All His Life, Nothing But Net

The Toy Department Catching Up With ... Gene Shue

December 04, 2009|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman , mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

He grew up in Govans, a poor kid on welfare who never owned a basketball. But that didn't stop Gene Shue from making his name in the game.

He starred at Towson Catholic and then at Maryland, where Shue broke all of the Terps' scoring records and made All-American. A first-round NBA draft pick in 1954, he played a decade in the pros, earning a reputation as a defensive guard and making the All-Star team five times.

Then Shue moved to coaching, where, over 22 years, he developed a knack for turning train-wreck pro teams into winners. Twice, he was named NBA Coach of the Year - in 1969 with the Baltimore Bullets, and in 1982 with the Washington Bullets.

Not bad for the once-skinny tyke from Willow Avenue.

"I've had a charmed life, to be able to pursue the thing I really love," said Shue, who turns 78 this month.

"I've been blessed."

He has gone one-on-one with legendary players such as Bob Cousy and Jerry West. He has coached Hall of Famers such as Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Julius Erving.

Even now, from his home in Marina Del Rey, Calif., Shue works as a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers.

"It's been a hell of a life," he said.

Memories abound.

Shue developed a line-drive set shot, long his trademark, at Blessed Sacrament Grammar School, where "the gym ceiling wasn't much higher than the basket," he said.

"At Towson Catholic, we played our games in the Towson Armory because the school gym had poles in the middle of the court."

At Maryland, Ritchie Coliseum was home to the 6-foot-2 Shue and the Terps. Basketball was an afterthought on the football-crazed campus despite Shue's gaudy 22-point average.

To attract fans, he said, "our games were played right after college boxing matches, which were real big then. And for road games, we traveled in station wagons."

Plucked No. 1 by the Philadelphia Warriors - he was the third pick in the draft - Shue played for several teams but sparkled with Detroit (1957-1962). Twice, he averaged more than 22 points a game.

His proudest moment? Scoring a career-high 45 points against the dynastic Celtics in Boston Garden. It wasn't easy.

"They [the Celtics] had the best defensive team in the league," Shue said. "You could never score a layup against Boston. [Center] Bill Russell was always in the lane, and there was no three-second violation."

Traded to the new Baltimore franchise in 1963, Shue played one year with the Bullets and retired here. Three years later, the club hired him in midseason to coach his lowly hometown team.

In one season, the Bullets leaped from worst to first in their division. Led by Unseld, Earl Monroe and Gus Johnson, they won four East titles in Shue's seven years.

In 1973, he moved to Philadelphia and did much the same. A year earlier, the 76ers had gone 9-73, the worst record in league history. In four years, Shue led them to the NBA Finals.

"It's all about defense," he said. "No matter how good your offense, players will always miss shots. Preach defense and you can be consistent every game."

Last year, Shue ran into former Boston sharpshooter Bill Sharman and exchanged pleasantries with the Hall of Fame guard, whom he had hounded on the court 50 years ago.

"You played me better than anyone," Sharman told him.

Shue beamed.

"To be able to dribble a basketball all my life was an incredible privilege," he said.

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