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
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.
"Lori's one of the best doubles players in the world, and she
has the opportunity to get back to playing at a very high
level," says Lucas, who plans on returning to an NBA bench. "She
keeps her competitiveness on the inside, but she's one of the
most tenacious athletes I've ever worked with."
Coming from a man who spent a season and a half with the Spurs
coaching Dennis Rodman, that's saying something.