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 6'3�", 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.