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Mike Downey

Filling These Shoes Shouldn't Be Tough, Just Uncomfortable

October 04, 1987|Mike Downey

There is a really big shoe in Gene Shue's living room, a gag gift from his wife. It is a sneaker fit for Bigfoot. It's bigger than Bob Lanier's. It must be about a size 42.

OK, OK, so it's about the same size as Bob Lanier's.

Anyway, there is a trophy case right behind Shue's shoe. On the shelf sits a figurine made to resemble one of the Washington Bullets, the basketball team Shue once coached, and a baseball bat autographed by the Baltimore Orioles. There is also an autographed basketball.

"Here, take a look," Shue said.

The signatures were pretty familiar: Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy . . . "Why not take from the best?" Shue asked.

The new coach of the L.A. Clippers doesn't mind fantasizing that some day a ball autographed by Benoit Benjamin, Michael Cage, Reggie Williams, etc., will be as memorable a memento as one signed by the world champion Lakers.

In the meantime, it is his more reasonable ambition to do something to bring the NBA's worst team and the NBA's best team, clubs that play about 15 miles apart, closer together.

The job starts today, when rookies report to Clipper camp. Rookies are the foundation upon which Shue intends to build. He's got not one, not two, but three first-round draft choices checking in--Williams from Georgetown, Joe Wolf from North Carolina and Ken Norman from Illinois--and two more first-round picks a year from now, their own and Sacramento's, to keep a happy thought for the future.

You can't say that Gene Shue has big shoes to fill, taking over for unlucky Don Chaney, who deserved better than a record of 12-70 and an understandable dismissal. The funny thing is, this isn't even the worst NBA team Shue has ever inherited.

Fifteen seasons ago, the Philadelphia 76ers became the 73ers, losing all but nine of the games they played. Their coach got his walking papers, and in walked Shue.

"By my third year, we were 10 games over .500," Shue recalled. "But by then, there were people who were upset because they thought we should have won the championship."

Sometimes, you can't win for winning. The situation later reversed itself with the Bullets, who went to the 1978 and 1979 finals under Dick Motta, then lost the coach to Dallas a year later. Shue stepped forward, and never won fewer than 39 games with Washington in five seasons. By then, though, that wasn't enough.

"The team had reached its peak. The downward spiral had already set in," he said. "I had to coach my tail off just to get around .500."

What Washington needed at the time was a transfusion, a supply of new blood. Old favorites were permitted to linger when they should have been dealt for up-and-comers, or for draft picks. Shue didn't have enough clout with management to sway them.

"They had made the playoffs so often, it became their highest goal--just to keep on making the playoffs. Over the long run, it's kept them from being a championship club."

Sacrifices sometimes have to be made, even by the impoverished. That is why Shue gives Clipper General Manager Elgin Baylor so much credit for having the foresight to swap Cornbread Maxwell and Kurt Nimphius last season, when it seemed that the team could hardly afford to give up anybody who could dribble and chew gum at the same time.

The first-round picks gave the franchise hope. Instead of spending the off-season arguing whether they should run back to San Diego, where they came from, or try their luck in Orange County, or maybe flee to Mexico and try to avoid extradition on a charge of impersonating a professional basketball team, the Clippers instead were able to run their hands together eagerly, in expectation of what their new coach and new players might accomplish.

A year after Philadelphia went 9-73, it won 25 games. After that, 34. After that, 46. After that, 50. After that, 55. Two years later, 59. Then, 62. Exactly a decade later, the 76ers were the NBA's champions, after laying down a regular-season record of 65-17.

It can happen.

It takes time, but it can happen.

Shue's journey of 1,000 miles begins with the single step of bringing the Clippers back to some sort of respectability. Opponents must not be able to think of them as a notch above winning by forfeit. Opponents must have a regard for the Clippers, a genuine fear that these guys know what they are doing out there.

"We do not want a situation where the possibility of instant success causes us to lose sight of what we are trying to do," Shue said. "We are not going to make moves that will help us for one season and kill us beyond that. I'm much more into the idea of a steady climb. Look at our team three years from now, and let's see if the Clippers are for real. This team has a chance to be successful for a run of 10 years or more, like the Lakers, if it acts wisely and doesn't go for the quick fix."

So, where do the Clippers stand for the immediate future? How do they compete with the likes of Los Angeles' other NBA team, the team that earned the right to autograph basketballs?

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