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 6� 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.
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.