Thursday, June 9, 2011

Different Racket


John Lucas’ name still crops up around the NBA, even though he hasn’t had an official affiliation with the league since being an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2009-’10.

Draft hopefuls often flock to Houston to be put through the paces of Lucas’ basketball drills. More famously, whenever a player runs into substance abuse issues, Lucas inevitably steps in as a de facto “life coach.” Lucas has counseled everyone from Richard Dumas to Lloyd Daniels to NFL washout JaMarcus Russell.

That humanitarian work is probably Lucas’ biggest contribution to the game over the last couple decades, considering his 173-258 record in six seasons as the head coach of three NBA teams.

It also eases some disappointment about the playing career of the No. 1 overall pick in the 1976 NBA draft. Lucas spent most of his early career trying to outflank personal demons but eventually got clean and managed to play 14 seasons in which he averaged 10.7 points per game and seven assists per game for six teams.

There are so many narrative threads to Lucas’ story that most people have forgotten the former point guard was also an ace tennis player in his youth.

Lucas learned tennis at the foot of Carl “Bear” Easterling, a legendary figure in Durham, N.C. Easterling is probably best remembered as coach of Durham Hillside High School’s basketball team, which played at a breakneck pace unusual for prep squads in the 1960s. His 1965-’66 “Pony Express” team averaged an absurd 105 points per game.

Easterling was also the fulcrum of a hotbed of African-American tennis players in Durham. Lucas, who was the son of Hillside’s principal, became one of Easterling’s most prized pupils.

Lucas ripped off a 92-match winning streak and captured three straight 4-A NCHSAA singles titles from 1970-’72. He was named to the Junior Davis Cup team in 1971. On the basketball court, Lucas toppled some of Pete Maravich’s state scoring records and was one of the nation’s most sought-after recruits.

Lucas wanted to play basketball at a college where the coach would also let him play tennis. Maryland’s Lefty Driesell was happy to oblige. Lucas’ tenure as a four-year starter for the Terrapins’ basketball team is widely documented, but his tennis career seems to have been largely lost to history.

The left-hander won the No. 1 ACC singles titles as a sophomore in 1974 and again as a senior in 1976. Lucas teamed with Fred Winckelmann to take the conference’s No. 1 doubles crown in 1973.

Lucas debated about which sport to pursue as a professional, but the money offered by the Houston Rockets after the 1976 draft swayed him to stick with hoops. He still dabbled in professional tennis, playing World Team Tennis with the Golden Gaters of San Francisco/Oakland in 1976 and ’77 and the New Orleans Nets in 1978. With the Nets, Lucas played doubles with another left-hander, transgender athletic pioneer Renee Richards, in what has to be the most unusual pairing in that sport’s history.

Tennis also reentered Lucas’ life in the late 1990s, when he coached Lori McNeal on the WTA circuit after getting canned by the Philadelphia 76ers.

Lucas passed on his two-sport prowess. One of his sons, John Lucas III, was also talented at both tennis and basketball. He was a nationally ranked USTA junior player before concentrating on basketball and eventually playing in the NBA, including two games with the Chicago Bulls this season.

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