The Special Miracles of Earl Monroe

You can take in this show on almost any winter night in any one of 17 cities. From a seat that may range in price from $3.50 to $8.00, you watch a man with gimpy, arthritic knees dribble a basketball slowly upcourt. His name is Earl Monroe and he moves awkwardly, his perspiring face gleaming like polished wood in the glare of the lights. His mouth hangs slackly open, his eyes seemed glazed, sleepy, his socks flopped loosely around his ankles. He appears almost indifferent. As he crosses the halfcourt line, his pace quickens slightly as the guard assigned to defend him moves easily over. For a moment, when the two men come together, Monroe hesitates, his eyes open wider and pan over the players moving beneath the basket. Then he flicks out his right leg, keeping contact with the defender, pushing the ball low against the floor, powerfully, smoothly, moving faster now with unexpected, assertive strength. One step, two, he feints with his shoulders but the guard stays with him; and then Monroe is in the air, grace replacing awkwardness as he brings the ball up, letting it loose with a sudden flick of his fingertips sending it in a smooth arc over outstretched arms and hands sending it through the hoop with a swoosh that is echoed by the amazed crowd before his adulation thunders throughout the arena. 

The same show you can see for free. Every day, winter or summer, a version of it is performed on the asphalt playgrounds of urban America. Take a walk of Eighth Ave in New York’s Harlem were along 12th St. on the north side of Philadelphia or down Avalon Boulevard in Watts. Above the incessant rumble of street talk, the whine of the junkie, the persistent whisperings of the pusher and the whore, you will hear the steady slap of basketballs. It takes only two to play and anyone with raggedy sneakers and a pair of sturdy legs is welcome. Defense is secondary. A man is marked by his moves, by the way he drives against his opponent, feinting, sliding around him, going up only to dip his shoulders before pushing the ball off and through the bent, rusted hoop as onlookers watched cooly, letting only their eyes flicker with appreciation. 

It’s the game of ghetto America. Pete Axthelm has written about it in a book called The City Game. He overstates his case a bit great ballhandlers like Bob Cousy and John Havlicek have come from white, middle class neighborhoods. So have shooters like Jerry West or Billy Cunningham. But for the past decade-and-a-half, the black man has come to dominate the sport of basketball and he has done so with the style that makes him distinctive from anyone else who plays the game. For that is the essence of playground basketball: Style. And for every Havlicek and West, there is a Walt Frazier and Dave Bing, a Connie Hawkins and—style carried to the ultimate—an Earl Monroe. 

Early in his career, a variety of nicknames were coined to describe Monroe’s play. He’s been “Earl the Pearl,” or “Earl the Magician, or “Doctor Magic.” Like ancient alchemists searching for the formula of gold, writers have always looked for the vital clue to what makes Monroe the game’s most electrifying player. Earl, after all, helped make Baltimore a winning team, but not a championship one. He is not considered in the class of an Oscar Robertson. He is surely not the finest player in the league. The Knicks’ Walt Frazier, many concede, is a more complete player because he balances consistent shooting with smooth teamwork and brilliant defensive work. But all of that is for the dilettantes of basketball. They can appreciate the finer points of Frazier’s ball thievery or Robertson’s leadership. But for most fans, basketball’s unmatched thrill is watching a man put a basketball into the basket and that’s what Earl Monroe does best of all. 

“He is an exciting player to watch, says Monroe’s coach Gene Shue. “Earl’s probably the most exciting player in the game to watch. And he’s the most colorful.” As he talked about Monroe, the word natural kept coming up. “It’s quite natural to him,” Shue said. “He has a bag of tricks that fits easily within his own style of play. It’s just natural.”

But there was a time when Earl wasn’t a natural. As a pudgy schoolboy in South Philadelphia, his first love was soccer. But, one day he strolled by a neighborhood playground. “Everyone would stop at the playground on the way home from practice,” he recalls. “They were always playing basketball there. That particular day, they didn’t have enough players so they asked me to play. I was terrible. 

Still, the game fascinated him—so much so that he started to work hard at it. “Of course, once I started, it was every day,” he says. When he was 14 and and uncoordinated 5-11, you tried out for the junior varsity of John Bartram High School. He barely made the squad and didn’t get put on to the varsity team until midway in his junior year. By then he had grown to 6-2 and the coordination was coming. He averaged over 21 points a game at center his senior year and earned all-city honors. And he did it without a jump shot. “I think the only reason the coach kept me,” he says, “was because I was fairly tall for my age. Even then, though, the other centers were a lot bigger than me, so I had to develop trick shots, flunkey shots, what we call lala, hesitating a lot in the air before shooting. I didn’t learn the jump shot until the following year when I stayed out of school.”

That year he worked as a shipping clerk where he had to frequently lift weights of 100 pounds or more. In addition to the jump shot, Earl also learned that he didn’t want to work. “I saw the possibilities that faced me without college,” he says. “I didn’t like to do anything where I would have to get up in the morning and punch a time clock.”

So one day he walked off the job at noon and by three he was on his way to Winston-Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. But at first it looked as if he wasn’t going to like college any better than he liked work. For one thing he thought college was a place you went to play basketball, and nothing else mattered. He expected to break into the starting lineup immediately, but Coach Clarence Gaines had other ideas. So Earl impetuously decided to go home. His mother had to talk him out of it. Finally, he reconciled himself with Gaines. “I regard him as one of the greatest influences on my life,” he says. “You know at some of the big schools they give the players money for expenses and things like that. Well he didn’t give me money; he gave me inspiration.”

Gaines also eventually gave Earl a chance to play, and Monroe repaid his coach in the ‘66-67 season by leading Winston-Salem to a small-college title and scoring more points than anyone in the country. By then, Earl had reached his present height, 6-3, and his weight of 190 pounds. He had also grown in confidence. “Before his first pro season,” a friend recalls, “he said he’d be Rookie of the Year.” 

Earl was right of course. With Baltimore in the ‘67-68 season he was the NBA’s fourth highest scorer; 1,990 points for a 24.3 ppg average. But things didn’t come easily for him. “Earl had some adjustments to make,” Shue says. “He didn’t get off to as good a start as he thought.”

But by midseason, all that had changed. In a three-game spree, he scored 30 points each game. By the All-Star break he had brought his average up to 23 points a game and was amazing crowds all around the NBA with his uncanny ability to make the impossible shot. 

One person was particularly amazed, the Knicks highly praised rookie Walt Frazier. In one game, the two were locked in a head-to-head duel. Only it was no contest. Monroe dribbled; Monroe weaved. Time and again he backed Frazier the length of the court only to feint, shifting the ball from one hand to another as he pushed it toward the basket—Frazier watched, hopelessly out of position. More head fakes, a body fake and he was by Frazier again, sinking an outside shot. By the time Monroe fouled out, he had scored 40 points. The Bullets eventually lost, but word came that Frazier had conceded Rookie-of-the-Year to him. “He did, huh,“ was all Monroe said. He wasn’t surprised, he already knew. 

Since then, the whole basketball court has become Monroe’s stage. His opponents are bit players in what is essentially a one-man show. He shoots over some and he goes around others, he plays one-on-one, winner-take-all, and those who want to, challenge him. 

“It’s contact,” says Bullet roommate Fred Carter. “Earl is a contact player. Most guards don’t like a lot of contact, but Earl loves it. As long as you’re leaning on him or got a hand on his back, he knows where you are. And when he knows that, he’s gone and you’re dead.”

That’s part of it, but there’s more to Monroe’s magic. “Earl can make every pass that has to be made. Basically, he is a very sound basketball player. He does things you want a guard to do in pro ball. He also gets the ball into the offensive zone as fast as anyone in the game,” Gene Shue says.

“When he shoots without appearing to look at the basket, it’s because he has such good basketball sense that he knows exactly where he is in relation to the basket. He knows as he dribbles what side of the court he’s on and how far out. So that when he puts the ball up he knows exactly where the basket is. That makes it very tough to defend against him.”

That is a fact that the Knicks, for example, know very well. For reasons even Monroe can’t explain, the Knicks turn him on. In 1970, the year the Knicks won the championship, Monroe almost stopped the Knicks by himself. The first game of the playoff series the next lead going into the final minutes and then Earl went into his act. Spinning, bobbing, jerking his body, throwing up shots with his right hand, then his left, hitting from 30 feet, then dipping his shoulders to move inside, he poured in the Bullets’ last eight points to tie the game. It took the Knicks a double-overtime to win it. 

The Bullets ran the Knicks series out to seven games before losing. Afterwards Frazier said of Monroe: “Competing against that cat is like playing a horror movie . Every night I have nightmares thinking about him. Earl Monroe is the best.”

But it hasn’t all been aesthetic gratification for Monroe. Despite his sometimes incredible performances, he frequently played in great pain. He had long suffered from arthritis in the knees and now, with the constant pounding of his feet against hardwood, the knees develop bursic sacks. To make a sudden cut meant excruciating pain, to jump meant agony. “Still, Gene Shue says, “I never knew the pain to affect his game, even though I knew he was hurting terribly.” How does Monroe live with pain? Fred Carter offers this explanation: “What people don’t realize is that Earl is a very enthusiastic player. Basketball isn’t just a game. Basketball is life to him.”

After an operation on his knees, Earl came back. It wasn’t quite the same. His ability to jump was greatly impaired and his scoring average dipped to 21.9 points, his lowest since becoming a pro. Still, Baltimore won its division and this time beat the Knicks for the Eastern championship. And for that playoff Monroe was back in form. Driving in on Willis Reed in the final game he turned his back to the big man and flipped the ball over his shoulder and in. On several occasions he went around Frazier and as Dave Debusschere moved over to pick him up, he rifled a pass to the open Fred Carter.

Magic? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just that every time he steps out onto the court, he’s back on that asphalt playground in Philadelphia, going one-on-one, dribbling through the gritty sunlight, the sneakers pounding on the hot ground, his sweaty t-shirt sticking to his back. He dips his shoulders, he takes a step and floats gracefully up. Still in the air, he flicks the ball off his fingertips and sends it arching through the bent hoop, barely rustling the imaginary cords—just like magic.

–Rodger W. Huehner, Pro Basketball Almanac 1972

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