The man picked up the telephone in his new house in Cherry Hill, N.J. one afternoon last week and heard the caller give his name and immediately ask, "How are you?"
"Terrific. Just terrific," the man answered. "Actually, I'm fabulous, and fabulous is better than terrific."
The man who referred to himself in such glowing terms is the coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, the team that counted its wins on its fingers last year, the club that was destined, it seemed, to be all thumbs again this season, the very same 76ers who went through two coaches and 19 players in 1972-73 on the way to the worst record (9-73) in the history of the NBA—and this October appeared to be ready for worser things. The man is terrifically out of his skull? He is fabulously deranged? No, he is Gene Shue.
Shue would have to be an irrepressible optimist to quit after 6½ successful seasons with the Baltimore Bullets to take over the phlagging Philadelphians—which is just what he did last spring—and that is precisely what he is. If Shue has lobar pneumonia, he will say he is O.K. If he has an impacted wisdom tooth, he will tell everyone he is great. A little athlete's foot and he is terrific. And a 101-96 victory over the big, bad Chicago Bulls, like the one the Sixers scored the night before last week's phone call, will leave him flat out fabulous.
December 10, 1973
Even two evenings later when the 76ers lost 112-110 at Cleveland, Shue began his postmortem with, "It was a terrific game. The teams played just great." The next night, after Philly had beaten the Houston Rockets 108-106 in overtime, he was asked, "Gene, would you say that this game was fabulous?" "You got it," he replied.
All of which is not to say that Shue is merely a cockeyed optimist; he is rather a man who is sure of himself, although not unpleasantly so. And after the things he has wrought in Philadelphia in the past eight weeks, things that everybody in the NBA agrees are nothing short of astonishing, he has good reason to feel pretty good about himself and his team. By defeating the Bulls and Cavs, the 76ers equaled their victory total for all of 1972-73, and they have done it without the dramatic infusion of talent usually needed to turn a wretched club into a respectable one.
Which is not to say there have not been changes. Only five players remain from last season. Gone are such stalwarts as Manny Leaks and John Q. Trapp and Luther Green, but their replacements hardly have reputations likely to impress either opponents or spectators, who are staying away from the Spectrum in record numbers. "I know all our fans on a personal basis," says Shue.
To begin with, the replacements include three rookies, two of whom—Rod Freeman and Allan Bristow—rarely play. Freeman's performances at Vanderbilt so entranced scouts that he was selected in the 11th round by the NBA and in the seventh round by the NFL, even though he had not played a lick of football since high school. The third rookie is Doug Collins, the 6'6" guard of Olympic foul-shooting fame who was the first man picked in the NBA draft last spring. Collins signed the usual zillion-dollar contract and promptly fractured the fifth metatarsal in his left foot, thus missing all preseason training. He is playing now, but will not start until Shue figures some way to cure the jitters that make Collins an inappropriate back-court partner for the Sixers' high-strung high scorer (20.8 points a game), Fred Carter. "Doug is so nervous he makes Freddie look like he's on tranquilizers," says Shue.
Philadelphia's three other newcomers are all men of experience, much of it, alas, unhappy. Substitute Center Toby Kimball had achieved a measure of fame in the NBA as the league's least hirsute player and his fan club in Kansas City last season marched under the banner BALD is BEAUTIFUL. No sooner did hairless rookie Slick Watts make the Seattle SuperSonics and rob Kimball of his sole distinction than Kimball was sent, along with an extensive collection of fur hats to keep his dome defrosted, to the 76ers.
Considering that the three Sixer regulars remaining from the 9-73 team are Carter, Forward Tom Van Arsdale—whose previous coach, Bob Cousy, claimed Van had lost his aggressiveness when he traded him last January—and Center Leroy Ellis, an 11-year pro considered too skinny (6'11", 220 pounds) to play his position, the two new Philly starters fit right in. Guard Larry Jones is fresh from being waived by every team in the ABA, and Forward Steve Mix played last season for the Grand Rapids Tackers of the Continental League when he was not spending his nights working in a plant that assembled doors, bumpers and fenders for GM.
All five have been sparkling in recent weeks. This scintillation is in no small measure due to Shue's upbeat and generally calm manner in the face of adversity, his long defensive drills that have helped hold opponents to 10 fewer points a game than last season and his insistence on the fine execution of the tightly patterned offense he has instilled to prevent his team from getting into running and shooting matches with stronger, faster clubs. And the Sixers have benefited from the fact that other teams have yet to realize that Philadelphia is far better coached and more enthusiastic. The Sixers continue to catch opponents looking ahead to next week's game against the Celtics, and a loss to Philadelphia is still a disheartening blow, as Cousy proved when he resigned after his Kings dropped back-to-back games to the Sixers two weeks ago.
But mainly the 76ers have profited from unusual effort on the part of the players. Most of them have embarrassments they are trying to live down, not the least the fact that they all wear the star-spangled 76er uniforms. Shue heightened their competitiveness by making it clear that on a nine-game winner no player would be guaranteed a job.
"In training camp no one was secure," says Van Arsdale, again a 20-point scorer. "We were all treated like first-year men. It might not have worked if Gene had not been an experienced coach who set up a pattern and told each of us what we were expected to do in it. And he's had the patience to let us prove that we could do what he asked. My goodness, it's worked out great. We're much better than I thought we'd be and it's fun playing again."
Jones and Mix, both University of Toledo alumni, are glad to be playing at all. Going into last season, Jones, a slender, 6'3" outside shooter, was the highest scorer in ABA history, but he was passed from team to team and wound up on the bench of the hapless Chaparrals. Last spring he was waived abruptly from the league. Suspicions linger that his departure was hastened by the fact that he was the founder and president of the ABA Players' Association.
"I was crushed when the ABA waived me," says Jones. " 'You're 30 and you're over the hill,' they told me. I couldn't believe that, but they apparently did because after I cleared waivers not one ABA team gave me a call even to get me to come back for a lower salary. I had to give it another try to see who was right, them or me. I told myself if I didn't make it, I'd forget basketball for good and go back to Ohio State to finish my doctorate in counseling. I'm not crushed anymore; now I see it like they did me a big favor."
While starting eight of the last 10 games, Jones has done the 76ers some very big favors. They have won five times in that span and he has scored in double figures in all but one win. Still, sometime before the end of the season Jones will probably be supplanted by Collins. It may be a long time, however, before anyone moves Mix out of the Sixer lineup. Between 1969 and 1971 he twice won starting jobs with the Pistons but failed to hold them, and early in his third season at Detroit he was cut. He failed in a brief trial with the ABA Rockets and could not survive training camp with the 76ers in 1972. He spent last winter scoring over 30 points per game for Grand Rapids and was invited back to try out with the Philly rookies. He played well enough to be offered a contract, which did not surprise him at all.
"I never gave up the idea of playing in the pros," Mix says. "When you know you can play and have actually been a starter and you're still only 25 years old, you want to get back. The only thing I needed was a decent chance."
Shue gives Mix more than a decent chance of becoming a topflight power forward for seasons to come. He is built along the lines of Dave DeBusschere and has the same liabilities—limited jumping ability and speed. But, also like Debusschere, he is a grabbing, shoving defender away from the ball, a strong, box-out rebounder and a man with a sense of where the ball will be, whether he is under the offensive backboard or cutting passing lanes on defense. Mix leads the NBA's forwards in total steals and in last week's win over Chicago held high-scoring Bob Love to 14 points.
That was not his best performance of the week, however. Saturday night against Houston, Mix limited tough Rudy Tomjanovich to 16 points and nine rebounds, while he scored 24 points and added 14 rebounds and seven steals, more than twice as many as any other player on the floor. Jones had 20 points, but Ellis, who had pulled down 21 rebounds against the Bulls, was the night's outstanding Sixer. He scored 24 points and had 23 rebounds, including nine off the offensive board. The last of those was the best. With five seconds to play in overtime, Van Arsdale, showing his old aggressiveness, drove the baseline and leaned in toward the basket for a layup. The ball rolled along the rim from back to front, fell off and was tapped in by Ellis who had reached daintily over the head of Houston's 6'11" George Johnson. It was the deciding field goal of the 108-106 win.
That play pulled Philly within half a game of third place in the Atlantic Division, with a 9-15 record, and drew it further from the lead in the NBA's other race. That one is called the Bill Walton Bowl and is played by the league's lesser teams to see which of them can be the worst, thereby gaining the draft rights to the UCLA center. The Sixers are currently running a dismal sixth in that race, which only goes to prove that while a few wins are terrific, a few too many will certainly not be fabulous.