When Bullets Coach Gene Shue stalks the Washington sidelines in a fury imploring, "What's the deal?" the question is rhetorical.
Shue is convinced there's no one better qualified to answer than the man he sees in the mirror.
It's hard to argue with him. Between his playing for four pro teams and coaching four, Shue has participated in more NBA games -- more than 2,000 -- than anyone in the league's history. This is a man who has played against Ernie Vandeweghe and coached against his son Kiki. A man who spent a decade playing for Philadelphia, Detroit, New York and Baltimore; and has spent two more decades coaching in Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Diego and Washington.
This also is a man consumed by competition, "to a fault," he admits. "He's the most competitive person I've ever known in my life," says his wife Sandy. "He hates to lose to me at backgammon. I've seen him at the racquetball club and it's the same thing.
"People think he's got the most violent temper. They say, 'He must be an absolute bear to live with.' When we first began dating I really didn't like it. If he lost a basketball game he wouldn't speak to anyone, even me. Now he pretends like things are okay, but he still stays awake all night."
Shue is forever competing, at games, at life. No matter what the thermometer reads, chances are that when Shue is outside it is sans overcoat, trying to defeat the elements. He is fast approaching his 54th birthday, but he stopped counting years ago, one means of winning out over time.
"I'd much rather control my own destiny, do whatever you have to do one on one," he says. "That way, if you make mistakes, things can't be rationalized. If you get beat you know that the other person was better."
Such finality is, of course, impossible in competitive sports. "So many things have to happen before you can determine who wins and who loses," he says -- and in Shue's case, so many things have. In the 19 seasons Shue has completed as a head coach, only eight times have his teams finished with a .500 or better record. A win by the Bullets tonight against the Detroit Pistons would leave his career mark at 736-742, a victory percentage of .498.
But that, too, is part of the game. And it is in pro basketball that Shue's competitive fires burn the brightest, in his willingness to take on any assemblage and go to work with them, coming up with whatever's necessary to at least compete.
"I would prefer to just throw the balls out and run up and down the floor, all the while playing defense and beating teams with my talent," Shue says. "If the players can do that I'll let them, if not I won't."
Shue doesn't believe the 1985-86 Bullets are capable of it, but then again, very rarely in his career has he found a group of players capable of what he considers the weightiest of responsibilities. So, he tinkers. Double screens, misdirection and isolations all have become standards in his repertoire.
Many of those ideas were considered out of sync at the time of their introduction, when the game was played like the New York Knicks of the early 1970s: pass and cut, pick and roll.
Then, Shue says, he came along. "There was much more of a purist attitude then, everybody passed the ball around. But we had a group of young, immature, one-on-one players," he says of the years that followed his debut as a head coach with Baltimore in 1966-67. "The style of those teams couldn't be anything but to play with isolations. To me, that's the whole idea of coaching: to be able to take any group and show off their strengths."
Shue seems to believe that he should be judged not by the record of his teams, but by what might have been had he not been there to help. This is, after all, the man who transformed the Philadelphia 76ers from a 9-73 team before he took them over in 1973-74 to a 46-36 squad in three years and took them to a berth in the finals a year after that. He got free spirits such as World B. Free, Joe Bryant and Darryl Dawkins to play with some semblance of cohesiveness.
Shue also took the San Diego Clippers to a 43-39 record in their first season of existence, 1978-79. The following year the team signed Bill Walton as a free agent. When the Clippers finally learned which players would be sent to Portland in compensation for the center they already were in training camp and according to the coach, "It looked like half the gym had to leave in order to get packed."
His biggest project, though, has been the Bullets, in part because of the franchise's stability. When Shue came onto the scene in the 1980-81 season, the Bullets were three years removed from the league championship, two from a spot in the finals.
In the previous season, with players such as Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes in the final stages of their careers, the Bullets had faltered to a 39-43 record and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. Their coach, Dick Motta, requested and was granted permission to look for another job.
"We needed an experienced coach and Gene was the best available" said Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry.
Ferry, who had served as Shue's assistant in Baltimore in the early '70s, felt the team "would hit rock bottom or close to it, and I thought that our familiarity with each other and his with some of the players would make it easier to get through what I thought would be some rough days ahead."
But while the team didn't creep downward in the standings, neither did it leap back up among the elite. The Bullets' average record the last five seasons has been 40-42 -- good enough, in Shue's words, to just make or just miss the playoffs, but not good enough for long-term success.
"There are no secrets in this game," he says. "To win you have to have the talent, and to get the talent you have to have the top picks. Once you're in the middle of the pack, as we've been, it's hard to get out. We keep trying to come up with ideas to do that, that's why we've made the trades we've made the last two years, but it's hard."
Of course, the easy way would have been to follow the scenario of hitting rock bottom and then building up through the draft as, say, the Houston Rockets have done. Unable to re-sign Moses Malone, the Rockets traded him to Philadelphia and endured a pair of nightmarish seasons but came away with Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon as draft picks in the process.
But Ferry says the Bullets never considered that. "We might have been subconsciously prepared for it, but our conscious goals are never to be in that situation," he says. "We have an owner (Abe Pollin) who wants to be in the playoffs every year. He's a competitor to the point where he would like to win every game."
Pollin has said he believes this season's team has talent enough to win. But Shue, not as convinced, has tried a number of combinations in an attempt to get the best mix on the floor. Players have moved in and out of the lineup in relative confusion. Darren Daye, a starter earlier in the season, has played just 15 minutes over the last five games.
"The players shouldn't be unsure of their roles because I talk to them all the time," Shue says. "I just had a very frank discussion with Darren about what it takes to be a pro player. Things were right to the point.
"In his case, it's a situation where we're going to try and make a commitment to get Kenny Green some minutes. You can't play everyone, so right now Darren happens to be losing out.
"Believe me, I always have lots of reasons why I do the things I do. Everything is always well thought out. I don't really think that anything could happen in the game that I haven't considered."