Lucas returns to his tennis roots Former Sixers coach now guiding McNeil

U.S. Open

September 05, 1996|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- The outside court is deserted when John Lucas and Lori McNeil arrive in the early afternoon. But before long a buzz goes around.

Lucas, the former Philadelphia 76ers coach, is out on Court 6.

"Is that him?" asks one man, pointing to the slim man with the shaved head.

"Yeah," comes the reply.

"I thought so, but I couldn't figure out what he'd be doing out here."

What he is doing is returning to his roots and coaching McNeil for a few weeks.

Tennis was a first love for Lucas, who was an All-America tennis player at the University of Maryland while on a basketball scholarship. Growing up, he played the American Tennis Association (ATA) Circuit of tournaments, showing up at Druid Hill Park in Baltimore for matches.

"He was about 13 or 14," said Sarah Allen, a former doubles partner of Lucas' on those Druid Hill clay courts and the mother of Leslie Allen, a former WTA tour player. "We all thought he was going to play tennis. But he played basketball. Now he's returning to where he started."

Lucas signs a few autographs. Picks up the loose balls and puts McNeil through an hour's worth of conditioning and practice drills.

"When I got out of college, I wanted to play pro tennis," he said yesterday. "But what could I do? I was the top draft choice and there was $3 million guaranteed for basketball. In tennis, you had to go out and earn your money."

For six years after college, he played both pro tennis and pro basketball. He even played here at the U.S. Open in mixed doubles with transsexual Renee Richards.

"We were called the Odd Couple," he remembered with a smile.

But until last winter, when the 76ers fired him from their head coaching job, basketball had been his main job. Yesterday, he said there is nothing to say that he won't be back in basketball. But for now, he is helping McNeil.

"I've known Lori for a long time and she called me [about a month ago] and asked me to help her," he said. "She needed me and I needed her. I needed someone to coach. The techniques I'm helping her with aren't any different from anyone else. I just love her and want to see her do well and to do that, she's got to get in better condition and I can help her do that."

McNeil, 32, wants to play for three more years and be at the top of her game in both singles and doubles.

Today she and Gabriela Sabatini, who are seeded sixth, play No. 2 seed Gigi Fernandez and Natasha Zvereva in the women's doubles semifinal.

"He's a great coach and knows a lot about competing," McNeil said. "It's nice to have someone out here who knows what you're going through. And he's very supportive. He's there for me 100 percent. And it really does make a difference."

Lucas, 42, who was inducted into the M-Club Hall of Fame at Maryland last winter, said he doesn't know where tennis coaching will lead, but said his 13-year-old son John Jr., started playing tennis five months ago and already has won some tournaments.

"I'm very grateful to Carl Easterling, who taught me both basketball and tennis," said Lucas. "Doing that, he gave me a trade for a life time. I'd like to do that for my son, too."

Pub Date: 9/05/96

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