Gene Shue: Here’s to a Great One, 1963

[We were saddened yesterday to learn of Gene Shue’s passing. He was an amazing person and lived life to the fullest. When I spoke to him maybe five years ago, he was still scouting for an NBA team and loving it! 

Today, I had wanted to run a brief magazine article about Shue from the early 1960s. But I couldn’t find it. Frustrated (“It has to be on this shelf!”), I pulled out some old newspaper clips and stumbled onto the one transcribed below, which is an even-better way to remember this poor kid from Baltimore’s hardscrabble Govans neighborhood made good. 

In the column from Bob Maisel, published in the Baltimore Sun on January 4, 1963, Shue is a member of the lowly New York Knicks. Shue and the Knicks are in Baltimore to face the Syracuse Nationals in one of those nonstop regular-season doubleheaders that NBA teams staged in the 1950s and into the mid-1960s to make the turnstiles click. In hopes of making them click even faster, the host Baltimore Bullets declared the doubleheader would be “Gene Shue Night.”

As part of Shue’s official homecoming, he was the featured speaker at a cold chicken-and-salad luncheon sponsored by Baltimore’s Sports Reporters Association. In addition to receiving the ceremonial key to Charm City (not bad for a humble kid from Govans), Shue mounted the podium and fired away about the rotten state of pro basketball. 

That was Gene Shue. He was a deep thinker, an innovator, and a doer. To pay proper tribute to his NBA genius is to recognize the innovative spirt that guided him, both as an All-Pro player and as forward-thinking NBA coach. Shue told me that, as a coach, he never stopped thinking about basketball. Whether bored at a banquet or out mowing the lawn, his mind wandered to Xs and Os and mixing-and-matching them into novel plays, which he kept scribbled down in a three-ring notebook. Though Shue would depend on the set plays in his three-ring binder more in his later coaching gigs, he started out as the ultimate “player’s coach.” In 1967, he recognized rookie Earl Monroe’s unusual bag of tricks and handed him the ball. Most coaches back then would have been more insecure or resistant to it. When Monroe left Baltimore, Shue handed the ball to my favorite player, Archie Clark, who rose immediately to an NBA All Pro. 

Shue always loved a good fastbreak. In the early 1970s, when two or three players at most filled the lanes, he was trying to bring four. Where others saw obstacles, Shue saw opportunity. That is, if everyone pulled together and committed to the hard work ahead. When Spencer Haywood crashed the four-year rule, Shue was among the first to embrace the change. In fact, he tried unsuccessfully to sign David Thompson early, then drafted Darryl Dawkins, the modern NBA’s first prep-to-pros player. 

Shue could be real picky about which players to draft. But, if you talk to the old timers from Baltimore, they’ll tell you that Shue always looked on the bright side of life, sometimes annoyingly so. Like all NBA coaches, Shue got knocked around plenty over the years. But his innate optimism always came through. In fact, while coaching the Bullets, Shue sold insurance on the side and earned national recognition. Again, where others saw obstacles, Shue saw opportunity.

A while ago, the blog ran a longer post, which included Shue’s most-memorable NBA game. Give it a read to sense what a special life his was. Then, to match wits with his active mind, read this gem from 1963. Here’s you, Mr. Gene Shue!]

Gene Shue had some ideas he thinks will improve pro basketball, and he doesn’t mind expressing his opinion on what he considers to be problems of the present game. In town to play for the New York Knicks last night in the Civic Center, Shue made an appearance at the local Sports Reporters Association luncheon at the Chesapeake Restaurant, and it is doubtful if the group ever had a speaker who hedged less. 

In the question-and-answer session, the former Towson Catholic High School and University of Maryland standout was asked if he liked the idea of the three-point field goal popularized by the late American Basketball League (ABL).

“Yes, I do,” said Shue. “In fact, I favor some rather drastic changes in our game. I’d like to set the court up like a dartboard—have a one-point, two-point, three-point, and maybe even a four-point zone. This is strictly for the pros, you understand. The colleges don’t need anything like it. 

“We, as pros, have to appeal to the spectators, and we have to do everything we can to do it. I think about this a lot, and I think our game needs some drastic changes. Basically, we have the best spectator sport in the business. I know I’ll get some argument on this statement, but I think we even have a better spectator game than football or baseball—that is, until you put the officials in it.”

As the eyebrows raised around the room, Shue laughed and said, “I don’t mean that the way it sounds. You’ve got to have officials, and they do a good job under the rules as they are now, but there is too much fouling. 

“Two things have happened to the pro game that can kill it. It has gone too much the way of the big man, and there is too much fouling. I think we have to do something to reduce the silly fouls and then take the whole thing outside again, so the people can see the plays developing. That’s why I like the idea of different, higher-point zones as you go away from the basket. 

“As for the fouling, we are allowed six personals now. Maybe if they reduce that to four, it might cut out some of the continuous fouling. The coaches would have to instruct their players differently or not play guys who are always fouling. Maybe it would help to make all fouls worth two shots. Then, you couldn’t afford to foul. 

“There is just too much cheap-and-silly fouling,” concluded Gene, and added with a frown, “now watch me go out there and foul-out tonight.”

Gene Shue (left) receives the key to Baltimore from Mayor Goodman.

Somebody asked Shue if he would name the best player in the National Basketball Association. Again, there was not the slightest inclination to hedge. 

“Bill Russell is the most valuable player in the league,” he said. 

“Even more valuable than Wilt Chamberlain?” the man asked.

“Yes, Russell is more valuable than Wilt,” said Shue. “The two most-important phases of our game are rebounding and defense, and Russell is the best in the league at both these things. That’s why he is the most-effective player. 

“It should be rather obvious that scoring isn’t everything. Wilt averaged 50 points a game last year, and you saw what happened to the team. This year, he was averaging 50 points for a while, and the Warriors lost 11 in a row. 

“I like Oscar Robertson as the best player in the league, everything considered. He’s a good shooter, good dribbler, passer, and rebounder. He does more things better than anybody else. Russell can’t dribble or pass well, and he’s not particularly good on offense. But he’s still the most-effective rebounder and defender—that’s why he’s most valuable. 

“There—I guess I confused that well enough,” he laughed. 

“Let me ask a pointed question,” said the voice from the back. “What’s wrong with the Knicks?”

“That’s not so pointed,” grinned Shue. “We’re a weak club. Defense is our best point. Sometimes when we get the ball, often enough we look good. But then, there are those times when we don’t get the ball—then we don’t look so good.”

Bud Millikan, the Maryland coach, was at the luncheon. “I never compare individual players,” he said, “but there is no doubt in my mind that Gene was the best player we had at Maryland in my time. 

“He was a senior in high school when I first came to Maryland. He had completed his season, and I got a letter from a doctor recommending him. I didn’t know the conference rules too well yet, so I asked Jim Tatum, who was athletic director then, if you could invite a boy to the campus to work out. Jim said, ‘You can’t in football, but in basketball, you can get away with it.’

“I asked Al Bartheleme to bring Gene over and thought he looked like a good man. We offered him a tremendous deal,” laughed Millikan. “He lived in old Richie Coliseum, and we let him sweep the gym floor.”

“I graduated to that job,” cut in Shue. “Actually, I started out cleaning dormitories. It was only after I got going pretty good that they let me sweep the gym.”

The story that Shue was turned down at Loyola [College] because he was a 140-pounder when he got out of high school has made the rounds so often in Baltimore that it is usually accepted as the truth. 

“That’s a lot of stuff,” said Lefty Reitz from his table out in the audience. “We didn’t have that much talent at Loyola that we could turn down players like Shue. We offered him a scholarship, but he told me he wanted to go to Maryland because they had ROTC.”

“That’s right,” chimed in Nap Doherty, Loyola’s present coach. “I lived in the same neighborhood with Gene and used to hang around with him. He wanted to go to Georgetown, but they weren’t interested in him. Then, he decided on Maryland because of the ROTC.”

Shue has come a long way since those days. He has done his share to prove that there is still room for the comparatively small man in the game. Now, he’d like to see the rules changed to take the game at least partly away from the big man and move it back outside again. 

New York’s Johnny Green (with ball) goes to the basket on Gene Shue Night in Baltimore.

[As bonus coverage, here’s a nice recap of the Knicks victory over the Syracuse Nats on Gene Shue Night, January 3, 1963. It’s fantastic, old-time sportswriting from the late-great Seymour Smith.]

Not even a Hollywood scriptwriter could have done better for New York on Gene Shue night. After all, you can ho-hum victories, so few and far apart for the Knicks, but the only disappointment in New York’s 123-115 victory over Syracuse last night in the Civic Center was Shue couldn’t earn the MVP role. 

Johnny Green, a jumping jack southpaw sharpshooter, nailed that. He left-handed 31 points and joined sub backcourter Al Butler in sponsoring the blistering third period stretch that provided the last-place New Yorkers with the cushion to survive Syracuse’s last-ditch attempt to salvage a third-straight victory here.  

The 6-foot-2 Butler lumped two one-handers, and the springy Green lumped seven tallies in the burst that lifted New York from 64-65 down to 76-70 within the third round’s first four minutes. And Green’s long jumper ignited an 11-point string that mushroomed the Knicks to 91-74. 

Richie Guerin’s pinpoint free-throw shooting then enabled the Knicks to lead 100-87, going into the final quarter, when Hal Greer, Lee Shaffer, and Johnny Kerr took turns knifing the Nats within 108-104 with 5:39 remaining. However, New York bagged 12 of the last 16 markers to enjoy a 119-109 advantage just 1:53 from the final buzzer. 

Syracuse, now 20-16 in the National Basketball Association’s Eastern half, dashed out as if to make quick order of the Knicks. A series of timely cuts, featuring Kerr’s neat handoffs from the pivot, Greer’s first nine markers, and a personal five-point string by Larry Costello zipped Syracuse in front 36-22 after 11:15.

Shue and Tom Gola cut it to 40-32, and Green’s two follow-up fielders closed the gap to 45-41. Butler now put life into New York’s attack for the first time, bombing three-straight baskets (53-51), and Dave Budd’s one-hander on the run knotted it 56-all. 

Guerin’s feed to Green, resulting in a basket and foul, stuck New York on top, 64-63, only to have Greer put the Nats back in front, 65-64, at intermission.

It was the last time New York (13-36) trailed, for Butler quickly netted the go-ahead goal soon after the third chapter tap, and Gola added another before Shaffer tallied on a three-on-one fastbreak. At this juncture, Butler and Green (the latter cramming seven points in a row) started New York on its decisive 34-9 stretch.

Shue swished 18 counters for the winners, 11 in the first period, including the opening goal. He canned five-for-10 from the floor and all eight of his penalty tries. He also inserted four-successive tallies in the early rush and back-to-back fielders, one a rolling hook for 102-87 and 104-87 at the final session’s start.  

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