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Call Him Coach
L. Jon Wertheim
June 16, 1997
John Lucas has segued from the NBA to pro tennis to help Lori McNeil rebuild her game
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June 16, 1997

Call Him Coach

John Lucas has segued from the NBA to pro tennis to help Lori McNeil rebuild her game

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Just a few months removed from coaching the entropic collective known as the Philadelphia 76ers, the unsinkable John Lucas resurfaced in August 1996. He was back on the sidelines, barking encouragement and grimacing in genuine agony after every blown shot, every blown call, every blown opportunity. "I don't know if I was born to coach," he says. "But once you've been through a lot in life, there's a force driving you to teach and inspire others."

This time, though, the 43-year-old former coach of the Sixers and the San Antonio Spurs isn't plying his trade before NBA fans, and the object of his fire and brimstone isn't a team of taller-than-average men but rather a 5'7" female tennis player: Lori McNeil, ranked 93rd in the world.

"I tell people that John Lucas is my coach, and they say, 'Huh?' " says McNeil. "It's like we're the odd couple."

In reality, their alliance isn't so odd. Lucas played tennis competitively as a kid in North Carolina and was on a national junior team with Jimmy Connors and the late Vitas Gerulaitis. "I always figured I'd become a pro," he says. "That's how good I was." At Maryland he was one of the top college tennis players in the country, a two-time ACC singles champion and an All-America his junior and senior years.

The only problem was that he achieved comparable honors—including All-America status for two years—as a guard on the Terps' basketball team, and when offered the lucre that went with being the top pick in the 1976 NBA draft, Dual Hand Luke decided to drop the racket. "The decision was easy," he says. "I saw that in basketball your money is guaranteed, and in tennis you've got to go out and earn it."

During a 14-year NBA career that was ultimately unhinged by drug and alcohol abuse, Lucas did his best to keep up his tennis game. He spent several off-seasons competing for the Sun Belt Nets and the Golden Gaters in World TeamTennis. Besides holding his own in singles against full-time pros, Lucas played mixed doubles with the transsexual Renee Richards. "Never mind me and Lori—that was the odd couple," he says with a laugh.

Lucas never traveled the tennis circuit full time because when summer ended, it was time to report to NBA training camp. Still, his involvement in tennis led to friendships with a number of pros, including McNeil. Their paths first crossed during the 1980s in Houston, where McNeil lives and where Lucas spent five seasons playing for the Rockets. Their partnership didn't begin, though, until last year's U.S. Open, when McNeil summoned the master motivator to help extricate her from a slump.

McNeil, a popular, soft-spoken 14-year veteran of the tour who has earned more than $3 million in prize money, is the perfect tonic for a coach exasperated by the selfishness and arrested development of many NBA players. "Lori's given me an outlet for my desire to coach, but unlike last year, I don't have to deal with 12 egos," says Lucas, who lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and three kids.

Similarly, Lucas fills a void for McNeil, whose father, Charlie, a former San Diego Chargers defensive back, committed suicide in 1994. "Luke's like a father to me and pushes me a lot," says McNeil, a graceful serve-and-volleyer whose career has been highlighted by top-20 rankings and some memorable wins, including a first-round upset of Steffi Graf at Wimbledon in 1994, but whose promise has been limited by shaky confidence. "It's great having someone around like Luke, who's been through the highs and lows that all athletes go through. He helps with my overall confidence."

At 33 McNeil holds no delusions of Grand Slam grandeur. It will be a good year, she says, "if I stay healthy and finish in the top 40 or 50 in singles." So far this year her singles record is 1-3. In doubles she has made the quarterfinals twice, at the Pan Pacific in Tokyo in January and at the Family Circle Magazine Cup, at Hilton Head Island, S.C., in March.

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