Shortly after the Baltimore Bullets used the second overall pick in the 1967 NBA draft on him, Earl Monroe joined the team for a series of preseason practices. During those sessions, he showed off the no-look and behind-the-back passes that earned him nicknames such as “Earl the Pearl” and “Black Jesus,” but his teammates were unprepared and often dropped the ball.
At some point, Monroe was pulled to the side by Bullets coach Gene Shue.
“He said, ‘Look, Earl, your passes are really good, but they’re not ready for them. So maybe you shouldn’t pass it to them,’” Monroe recalled Tuesday afternoon. “So I said, ‘Oh, you want me to shoot it?’ And he said, ‘I’d rather see you shoot it than throw the ball away.’ So that was the best piece of advice that he gave me.”
Monroe credited that counsel with helping him develop into a flashy showman who became a four-time All-Star, an NBA champion in 1973, and a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer.
“Gene Shue for me was so very important in my career because at a time when an African American wasn’t allowed to play that kind of basketball in the NBA, Gene Shue allowed me to play my game,” Monroe said. “He really made it possible for me to become who I eventually became to be.”
Mr. Shue, a Baltimore native who graduated from Towson Catholic High School and the University of Maryland before playing and coaching in the NBA for a combined 33 years, died Sunday at his home in Marina Del Ray, California. Mr. Shue, who was 90, had previously suffered from melanoma.
Born seven days before Christmas in 1931, Mr. Shue grew up in the Govans neighborhood as the third of four children. He told The Sun that his family lived on welfare and that he did not own a basketball as a child. He also said he grew up rooting for the Baltimore Bullets and Buddy Jeannette.
Former Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. grew up with Mr. Shue in Govans and said Mr. Shue became a prolific basketball player in a neighborhood that had already sent George “Bucky” Kimmett to Towson State Teachers College and John St. Leger to the University of Richmond.
“We had some very good players, but Gene was one of the best,” said Mr. Curran, who is one year older than Mr. Shue was.
Mr. Curran, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland, said his friend’s passion for basketball refused to be discouraged.
“On winter nights, Gene would get up with a shovel and shovel off a half court, and then we’d all go up and play half-court games even in the wintertime,” Mr. Curran said. “That’s all we had.”
Mr. Curran said Mr. Shue never had to search far for playing partners.
“When you played half-court games, you wanted to be on his side because they used to win a lot,” he said with a laugh.
Towson Catholic’s decision to shut down in 2009 stunned and disappointed Mr. Shue, a 1950 graduate. He told The Sun that attending the school helped prepare him for college.
“I have great memories of that place,” he said. “The nuns were fantastic. It was a small community and you wanted to be there. Sometimes I had to hitchhike from my home in Govans, but it was worth it.”
Mr. Shue’s path to Maryland was not smooth. He initially wished to play for well-established programs such as Loyola College and Georgetown, but he was turned away by the Greyhounds and placed on the waitlist by the Hoyas.
Mr. Shue then opted to play for the Terps, but did not receive a scholarship until his senior year in 1953-54. He worked odd jobs such as cleaning the basketball court to help alleviate costs.
Despite that rocky start, Shue and coach Bud Millikan lifted Maryland to its first 20-win campaign with 23 in 1953-54, its first national ranking, which peaked at No. 13 in 1953-54, and membership to the Atlantic Coast Conference. When Shue graduated in 1954, he had rewritten every scoring record and developed into the school’s first high-profile NBA prospect.
Mr. Shue, a 6-foot-2 shooting guard, was selected by the Philadelphia Warriors as the third overall pick of the 1954 NBA draft. But after just six games, he was shipped to the New York Knicks.
After the 1955-56 season, Mr. Shue was traded to the Fort Wayne Pistons, who moved to Detroit for the 1957-58 season. With the Pistons, he earned appearances in five consecutive All-Star Games and helped the franchise reach the playoffs five times.
In 1959-60, Mr. Shue averaged 22.8 points and 5.5 rebounds, led the league in total minutes with 3,338, and ranked second in free-throw percentage at .872 en route to being named to the All-NBA first team. The following season, he averaged 22.6 points, 6.8 assists and 4.3 rebounds and shot a career-high 42.1% from the field for a spot on the All-NBA second team. And in 1960-61, he averaged 19.0 points and 5.8 assists.
Ray Scott, who spent his rookie season in 1961-62 with Mr. Shue after the Pistons selected the 6-9 power forward-center with the fourth overall pick, said his former teammate “wasn’t fast, but quick.”
“As a player, he was a very well-schooled player with all of the shots,” Mr. Scott said. “I remember how hard he worked after practice just on his own individual game, and that was not so much the case in those days. They shut arenas and auditoriums down as soon as practice was over to save on electricity and stuff, but Gene was a professional. He was that guy in the locker room who set the example as a professional, as an All-Star, and as a leader.”
But after the 1961-62 season, Mr. Shue was sent back to the Knicks. And in 1963, he was traded to the Baltimore Bullets, for whom he played one year before retiring.
Mr. Shue then shifted to coaching where as a 35-year-old newcomer, he took over a Bullets team with a 4-21 midseason record en route to a 16-40 mark. Two years later, he guided the organization to the NBA’s best record (57-25), which was also the Bullets’ first winning season. He led the franchise to two more 50-win campaigns (50-32 in 1969-70 and 52-30 in 1972-73) and a 1970-71 appearance in the NBA Finals, where Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Milwaukee Bucks cruised to a four-game sweep for the championship.
Mr. Monroe said a running joke among the team’s guards to rookies was that they had to play against Mr. Shue to make the regular-season roster.
“Gene was still in good shape,” Mr. Monroe said. “So you had to get out and play with him. I remember a guy named Barry Orms who played with us. He said, ‘Gene is wearing me out!’ I said, ‘Well, you’re going to have to go out and foul him. Just keep fouling him.’ Barry must’ve fouled him enough because he made the team.”
But Mr. Shue resigned June 8, 1973, citing a discomfort with the organization’s move from Baltimore to Landover. Seven days later, he signed a two-year contract to succeed Kevin Loughery and coach the Philadelphia 76ers.
Four years after the franchise had lost an NBA-record 73 games, Mr. Shue guided the 76ers to a 50-32 record in 1976-77 that ended with a series loss to Bill Walton and the Portland Trail Blazers in the NBA Finals. He was fired by new team owner Fitz Dixon six games into the 1977-78 season.
After less than two seasons with the San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers, Mr. Shue returned to the Bullets — who dropped the Baltimore designation for Washington — after signing a three-year contract on May 27, 1980, to replace Dick Motta. In six seasons, he led the franchise to three playoff appearances (1981-82, 1983-84 and 1984-85).
Former Washington Bullets shooting guard Kevin Grevey, who spent three seasons with Mr. Shue, said his former coach thrived when drawing up plays during timeouts.
“I think that’s when he had the most fun,” Mr. Grevey said. “It was kind of like sandlot football. He would draw a play on the floor and say, ‘How do you guys feel about this one? I think so-and-so has an advantage, so let’s trick them.’ And he loved doing that. And when it worked, it gave us a lot of confidence in our coach and his play calling.”
Mr. Shue’s final coaching foray, which began on May 21, 1987, took him back to the Clippers, whom he helmed for less than two seasons. His coaching career included a regular-season record of 784-861, a playoff mark of 30-47, and NBA Coach of the Year honors in 1968 and 1981.
Mr. Scott credited Mr. Shue’s coaching prowess with helping him capture the NBA Coach of the Year in 1975 when he led the Detroit Pistons.
“I was complimented by God to put me in Gene’s presence,” Mr. Scott said. “He was a terrific man, a terrific ballplayer. He taught me how to think about basketball, how to think about the game. He was in my opinion an extraordinary man, and we’re going to miss him.”
Mr. Shue also served as general manager of the 76ers for less than two years. He was inducted into Maryland’s Hall of Fame in 1991 and was unsuccessfully nominated five times for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Mr. Shue also developed into a credible golfer and tennis player. Mr. Grevey said Mr. Shue often used athletic pursuits outside basketball to create bonds with his players.
“I always felt like the third wheel a lot of times because he would be with his girlfriend, and he would say, ‘Come on, Kevin, join us,’” he said. “Coaches didn’t do that back then. He just wanted to get to know each one of his players on the team. Playing tennis with me or riding bikes with one of the other guys or jogging a trail on the road with another player, he was always interacting with his players. They were important to him, and it was his way of getting to know us on a personal level.”