Well, at least Fitch knows he is not alone. Gene Shue coached the Bullets into the NBA finals last year, but now that seems like a long time ago. "I saw Gene this morning," reported Fitch. "He looks like I did last year. He's got that same glassy stare, and a little old lady was helping him across the airport waiting room." Still, Shue can walk under his own power, which is more than can be said for some of the Bullets. Wes Unseld is playing, but clearly hobbled by the aftereffects of a knee operation. Gus Johnson has yet to suit up, slowly recovering from surgery on both knees during the off season. Ex-Bullet (now 76er) Fred Carter was asked last week when he thought Gus would be ready to play again. "Ready to play what?" he asked. "The harp?"
Still, Johnson may be back in uniform sometime this month; Earl Monroe, on the other hand, has played his last game for Baltimore. The Pearl has long been openly disenchanted with both the city and the Bullet management, and was conspicuously absent in several preseason games. To protect themselves, the Bullets traded Carter and Kevin Loughery to Philadelphia for All-Star Guard Archie Clark. Individualists who both need control of the ball to be effective, Clark and Monroe would have been an odd couple in the same backcourt. This was one problem the Bullets never had to solve. Just hours before the players were supposed to make their debut together, their lawyers called Baltimore Vice-President Jerry Sachs and announced their clients would not play that night. Clark claims it was not a joint power move; Sachs simply calls it "a fantastic coincidence."
Clark, who apparently wants his present $125,000-a-year contract extended, capitulated after missing two games. He fired his lawyer and issued a public apology to Bullet fans at the insistence of the Baltimore management. Meanwhile, Monroe has been seen watching basketball games in New York and Philadelphia and walking his dog, Magic, in the streets of Baltimore. The Bullets say they are attempting to trade him. So far, there are no takers. It is likely that Monroe has stipulated that he will shift only to the league's bigger cities, New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. And Baltimore, according to general managers of other teams, probably overestimates the value of its star, whose shaky knees, $100,000 salary and recent recalcitrance make him unattractive to prospective bidders.
"They can't give Earl away," says Fitch, who also doubles as Cleveland's director of player personnel. "If they asked me to come up with a ball boy for Monroe, I'd say, 'Hell, no!' " Since Austin Carr is the only Cavalier that Baltimore is rumored to want, that leaves a wide negotiating gap. Similar assessments of Monroe's low trade value have been expressed in other NBA cities, and a prompt deal for The Pearl seems unlikely if the Bullets stick to their guns. Baltimore claims it will not throw him away for second-line players as Cincinnati did Jerry Lucas and Oscar Robertson two seasons ago.
Shue claims Monroe's departure has not affected Bullet morale—but the team has suffered four of its six losses by 20 points or more. There also has been open disagreement in the locker room over The Pearl's case. Conservative Jack Marin has openly defended management, urging the front office to be tougher than it has been on Monroe. "I don't ever know when there has been a case of a player not siding with another player in a situation like this," Marin says. "The club ought to tell him to get a job somewhere—sweeping streets or something. Management will only hurt itself in this predicament by patronizing him. If management doesn't take a firm position to protect me and the rest of the players on the team, then it's not showing any loyalty."
Most of Monroe's other teammates have supported him, however. "What if Earl was playing in New York?" one asked. "Do you realize how much money he'd be making? A lot. I don't mean his salary; I'm speaking of endorsements." Ironically, Sachs claims he received an offer for Monroe to do a commercial on the morning he jumped the team.
With the Bullets in obvious turmoil and Cincinnati off to a slow start even by Central Division standards, Atlanta came to battle for first place in Cleveland, where 3,442 fans thought it a grand enough event to bother showing up. The Cavaliers—surprisingly the division's most consistent team with two of their losses coming in overtime—fell 12 points behind in the early minutes. But the Laurel and Hardy play set off a Cleveland rally that occurred with an unlikely second unit including Washington, Steve Patterson, John Warren and Luther Rackley on the floor. After that, there were several Marx Brothers, a few Abbott and Costellos and a Homer and Jethro or two mixed in with the pick and rolls and fast breaks.
It remained for the timekeeper to pull off the final joke, a dirty one for his Cleveland employers. The Cavaliers lost 98-97 when four points were scored in the last second. Two of them came on Dave Sorenson's tip-in, which apparently returned Cleveland to first place. The final two scored on a desperate, swishing, 35-foot jump shot by May. "I want that timer at all my games," Hawk Coach Richie Guerin said afterward. He knows that in the Central Division the teams need all the help they can get.