Bruised But Unbowed

In March 1971, the Baltimore Bullets and Philadelphia 76ers met in the first round of the NBA playoffs. It would be the start of Earl Monroe’s final playoff run in Baltimore. It also would go down in NBA history as one of the league’s more-grueling playoff jousts. Not quite in the category of the Knicks-Heat clashes of the 1990s—but close. Having recently published the book Shake and Bake with NBA great Archie Clark, I have a clip file of the series from the Baltimore Morning Sun, Baltimore Evening Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, and Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. I’ve pulled the best quotes from their playoff stories, without traditional attribution, and rolled them into a “super stories” for each game of the series. It’s my way of bringing this classic series back to life as vividly as print journalism allows, 50 years hence. Yesterday, we took a plunge into Game 1. Today, the coverage picks up with Games 2 and 3.

Game TwoMarch 26, 1971

Philadelphia—“I feel pretty good,” said Earl Monroe. “But I can’t breathe.”

That was about 45 minutes before the game. Two minutes prior to the opening tapoff, however, it didn’t appear that Earl was feeling very good at all. He was nowhere to be seen and it looked like maybe he had gone into one of his magic acts and disappeared. Actually, he was back in the dressing room . . . to relieve the pain from his aching ribs which he had bruised two nights ago in Baltimore.

Earl Monroe slipped onto a trainer’s bench and clenched his teeth. Swiftly and accurately, Dr. Kenneth Spence jabbed a needle filled with a pain-killing drug called xylocaine into Monroe’s right side, just below his shooting arm. 

“They just shot the hell out of him,” said Gene Shue, the Baltimore Bullets’ coach. “It was painful as hell …”

“Is he okay,” someone asked. 

“How the hell do I know,” answered Shue. “All I know is the needle was this big,” spreading his hands about 18 inches apart.

“No, maybe it was this big,” Shue corrected, spreading his hands about nine inches apart. “The doctor stuck in here, then there, then here (Shue fingered the area of the injections).  The doctor looked like Zorro attacking the enemy.”

“I wanted to give him a fourth, but I ran out of time,” said Spence . . . Dr. Spence describes xylocaine as “just an anesthetic. Even if he wasn’t playing ball, it’s a good treatment.” 

“It hurt until I got the needle,” said Monroe. “Then I went out and got only four practice shots and the buzzer rang to start the game.”

Then the game began and Monroe’s aches and pains vanished. He made his first shot with the contest less than a minute old. He made his second less than 30 seconds later to give the Bullets a 4-2 lead—a lead they never relinquished as they came back to tie the best-of-seven playoff series with the Philadelphia 76ers at 1-1. 

By the early moments of the fourth period, Monroe was kept on the bench and given a pill to deaden the pain. “By that time, the xylocaine was beginning to wear off,” explained Skip Feldman, the Bullets trainer.

Monroe wound up with 24 points in 41 minutes of action, and there was no question that he was the inspiration for the Bullets. When Earl wasn’t scoring, he was hitting the open man and he even played defense. 

Then in the closing seconds, he made a lot of sour faces as he was freezing the ball and the 76ers were grabbing at his sore rib area and the officials ignored the fouls. 

“I’m a physical wreck,” Monroe said, smiling. “I don’t have a jump shot anymore. It’s all layups. From twenty feet out, it’s a layup. I just can’t hit the open jumper. I got to have somebody clawing at me. Maybe it’s because of the college defense … box and one … diamond in two.”

Gus Johnson, who plans to undergo surgery this summer, also says he isn’t feeling any better as the games go on. “I feel horrible, man, horrible,” Johnson said after the game.

With at least three and as many as five games left in the Baltimore-Philadelphia series, Dr. Spence has a chance of being voted the league’s MVP (Most Valuable Physician).

“As long they’ve got medicine, we can hang in there,” Johnson says. 

Game ThreeMarch 28, 1971

Baltimore—Amazing Earl (Magic) Monroe pulled another rabbit out of his bottomless hat yesterday when he again bounced back from a rib injury in the second half to lead the Bullets to a 111-to-103 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers at the Civic Center. 

The win gave Baltimore a 2-1 edge in the best of seven playoff series, with the fourth game scheduled in Philadelphia on Tuesday night. 

Yesterday the Pearl outdid himself. The medical report on him prior to the game said this: “His bruised rib is healing, but he is still having some difficulty breathing. The decision on whether or not he will receive another injection will be made just prior to the game.”

Earl received no injection and he refused to wear a protective harness. Too restricting. As usual, he just went out and played . . . in the second quarter, he took a hard Archie Clark elbow in his tender ribs, started to list like the Leaning Tower, and finally came to rest on his back over at the corner of the Bullet bench. “I was trying to fight off a pick and I got him with the arm,” Clark said. “I didn’t mean to hurt him but I did mean for him not to get open.”

Few of the assembled 4,589 yelpers or the millions of TV viewers saw the fall because they were following the flight of Jack Marin’s shot into the basket. The 76ers zipped upcourt quickly and Clark hit a popper before a 20-second injury timeout could legally be called. Coach Gene Shue rushed over to his crumpled spiritual leader. So did team doctor Ken Spence and a couple other physicians. Trainer Skip Feldman pushed them all away and made a hasty examination. 

“He was out of it, man. Really out of it. That blow on the ribs caused so much pain, it put him into shock. “

“I couldn’t breathe and my heart was jumping, and I thought this was it,“ Monroe recalled later.  “Then I don’t remember anything more until there I was in the dressing room on the table. They say I went into shock because of the pain. “

“What we did was treated him for shock,“ Feldman said. “Kept him quiet and warm and waited for him to snap out of it. He didn’t even know who I was for a few minutes. When he came back to himself, the doctor examined him again and couldn’t find any fractures. Maybe he’s got one, but we didn’t have an X-ray machine in the room.”

“This isn’t high school or college, you know. This is the pros. So we put it in heavy sponge protection on the rib area, gave him a codeine tablet to get him relaxed and sent him back. The doctor wouldn’t give him a shot for pain because we didn’t want it to mask the injury. 

“That is if he felt anymore sharp pains, he was coming out and stay out no questions about it. There are some things you don’t do, even if it is the playoffs.”

Monroe knew about the pain warning, knew if he felt the hot knives going up his side and into his arm that he was he was to signal the bench for a sub. He said he felt the sharp pain “two, maybe three times,” but he kept silent because he was playing and the shots were going in. “If it had been a 9-to-5 job, I would have called in sick,” he grinned. “But they needed me and I figured I could help, so I kept going.“

And going and going and . . . 

Press him? Monroe slashed right through everybody with some of the slickest dribbling and moves this side of Marques Haynes. Double team him? He fired the ball to a teammate, sometimes through heavy traffic. Shut off the baseline? He scored somehow—faking , twisting , double-pumping his way to the hoop. 

He hit 5-for-8 in the third quarter with some moves the instant replay cameras couldn’t catch. Then, when the 76ers had pulled to within 97-95 with three minutes to go, he drove, flopped, whirled and popped his way to four baskets within the space of 104 seconds. And the 76ers were dead. 

“I played him as tough as possible,” Clark said with a sigh. “The ref, Eddie Rush, came over to me and told me I was applying the maximum pressure, that any more would mean a foul. But there are times when Earl gets the juices boiling, and nobody in this world is going to stop him. He’s done it before, he did it today, and he probably will do it again. He’s got radar in his arm when he gets like that.”

Over in the corner (of the Bullets dressing room), Earl sat, bits of adhesive still stuck to his rib area. “Did you catch a shot in the ribs when you got hurt?” he was asked. 

“Not a shot,” he said softly, which is the way he always talks. “It was just one of those things that happens in the course of a game . . . If you were in there, you could hear the horses going, bodies, arms flying.”

Meanwhile, Philadelphia star Billy Cunningham stood in the quiet 76er dressing room drying himself off after a shower. From his right shoulder halfway down his back was a scarlet colored scratch, compliments of Gus Johnson. Billy was angry . . . 

Jack Marin threw an elbow into Cunningham’s face in the opening minute without a tweet being sounded. “He meant to hit me, I know that much,“ Cunningham said. “He was teed off because he didn’t get a foul called and he swung the elbow at my head. I started to go at him, but what the hell. There was a game to be played, only we couldn’t do much playing the way they were grabbing and holding and slamming. 

“Gus is a very strong person. He can muscle me so that I have to change directions. He can knock me off the boards. But when he does, a foul should be called at least once in a while. And I don’t know how many times he grabbed me by the shirt or the pants and held me when I was going to make a move. It was terrible. “

So terrible that the 76ers were charged with 17 personals at halftime and Baltimore was charged with only eleven. Johnson had two and Unseld had one and trainer Al Domenico, about as outspoken as they come, hissed his contempt. 

“From the start Gus and Wes started screaming at the refs. Every time a whistle sounded there they were, cussing and screaming up a storm. I think they scared the refs. Maybe I’ll be fined for saying it. But what-the-hell, it was obvious to anybody who saw the game. They got away with murder. “

“It’s a very old thing, what they’re doing,“ said Philadelphia’s veteran Bailey Howell. “You go out and start banging a little and, when a whistle sounds, you complain to high heaven. Then you bang a little harder and scream a little louder and finally the refs will say the banging is OK because that’s the way it has been going on all game. There’s no way it’s legal. There’s no way Baltimore can play like that and not get in such bad foul trouble they’re dead just like in the first game.”

“We’re not dead yet,” said Ramsay. “We’re only one down, just like Baltimore was after the first game. We can still do it.”

Domenico isn’t so sure. “If the refs don’t start calling the fouls, “ he said, “there is no way we can ever beat Baltimore.”

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