John Lucas was the first pick taken in the 1976 NBA draft. He went on to enjoy a 14-year pro career. Lucas’ evolution as a coach was natural, leading to stints as head coach for the San Antonio Spurts, Philadelphia ‘76ers and Cleveland Cavaliers. Currently he runs John Lucas Enterprises, a center for basketball training and development.
But as a new Tennis Channel feature shows, Lucas’ basketball journey has always run parallel with a deep engagement in tennis. In 1971, Lucas was ranked #12 in the country in the Boys’ 18-and-under division. “My church would raise money for me to travel,” said Lucas, who prided himself on being such an effective competitor that he would never bring balls to his practice matches, instead saying, “I’m going to take yours when the match is over.” Lucas credits the hand-eye challenges of tennis with giving him the superb peripheral vision skills it takes for success in basketball.
College offered tricky choices: Some schools wanted Lucas only for tennis, others only for basketball. He settled on the University of Maryland, which let him play both. Naturally, Lucas earned All-American honors in both too.
Once college ended, Lucas, who’d also been drafted by the Golden Gaters of World Team Tennis, faced an apparent fork in the road. But as he admits, the choice was easy. “Tennis could never win,” he noted in the Tennis Channel piece. Lucas had grown up in North Carolina, home of the basketball-crazy ACC. As his NBA draft selection demonstrated, it was also clear that Lucas was probably a better basketball than tennis player. And, as Lucas noted, in basketball a salary is guaranteed.
Alas, the temptations of the NBA also got to Lucas. By his tenth season, he’d grown addicted to drugs. Suspended from the NBA, he hoped he could return to tennis, only to realize “I was just another bozo on the bus.”
But tennis played an important role Lucas’ recovery and evolution into a life counselor. While coaching the ‘76ers, he also worked with WTA pro Lori McNeil. The sport’s individual aspects – responsibility, self-reliance, discipline – had always appealed to Lucas. Most of all, Lucas said, tennis “gave me a future, because it was something I could do the rest of my life.”