"What I saw (on the Bullets before the season) was not much different from what the fans saw," said Gene Shue, who has seen 'em all the last 25 years in the NBA, and coached most of 'em. "I couldn't look at this group, after losing all those players, and say: 'We're gonna be terrific.'
"I couldn't sit with the owner and say: 'Well, look, Abe. No problems with this team. Ruland is gonna be terr-ific. He has no experience, but I have no doubt he'll be able to step right in. And Mahorn had a great year last season (four-plus points and four-plus rebounds), so he'll be perfect for the (center) job.
" 'Grevey's a great guard; there's no trouble there. Frank Johnson--no rookie problem. He'll be able to move right in. And Lucas is a very stable person--hasn't had any problems around the league. We'll be able to use him.' " Here, Shue started laughing at the absurdity of it all. Spencer Haywood would lend even more stability--and defensive inspiration--to a team without Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, Mitch Kupchak and the injured Kevin Porter.
Shue let the fantasy play on, saying: " 'Abe, now just remember. I can promise you this--there'll be absolutely no problems. You don't have to worry about it. The team will be over .500 at the all-star break.' " Still chuckling, Shue added, just to make sure the record was straight: "No. I didn't say any of those things."
And now, after the all-star break, Shue still is not quite sure what he has. Still no promises, Abe. Having gotten the town's attention, if not its heart and wallet, by being respectable with a collection of kids and culls, the coach will avoid questions about potential and hope.
There are coach-of-the-year whispers, which must amuse him. Privately, Shue still is bitter about not getting credit for rebuilding efforts as massive as the Bullets. He took a 9-73 Philadelphia team to 50 victories and the sixth game of the NBA playoff finals in four years. What did he get?
Fired after six games the next season.
Here is a man who had Sidney Wicks and Nick Weatherspoon with the San Diego Clippers, at the same time, and coached the team to four games over .500. This Shue fits himself to the available talent. He is more optimist than realist, a coach who accepts free spirits and players down to their last NBA shot, a Lucas or a Haywood, and usually has something nice to say about them.
Wicks: "Sidney had excellent knowledge of the game of basketball. He picked up the defense quicker than anyone, really got into it."
World Free: "One of the great offensive players in the game. He has all the talent and worked hard over the years at becoming a team player."
Haywood: "It's taken him some time to regain his offensive form, but he's rebounded well and given us good offense at times. He really worked hard at trying to pick up the defense. Probably, over the years Spence didn't pay much attention to the defensive end."
George McGinnis: "One of the"--Shue paused and cleared his throat--"a very interesting person. Very friendly and warm. Had just an outstanding relationship with maybe the most important people, and that's the press . . . Then (with the Sixers), and I'm not sure he still couldn't be, one of the most talented players in the league. If he only concentrated on rebounding, he could be one of the best in the league."
Elvin Hayes: "A physically gifted player whose style made him one of the very best in the game . . . He was a good defensive player, and also a tremendous rebounder. You realize I haven't said anything about his offense, which means he was one of the great players in the game."
Had he stayed healthy, Bill Walton would have been the greatest, Shue said, and those Clippers surely would have flogged the NBA. Shue would have been a genius moving toward legend, instead of available when the Bullets needed somebody who could tolerate Hayes when Dick Motta left.
"Walton, as far as I'm concerned, was the best," Shue said. "Bill didn't do anything for our team. All he did was come back and, because of his injury and everything, just disrupted the team. But (when healthy) he was a complete player, and all-time winner."
One of the great coaching survivors, four games over .500 in 1,170 decisions before last night, Shue was not sure anyone would let him continue in the NBA after he retired as a player in '64. Bullet archives say he took over a 4-21 team during the '66-'67 season.
"Going about my business, selling everyone in the city of Baltimore insurance," Shue said of the interim. "I thought about coaching a lot . . . And Baltimore had such terrific problems in hiring and firing coaches . . . I could never understand why they were overlooking me. It was kinda like a slap in the face."
At halftime of one of the games, a Bullet official let Shue know there shortly would be yet another coaching switch. They could overlook him no longer.
Twenty-five years later, having gone from coast to coast and back again, Shue was given a Bullet team nearly everyone thought would be as bad as his first. That it hasn't been may be the final surprise of his coaching life. And one of his large satisfactions.
In basketball, especially, coaches often get praised and pilloried for the wrong reasons. Shue has experienced both, in huge doses. The alleged ultimate runner and gunner, whose idea of teamwork was two passes, Shue's ability as a teacher of defense is being properly noticed.
"Apparently, when I think things are incredible nobody else does," he said of his past. We're starting to see them his way.