Gene Shue, who became the coach of the Washington Bullets in 1980 and struggled unsuccessfully throughout his tenure to rise above .500, was fired yesterday and replaced by Kevin Loughery.
Loughery, who has had head-coaching experience with the New York Nets of the ABA and with the NBA's Philadelphia, New Jersey, Atlanta and Chicago franchises, will take over immediately. His lifetime NBA coaching record is 284-438.
Assistant coach Fred Carter, who along with Loughery was fired by Chicago at the conclusion of the 1984-85 season, will remain with the Bullets.
"I'm both surprised and disappointed by the decision of the Washington Bullets," Shue said in a statement read over the phone from his home.
"I think everyone in the league understands the problems the Bullets have had this season. The job of a coach is to get the most out of his team's talent. I think I accomplished this." He declined further comment.
Shue has won 757 NBA games and lost 768 in 20 seasons as a head coach. In nearly six seasons with Washington, his mark was 231-248. He coached the old Baltimore Bullets from 1966 to 1973, compiling a 291-257 record. He also coached the Philadelphia 76ers and the San Diego Clippers.
A University of Maryland product, he played in 699 games during a 10-year career in the NBA and has participated in more NBA games as a player and coach than anyone else in league history.
This season's Bullets team is 32-37, with losses in its last four games. For the second consecutive season, the squad has been decimated by injuries, most notably to center-forward Jeff Ruland and to guard Frank Johnson.
But those considerations weren't enough to save Shue's job.
"After a great deal of consideration and a lot of agonizing over the situation, I feel it is in the best interest of the team to make a coaching change at this time," said a statement released by Bullets owner Abe Pollin.
"I feel fortunate that a coach of Kevin's stature and experience is available to take over immediately."
Pollin refused to comment beyond his statement, but General Manager Bob Ferry said the owner made his mind up late in the afternoon.
"No one here is happy with the team's performance in spite of the injuries," Ferry said. "Abe's concern over the team has been and always will be continuous. He's constantly evaluating what he sees, and it sort of came to a head yesterday ."
Ferry, who met Loughery at the airport, would not specify terms of his contract but said it was for more than one year.
Loughery said he was notified by the Bullets late Tuesday afternoon.
"I'm very surprised and very happy," Loughery said upon his arrival at Baltimore-Washington International Airport from Atlanta.
"This is a very tough business. I played with Gene, I was coached by Gene and I think he's a very excellent coach.
"I've been involved with professional basketball since 1963. This is the first time I was out of professional basketball, and I missed it. I love the game, and the money's not bad, either.
"I've seen the team play many times this year, but you need to be there on a daily basis to really assess their needs. I'm not saying we need to make drastic changes in style. You have to work with the material you have. I'll talk to Fred Carter, and he will have some input into what we're going to do right now. There will be some adjustments made. We'd like to upbeat the tempo a little bit.
"We're going to try to go into the playoffs as high as we can and as healthy as we can."
"You need to be with the ball club for a couple of days or longer to adjust to them," he continued. "I know the systems of all the clubs in the leagues."
Loughery said he had not talked to Shue.
In the last three games, the Bullets have trailed by at least 20 points at various times. The team faced the New Jersey Nets Monday night at Capital Centre with third place in the NBA's Atlantic Division at stake and lost, 130-102. The next night, the team lost by 29 points, 116-87, to the Milwaukee Bucks.
"The only problem I saw recently was that we were . . . it didn't appear that we've been in the games at all lately," said Ferry. "I'm in a situation where I could rationalize or reason why everything was happening, but the results just weren't good enough. It came down to how the team was performing."
According to all-star guard Jeff Malone, the players were aware of their shortcomings, but couldn't grasp what was wrong.
"No one has any answers," he said. "We were winning, then beginning with Denver (Friday, the first loss of the streak), we haven't been aggressive. There's been no intensity. We've sort of been going with the flow."
Ferry said Pollin's decision wasn't made as a result of the last two performances.
"It wasn't just yesterday's game or the one before that, but a series of things he felt about the team," Ferry said. "It was a combination of a lot of things. He just felt that a change was in order."
Starting the season, Pollin was more than a little optimistic over his team's prospects for the 1985-86 season. In an interview last summer, he said he expected the Bullets to be able to compete with the Los Angeles Lakers by midseason.
Those expectations were heightened by the emergence of 7-foot-7 rookie center Manute Bol, the second-round draft choice who is currently the NBA's best shot-blocker as well as one of its top drawing cards.
With the exception of contests against the Lakers or the Boston Celtics, however, the crowds at Capital Centre have been small. The team is averaging 9,043.
With the injuries to Ruland and Johnson, the Bullets have been engaged in a roller-coaster season. It began with a pair of wins, but then the team lost seven straight. Since then there have been four streaks of at least three victories and three of at least four losses.
Throughout the year, Shue has never been hesitant to say he felt the talent on his team wasn't as good as it was believed to be. Critics have said Shue didn't use the personnel to its fullest.
One of the biggest complaints was that the Bullets didn't run enough; Shue argued that the team wasn't capable of doing it successfully because of a lack of great quickness at the small-forward and big-guard positions. In addition, he argued that the players he was playing frequently would be at the end of the roster on other NBA teams.
Ironically, after the loss to the Bucks Tuesday, Shue commented that he felt the Bullets needed "a lift, something to get us going." At the time, he thought that would be provided by Ruland, who has missed the last 12 games with a strained left knee. Ruland said yesterday that he expects to practice with the team today and then decide about returning to the lineup for Friday night's game in Philadelphia against the 76ers.
Like all of the players, Ruland was stunned by the news of Shue's firing.
"You could definitely say that I was surprised, although I'm beginning to learn not to be surprised by anything that happens in this business," said Ruland. "It's not my job to make comments on what management does; Gene helped me a tremendous amount in my five years with the team and I owe him a lot."
Ruland said he sensed that had he remained healthy this season (he has also suffered a fractured ankle), "things definitely would have been different.
"I'm sorry that they let Gene go," he continued. "But my job is to now get ready. I'm healthy again and I'm looking forward to finally playing and help the team get ready for the playoffs."
The question now is what effect bringing in a new coach with just 13 games remaining until the playoffs will have on the Bullets.
Malone said, "You're talking about a new philosophy, a new style with just 13 games to get used to it. But we've got a lot of talent, a lot of experienced ballplayers. It probably won't be too bad."