Allegany Communications Sports

Gene Shue, who died Sunday at his home at the age of 90, was the first great basketball player in the history of the University of Maryland.

At the time I was informed of this by my mother, who gave me my love for sports, I had no idea Gene Shue had played basketball for Maryland. I’m not sure I even gave Maryland having a basketball team a single thought at that point to be quite honest.

I’m guessing I was about eight years of age, which would have made the year 1967, which, honestly, would have made Gene Shue the only great basketball player Maryland would have had in its history at that time since the Lefty Driesell Renaissance, which changed Maryland basketball forever, was still two years from even beginning.

Anyway, I really didn’t know or care anything about college basketball then (my mother and Lefty would soon correct this). I was an NBA kid — the Baltimore Bullets were my team, Jim Karvellas was my play-by-play guy, Earl Monroe was my player, and Gene Shue was my coach.

But as it turns out, I looked into it (weird kid; not like now) and my mother was right — Gene Shue was a great basketball player. My mother was always right. At least that’s what she told me, which was, of course, why she seemed to always be right.

A native of Baltimore, Gene Shue was a University of Maryland Hall of Famer, who graduated in 1954. He was an All-American who was named Most Outstanding Player of the 1953 Southern Conference Tournament and, under head coach Bud Millikan, led the Terps to their first 20-plus win regular season (23 his senior year), their first appearance in the national rankings (No. 13 in 1954), and entrance into the ACC.

He averaged more than 22 points a game over his final two seasons. His career scoring mark of 18.7 points per game stood as a school record for more than two decades. He was All-ACC as a senior in 1954 and was taken No. 3 overall in the NBA Draft by the Philadelphia Warriors.

Shue was a five-time All-Star guard and two-time All-NBA selection as a player and was twice named NBA Coach of the Year. He became the head coach of the Baltimore Bullets in 1966 just before he turned 35 and took two teams — the Bullets (1970-71) and the Philadelphia 76ers (1976-77) — to the NBA Finals.

Shue spent 22 years as an NBA coach, played 10 seasons in the NBA and had 19 years of experience as an executive.

Three times he was a Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame nominee.

I didn’t know any of this, because at that time, to my friends and me, he was and will always be the coach of the Baltimore Bullets. He was the coach of our favorite team. He was the coach of our favorite players – Earl The Pearl, Gus (Honeycomb) Johnson, Kevin Loughery, Jack Marin and the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player all in the same season, Wes Unseld.

They were our guys, they were our team, and Gene Shue, flat-top crewcut and all, was our coach; because to us, all things Baltimore were all things us. Even though we lived in Cumberland.

Gene Shue came to Cumberland quite a bit in those days, as did all of the big Baltimore sports stars. Just the way it was. He spoke at quite a number of functions in the area, but I was just a kid, so I couldn’t go (or so I was told).

But the day finally came years later when I had the opportunity to meet Gene Shue. We all were at When Pigs Fly Restaurant & Lounge (we were in the lounge) enjoying the cocktail hour, and he was with his best friend since their days as teammates and roommates at Maryland, Don Moran, and Coach Moran, a member of Shue’s staff on every NBA stop, made a point to introduce me to him.

That cocktail hour was and remains an absolute thrill for me. Given what I have been blessed to be able to do for a living, I have been so very lucky to have met a lot of famous people. Yet meeting the people you followed and looked up to in your childhood – Gene Shue, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, Chuck Thompson, Boog Powell, John Unitas, Art Donovan, Lefty Driesell — always provides the biggest thrills.

It has a magical way of taking you to the places in your life when everything was perfect. Or, as the great Al McGuire called it, the seashells and balloons of your life; when all is well, and all is just right.

Gene Shue was wonderful to me that day. It was as though he knew. And I had a couple of beers with Gene Shue! A kid from South End and the coach of the Baltimore Bullets having a taste. Are you kidding me?

I can see him that day as I tell you about it now, all these years later. His eyes were bright lights. He was in his element and he was having fun. He was with his guys and he was talking about things he absolutely loved.

Anything I asked him, he seemed very happy to talk about. He was patient with my silly questions, and he answered every one of them and told me some great stories behind some of them.

He was very certain of himself; he was very sure, and he was very outgoing and accommodating to all who stopped by to say hello. He seemed to enjoy himself very much. He had the room in the palm of his hand, yet he seemed to be very happy to be in the company of so many others who were very happy to be in his company.

I will never forget it.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT