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Rocket with a racket
Melissa Ludtke
May 29, 1978
An All-America in basketball and tennis, John Lucas is now both NBA and WTT
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May 29, 1978

Rocket With A Racket

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

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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.

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