The reputation that preceded Gene Shue's return to the Bullets was less than flattering: the style of play he encouraged helped make much of the NBA terminally boring; his players might as well be called Remington and Winchester for all the gunning they do; he learned only 24 letters of the alphabet, everything except X and O.
Some of the NBA's best minds assumed Shue had none. Shortly before he was hired here, I wrote that what the Bullets needed were new players rather than an old Shue. Day by day, though, this Shue is fitting more comfortably. What he is doing, in truth, looks suspiciously like coaching.
Shue laughed at the suggestion.
"Bernie Bickerstaff (aid to the last three Bullet coaches) came to me a while ago, and told me: Gene, I had no idea that you really coached.' He was like everybody else. He believed all those stories. You know -- bunch of renegades. The stuff during and after the Portland-Philadelphia (Nba championship) series in '77.
"You remember it. Portland was the disciplined team. The Sixers (coached by Shue) had no coaching. No system. Throw out the ball. Most of the people in the country, I suppose, believed that. Bernie was one of those people who was very much surprised that I really work at my job.
"It's kinda comical."
It's dinda special what the Bullets have done the last month or so. Ten games under .500 and hurting, with Bobby Dandridge absent so long as to be nearly forgotten, with new players walking in off the street, with their only realistic hope the last spot in the playofs, the Bullets have played well.
Shue is as good a reason as any, in part for resurrecting Devin Porter from the basketball dead. Under Dick Motta last year, Porter was a nonfactor nearly the entire season. Sullen almost always, timid on the court, Porter might have been one of the most out-of-favor athletes ever, sad enough to be banished even from the coach's doghouse.
Lately, Porter has been spectacular. Strutting as smartly as any time in his rich career, he has dominated games the only gifted lead guards can. With assists and points, Porter has had a direct hand in nearly half the Bullets' points in some games. Yet Shue maintains some control, calling more plays from the bench than Porter sometimes wants. He gives his players freedom on th court, but not a totally free rein.
It is much too early for cosmic judgments about Shue's Bullets, for they hardly are assured a position in the playoffs, the NBA's minimum standard of competence. In two days last week, they beat one of the league's very best teams (Philadelphia) and lost to one of the very worst (Detroit).
They lost last night, by 20 points, to a .500 team (Portland) in Capital Centre, when most of Shue's sermons about defense fell on deaf ears and the offense lost its continuity when Porter got in foul trouble early in the third quarter.
Still, it can be said that every Bullet is getting a chance to do what he does best. And that is much more difficult to execute than it seems, especially in the midseason months of the NBA. It shows that most players and the coaches are working very hard, and that Shue is able to creat a system to fit the available talent.
Isn't that the essence of coaching? Shue asks.
"I can coach any group of players," he said, "because I'm going to fit my style to the group. You have to if you want to win right away. I think the idea of coaching is to take any group of players and be able to coach them, to be able to work out a style for the group.
"The idea that you take players and say: 'Now this is the way we do it.' And not vary. I mean, if you call that coaching . . ."
His voice trailed off, for this seemed the beginning of more than a gentle slap at his predecessor, Motta. He continued: "What you're saying is: 'This is the only way I can coach. I'm very limited in what I do, because I don't know how to coach all these other players out here who have talents. I can only take on players that fit.'
"I know that wherever I've gone (the Bullets in Baltimore, the Sixers in Philadelphia and the Clippers in San Diego) I've ended up coaching the players. And I've had some of the worst combinations of players -- and yet the team wins."
A Sixer team that was 9-73 the year before Shue arrived was 25-57 the year after. And 34-48 the next year. And 46-36 the next. And 50-32 and in the championship finals the next. The next year Shue was kiched all the way to San Diego. And Dick Vermeil, who did a Shue-like job of rebuilding the Eagles, is given God-like stature in Philadelphia.
Today, Shue gets a chance to crow at his critics:
"When youj've had an occupation for (more than) 14 years, you have to be doing something right. Because there are a whole lot of guys (coaches) who are in and out of the league. I've always been a working coach. There are a lot of things I do differently than anyone in basketball."
"Certain things that we do with fundementals defensively. Certain switches that we make that allow us to play good defense. The way we defense certain plays, without being specific. There's a lotta thought. That's why we're good defensively, not because we have good individual talent but because our players, when they come to the game, know what they're supposed to do on certain plays.
"I've always emphasized defense."
Here Shue began laughing again, for one of the dummies who assumed he did not raised an eyebrow. "But most of the people say: 'Oh, my God. They're playing defense?' But, see, you can't always make defense appealing. It's hard. Some players you can coach and coach and coach and they listen half the time."
And to some fans, even hoop degenerates, Shue can scream: "I can coach, I can coach, I can coach." And they don't listen at all.