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."