pick and selected me in the draft, I became the first guard since Maravich to be picked first overall." Being the No. 1 pick put an end to Lucas' dilemma. As he says, "I knew I could always come back to tennis."

Lucas is an acceptable third man for WTT. Like the 11th man in pro basketball, he is called on when either the match has already been decided or a teammate is injured. And in a league that has spent five seasons searching for ways to attract fans, Lucas measures up as an attraction—a bona fide tennis player as well as a familiar face at every WTT whistle-stop because all the franchises are in NBA cities.

As convenient as the arrangement is for WTT, it is equally advantageous for Lucas, who considers himself team-oriented whether he is on a basketball or a tennis court. "I like the individualism of tennis combined with the team concept," he says.

In his eyes, basketball is turning into a game of egos, yet his role as a point guard—the player who directs the offense—is not attuned to ego gratification. Lucas, who this season was second in assists in the NBA, says, "My value will never appear on the stat sheets. It will show up in whether we win or lose.

"I'm not going to kill you with my tennis talent, either, but I'm going to try to outsmart you. The confidence I get when I have chosen the right serve at a 3-3 point is similar to the confidence I get when I have made the right call on a crucial play in basketball."

Aside from the mental aspects, tennis sharpens Lucas' eye-hand coordination, helps his quickness and lateral movement, and keeps him in shape. When the Nets are in New Orleans, Lucas works out three hours each day with Tulane basketball players, and during the WTT's Wimbledon break he plans to return to Maryland to work out with Houston teammate Moses Malone.

Malone was one of nine Rockets injured last season, and club President Ray Patterson hopes that by the time Lucas meets up with Malone, the tennis circuit will "have taken his mind off our basketball season." What else can Patterson say? Lucas' contract allows him to play tennis whether Patterson approves or not.

"This past season basketball probably taught me humility more than anything else," says Lucas. "I have never lost so badly. We lost 14 games in a row, and when that happened my life became just jagged edges. Tennis is restoring my aggressiveness. Instead of playing it timidly, like I started to play basketball when we lost all those games, I can go full blast."

His tennis skills have impressed his Net teammates. Renee Richards says, "When I first heard about John I guessed that he couldn't play tennis, but I saw him hit one ball and I knew he could." When paired in doubles, the two lefties are the most extraordinary pairing in tennis history—a black professional basketball player and a 43-year-old transsexual—playing on perhaps the most extraordinary and certainly the oldest (average age 30) team in the league. "We have a Tasmanian [Helen Gurlay Cawley], an Australian [Wendy Turnbull], a Rhodesian [Pattison], another former basketball-tennis player [Riessen], a black and Renee Richards," says Lucas.

Not since Philadelphia Pitcher Ron Reed quit the Detroit Pistons in 1967 has an athlete earned money in two major team sports in the same year. Dave DeBusschere pitched for the White Sox when he completed each of his seasons with the Pistons in 1962 and 1963. Pittsburgh Pirate Dick Groat tried basketball one year for Fort Wayne, which was then in the NBA, but from 1955 to 1967 he was strictly a shortstop. Gene Conley was surely the most durable of all the basketball-baseball players. He was a pitcher and center from 1958 to 1964. But Lucas is the first to play both basketball and tennis.

"It ain't easy," he says, referring not to the duality of his professional life but to the transition from a pivotal basketball player to a part-time tennis pro. But his confidence in his abilities in both sports is so strong that it borders on cockiness.

"Everyone was always urging me to go into tennis," Lucas says, and there is no question he feels he could have succeeded in tennis if he had chosen to.

This time around in WTT, with a full season ahead of him, both Lucas and Riessen expect that before long he will be contributing in matches as well as in practice, in which he is already routinely beating Pattison. But because Lucas played only four tennis matches during the basketball season, he is obviously unprepared for the pressures of actual competition. It will be tough for him to break into the Nets' regular lineup because Riessen and Richards have become the league's winningest mixed-doubles team.

Before Lucas left for the Garden for the tennis matches he checked with a friend as to when his new good-luck charm—he had lost its predecessor—would be ready. He wears the gold and diamond charm, which consists of the words "Cool Hand" (his nickname is Luke), on a chain about his neck. The diamonds sparkle conspicuously when he stands at the foul line.

"I was hoping it would get here by tonight," said Lucas. "I'm nervous and it brings me good luck."

It didn't arrive. But Lucas didn't need it. He didn't play. Cool Hand's biggest problem during the WTT season will be keeping a cool head as he sits and waits.