Gene Shue, who was an all-star guard back in the 1950s and '60s, has what some people call the worst job in the National Basketball Association - head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers. Last year the Clippers won only 12 of 82 games, ending their season with a 14-game losing streak. While it might appear that Shue, in accepting the Clippers challenge, just fell off the turnip truck, Gene has been in this position before. This is the same man who took over the Philadelphia 76ers during the 1973-74 season, a year after they had won only nine games. Three years later Gene had them in the NBA playoffs.
Shue is easily one of the most experienced and well-traveled coaches in the NBA. Beginning in 1966 he has guided the Baltimore Bullets for seven seasons; the 76ers for five; the San Diego Clippers for two; the Bullets again for six years after they moved to Washington; and now, after sitting out last season, the Clippers' in their new location.
What is the special touch that Shue has with distressed merchandise?
``I think when you come into any losing situation, the first thing you have to bring with you is a positive attitude, one that your players can begin to believe in,'' Gene told me. ``Not that I ignore problems. I'm both optimistic and realistic. I have always been honest. I don't try to kid people. What we have here with the Clippers isn't a situation that can be turned around overnight, but it can be solved.
``Right now we've had to deal with so many player changes and injuries, plus we were slow bringing our top draft picks to camp, that we don't even know each other yet. I can't begin to catalog the potential of this team for another six weeks at least. But by the second half of this season we will have become a basketball team, not necessarily a winner, but moving in the right direction.''
Already there are positive signs. After only 15 games, the Clippers have six wins - half as many wins as they had all of last season.
Among the young players Shue hopes can reach their potential is 7-foot, 245-pound center Benoit Benjamin, a two-year veteran who has picked up a reputation of not always playing with full intensity.
With a four-year contract at $800,000 per season, plus a Rolls-Royce, things like missed planes, missed practices, and missed opportunities have sometimes seemed not to bother Gentle Ben.
Shue is smart when discussing Benjamin. He calls him a project, and lets it go at that. But if Gene can get this kid's motor running, he has the potential to carry the club for years. Defensively, he's already making his presence felt more strongly this season, with about 3 blocked shots a game so far.
The Clippers also had a better-than-average college draft at the end of last season that netted 6-7 guard-forward Reggie Williams of Georgetown; 6-11 center-forward Joe Wolf of North Carolina; and 6-8 forward Ken Norman of Illinois. All three of these rookies have given indications that they can play in this league.
Shue believes that most NBA games are decided on defense, and that this is where his team's emphasis should be.
``Of course points win games,'' Gene said. ``You've got to have an offense that can move the ball, score consistently well inside, and hit from outside when that is your only option. But by themselves, points do not create a winning season. For that you've got to have a defense that's effective.
``Since there are never enough players who can do this as individuals, you have to create a team defense where everybody helps everybody else, and where pride is a major factor. You also need the kind of players who can rebound in traffic and aren't afraid to engage in those hip-cracking duels under the basket. Then on a night when your offense isn't working, you can still win with your defense.''
Shue, whose 20-year NBA coaching career includes 757 victories going into this season (fourth best in the league), has always been willing to take chances, always ready to sail against the tide that says: ``No, you can't do that and win.''
For example, when Gene was coaching Baltimore he ignored a lot of well-intentioned advice and traded for frequently criticized forward Elvin Hayes. The Big E, who had a reputation for always spelling team with a capital ``I,'' became the Bullets' second-leading rebounder during the 1972-73 season (behind center Wes Unseld), as well as their top scorer.
Later, Shue would get tremendous mileage from another widely second-guessed deal, this time for World B. Free, a high-scoring Philadelphia guard who people said wouldn't pass the ball to his mother. Free wound up second in assists on one of Gene's San Diego teams.
Asked if he would ever take that route again, Shue replied: ``I'm always on the lookout for good players who are having problems with their present teams. ... I'm willing to take a chance because I've always felt that something can be worked out that will benefit us both.
``To me, the making of a playoff team has always been the result of high draft picks, the proper molding of young players, a team appreciation for defense, and one or two key trades at the right time. The same moves I made that turned Baltimore around also worked later on in Philadelphia and San Diego. I don't see the Clippers situation as any different.''