The Magnificent Monroe

[Below is text drafted for the book Shake and Bake. It didn’t make the final cut over concerns about the length of the book. Too bad. This vignette shares a truly fun-and-intimate moment between superstar and fans that would be unimaginable in today’s NBA. Enjoy!]

. . . The next day brought the 76ers a leisurely six-hour flight back to Philadelphia. As their commercial jet bumped eastward from its 30,000-foot panorama of jagged, snow-capped peaks and cotton-candy clouds, Joseph Zawislak sat hunched in his home in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Roxborough pondering magic. The 32-year-old Zawislak, a.k.a., Dr. Shock, the host of the late-night horror movie of the week on Philadelphia’s Channel 17 and an avid amateur magician, had a gig tomorrow night at The Spectrum. The 76ers opened a three-game homestand against Baltimore, and the frightful Dr. Shock had agreed to perform his greatest feat of derring-do: Take a Bullet and a Pearl and . . . hocus, pocus, Kalamazoo . . . transform them into a David Copperfield magician.  

Philadelphia, October 30, 1970—Earl the Pearl Monroe was known as Magic in his native South Philadelphia. But nothing had been magical about his season so far. Monroe hurt one of his surgically repaired arthritic knees in training camp, missed the preseason, and started the regular season either on the bench draining the knee of fluid or fighting off the court rust. Seven games into the regular season, Monroe averaged only thirteen points, which included a two-point clunker in his latest outing against Detroit.  

“You think about things you can do but you’re not doing them,” said Monroe before tonight’s game against the 76ers. “It gets to be kind of a mental problem.”

Twenty minutes and thirteen shots later, Monroe had just eight points to his name, and the 76ers had a 58-48 halftime advantage.  But Monroe’s poor first-half showing might have had more to do with stage fright than his cranky right knee. Monroe yesterday had taken a crash course with Dr. Shock on the fine art of illusion. It was just enough razzamatazz to qualify Monroe to be the headliner of tonight’s halftime show, The Night of Magic. The Magnificent Monroe was on in about five minutes.

The Night of Magic was the 1970s NBA at its unpretentious best. In these relatively low-tech times, the 76ers staff was still a good two decades away from cranking up the music, fog machines, laser lights, Jumbotrons, cheerleaders, and all other forms of sensory overload that today collectively constitute an entertainment spectacle. Neither did the star of the show roar in on a motorcycle or levitate to center court with a lavender plume strapped to his head swami-like.  It was just Monroe in his bright orange Bullets warmup suit, a microphone, and a genuine intimacy with NBA fans.  

“For many years now, I’ve been accused of having some sort of mystic powers,” deadpanned Monroe over the public-address system. He paused and then reached for a flowing, checkered scarf displayed on the table beside him, yanked it like a paper towel, and, presto change-o, a crystal bowl full of water appeared out of thin air.  

The announced crowd of 7,268 cheered. One or two may have even swooned. His NBA colleagues, gathered on their respective benches, howled. 

The Magnificent Monroe, with Dr. Shock by his side, next ran his hand through a burning candle. Philadelphia coach Jack Ramsay no doubt yelled, “One more time,” but to no avail. The hand remained just fine for the second half. After a few more predictable abracadabras, Monroe moved on to the finale.  

“This is called the Old Sword Trick,” he announced with some gravity. “I’d like to have Wally Jones out here since he’s been dogging me all game.” 

Jones dared his way onto the court, while Dr. Shock insisted that the crowd remain absolutely silent. Not even a sneeze. Any slip of Monroe’s right hand could spell curtains for Wally Wonder.  

“This is true,” Monroe chimed in. “This is one that might come out wrong.” 

The Magnificent Monroe locked a brown wooden collar around the neck of his volunteer and led him over like a shackled prisoner to the microphone. “I want to get Wally close to the mike so you can hear him scream.” The Magnificent Monroe drew a sword that looked like it dated back to the Crusades and displayed his instrument of terror to the crowd and several flashbulbs. He inched closer to Jones, eyed the collar, steadied the weapon, gritted his teeth, and with a hard thrust ran the blade into the collar. The long tip of the blade emerged a second later, protruding out of the back of Jones’ neck. Jones tried to feign a tortured death gasp, and the show was over. Long live the Magnificent Monroe.

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