In the Piedmont region of North Carolina, where John Lucas grew up, there is red clay everywhere but on the tennis courts. In 1951, William Reynolds bequeathed his estate, Tanglewood, to the white people of North Carolina. Later, the county bought the park and opened it to everyone.

Five years ago, the United States Tennis Association began playing one of its summer satelite tournaments here.

Today, John Lucas, a former Bullet, former ACC champion tennis player, took a stand at the baseline.

He lost, 6-3, 6-1, to Bruce Brescia, who is ranked 600th in the world. But the stance was more important than the result. "I need a challenge in my life," he said. "And this is a real one."

It is also a chance to redeem himself. Realistically, Lucas said, "It's probably going to take until the end of the summer to win a match. I can be right there in a match and I'm not in the match. The score says it's 4-4 but I know it's just a matter of time. I'm still a basketball player playing tennis."

You could tell; his socks were too high.

Lucas was a basketball player until the Bullets released him last January, exactly a year to the week after he had publicly admitted having used cocaine. He says the problem is completely behind him. But when he missed a practice on Jan. 25, he had missed one too many.

His wife Debbie gave him the news. "I said, 'okay, fine, let's go out and eat dinner.' "

He went out and bought a Ms. Pac Man, sat at home and played all day.

Then, one day, about a month later, he went out to a local country club and played with the teaching pro. He said, "You can still play."

He has been on the court four hours a day ever since. Last week, he lost in the first round of a satellite tournament in Atlanta, his first tournament in four years. Next week, he goes to Virginia, then on to Texas and Iowa. He has set his sights on qualifying for the D.C. National Bank tournament in July. "I let D.C. down," he said.

"I let all of D.C. down. I'd like them to see some vintage Luke."

When things came apart for Lucas, one of the reasons mentioned was the death of his high school tennis coach, Carl Easterly. "He told me I would play six or seven years and go back into tennis," Lucas said.

"He said you could go back into tennis but not into basketball. You're in your prime for tennis at 30-35. I'm going to try to give myself a year to see how I will do on the circuit."

Though he says several teams were interested in him after he was released by the Bullets, he is not interested in basketball right now. Too burned out. "I'd like to play another year," he said, "but it may be when I'm 33."

Though he lost about $150,000 of a $300,000 yearly salary from the Bullets when he was released, he said he is still receiving deferred income and has about $1 million invested. For the time being, he can afford to be a tennis bum.

Once, Lucas said, he was good enough to be in the top five in the world. Now? "You start with No. 1," he said. "Why shoot for 50 if you want to be No. 1? If you shoot for the moon and you end up among the stars, then what have you lost anyway?"

Today, he was grounded in green clay. He can get still get around a court, though after 1,500 basketball games it takes a little longer than it used to.

The serve is alive and kicking, the forehand sure. "Always had a suspect backhand," he said. "It's still suspect."

It floated; Brescia attacked. Lucas fumbled too many big points; fumed at himself later that he should have won the match. "I don't know why I'm putting pressure on myself," he said. "I need to win a match so I don't get discouraged."

Lucas always put pressure on himself. "That may have been what happened," he said.

He let himself down. "I'm probably mad at myself," he said. "But being mad at myself has given me something I lost, that competitive edge. For a minute there, I got complacent. I was seeing the sights people talk about. It got old because I was seeing them seven years in a row.

"I said I wanted to do everything once in life. I wanted to be president of the U.S, a coach, a teacher, a philosopher.

"One of the things that happened, I may not have wanted to include. It's one of those things you can grow from. I know both sides."

But now, people think about only one side of him. "I've never had to deal with anything like adversity before, bad publicity before," he said.

He doesn't want people telling his children "crazy things, other than that their daddy was one hell of an athlete."

It is important to him how he is remembered, and right now, he said, "Ronald Reagan is safe.

"I can't leave like that," he said. "If it takes going back and making the All-Star team, I can do it," if only to satisfy himself.

The odds on his return? "If I was a betting man, I'd bet on it," he said. "I'd bet you'd see me again."

You ask what he has learned. He fiddles with a quarter. "I would say it has brought me very much closer to my family, my wife and kids. It's also life after the fast lane.

"You don't have to be a star to be liked. You can be yourself. I trust very few people now. My daddy always told me, 'You trust too many people.' I used to worry about everybody else.

"I know what I think of myself. I'm the same person I was seven years ago. I'll be no different tomorrow or seven years from now. I'll always be the same guy, which I think is a hell of a guy. You may not like me, but I like me."

The match had ended. "Pick up my $70 and keep going," he said.

He walked from the court, sipping water out of a tennis ball can. Nearby, a group of shirtless boys played a pickup game of basketball.

"C'mon, Luke," they said. Lucas waved and kept walking. "No thanks," he said, "no way."