The Houston Rockets had just defeated Buffalo to improve their record to 7-5 when a local television sports caster asked John Lucas his impressions of his first month in professional basketball.
"You know a lot of people expect us to play 500 ball." Lucas, the former Maryland All-America, told his interviewer." But I don't see any reason at all we can't go 77 and 5." The Rockets then win their next eight games, and have since gone to post the second best record in the NBA.
And brash John Lucas even if he insists "I don't consider myself a rookie" is major reason the Rockets are scoring and is a leading candidate for the league's rookie of the year award.
"I would say he's got to be the oddson-favorite," his coach, Tom Nissalke, said. "I know about (Adrian) Dantley and (Scott) May, but when you think about it, of all the players to come into the league this year, you'd have to say John has had the biggest influence on his team's position in the standings.
He's done all the things we've asked him to. He's given us the good ball-handling guard this team never had. He penetrates. He's been a much better shooter than we first thought. He gets the ball to our big men.
"But more than anything esle, he's added an awful lot of enthusiasm to this team, a "we can do it" kind of thing. In the past, at this point in the year, this usually was thinking about how they were going to ship their furniture back home, counting the days to the end. Lucas has helped change all that.
And Lucas is loving every frantic, frenetic, frenzied moment of his first season in the pros. "I love the life-style," he said often over the course of a two-hour interview conducted in the dining room, the lobby, the elevator and his double room in a Philadelphia hotel last week.
The Rockets came into town two hours late last Friday, "but we're all on kind of a natural high right now," Lucas said. Indeed, his team had defeated the Cavaliers in Cleveland the previous night for its ninth straight victory, the longest streak in the RBA this year.
"That's what I love about it," Lucas said."You play a game one night and you don't have to wait three or four days. Sure it gets tiring but if you love to play basketball, and this is what I love doing, nothing bothers you."
Well almost nothing. Lucas says he is getting slightly concerned about his weight. "I get on the scale and it says I weigh about the same," he said, "but I feel like I'm really getting too skinny. And I'm eating like a horse."
Indeed, in the dining room phase of the interview, Lucas attacked the buffet line as if it was his last meal. In 25 minustes, he consumed three huge slabs of roast beef, a mountain of potato salad and cole slaw, two chicken breasts, rice, salad and two large Cokes.
Later, up in the room, Lucas could not sit still. He switched on the television set, got up for a glass of water, and changed clothes before finally stretching out on the king-sized bed, wearing a pair of old Maryland gymshorts and a T-shirt that read "The Love Machine."
"Actually, it really wouldn't be fair to marry a girl now," he said. "I'm always on the move, and when basketball is over, I start right in with tennis. (He will play for the Golden Gators in World Team Tennis). I'd never see her. So it's better to stay single for a while. Oh yeah, I've got lady friends. No question about that."
He also has a little con in him. He insisted, for example, that his friend, Moses Malone, has helped make the transition into the pros that much easier for him. "I was very naive about a lot of things," he said. "I'd never had any money, never had to pay bills, never had any real responsibilities. Moses helps me out quite a lot, he really does."
But his teammates and his coach say it is just the opposite, that Lucas has helped Malone finally find happiness in pro basketball, that Lucas has helped Malone adjust to life in the NBA, that Lucas has helped Malone find his game.
They became friends when Maryland was recruiting Malone three years ago. "If he'd come, I'd have some championship rings on my fingers." Lucas said. "Back then, you never knew about Mo, he never let anyone get close to him.
"I remember I'd call him up and tell him, "I'm coming down (to Petersburg, Va.), will you be there?" He'd say, 'Yeah.' So I'd drive three hours, show up, and there'd be no Moses. He just went off and hid somewhat. He used to make me mad. He still does sometimes. But he's a good guy, not shy at all like a lot of peole think.
"You know something else. He tells everybody he would have gone to Maryland. And he would have. Can you imagine all of us together? That would have been some basketball team."
Still, Lucas said, his four years at Maryland "were the best years of my life," despite all the frustrations. I was never happier. And coach (Lefty) Driesell really did help me prepare for the pro game. I know what everybody says about him, but it's not true. He's great coach. I owe him a lot.
"He and Nissalke are a lot alike. They're always in my ear. Sometimes they yell. But they're fine coaches, and they want to win. That's all I want. I want a championship, that's what will make me happy."
Certainly the Rockets have a legitimate chance and, before Lucas arrived, "We couldn't say that," according to general manager Ray Patterson. It was Paterson who took the gamble to trade the Rockets' first choice and center Dwight Jones and the Hawks No. 1 pick in the draft.
"I didn't view it as a gamble," Paterson said. "We knew all about John, and we felt he was exactly what we needed. I hate to use the cliche, but he's a coach on the floor for us. He's brought out the best in all our players. I've never thought of him as a rookie."
Added Nissalke, "We never would have taken a nitwit. I was impressed with John's background - his college program, his parents, even the people representing him (Donald Dell and Lee Fentress of Washington). It was all first class. If that hadn't all fit together, we wouldn't have drafted John. We had to be sure he'd be in our top three guards.
"He still has some problems. I call most of the plays but only because he's not ready yet to sense the tempo of a game. But it won't make him long to learn that. He's got to work on his defense, which is good right now but he can get better. And sometimes he looks to pass before he looks to shoot. I've told him, 'If you've got the shot, take it.'"
But Lucas seems more than content in his role as a player. "I've been a scorer in college. I feel I can score more in the pros. But if I scored a lot on this team, I think it would hurt us. We've got better shooters. I know my job is to get them the ball," Lucas said.
So Lucas keeps passing, and the Rockets keeps winning. "I'm the same John Lucas. The money hasn't changed me much. I'm still driving the same car I drove in college. The only thing I really spend it on is clothes."
He has also established a yearly $2,500 scholarship at the Greensboro, N. C. high school where his father is a principal. He has helped his parents with "stuff for the house" and bought his sister a new car.
And he will make a contribution to the Maryland Foundation in the names of his late teammates, Chris Patton and Owen Brown, whose sudden deaths from heart problems have profoundly influenced Lucas' life.
"I grew up a lot when that happened," Lucas said "I hope younger kids will appreciate that you should learn through life and you should cherish life while you have it.
"I'm not afraid of death. I feel as though I've had a good productive life. Losing Owen and Chris really shook me up. It made me appreaciate all the things I have, but it also made me realize how precious life really is."