[In October 1971, Earl Monroe entered his fifth NBA season with the Baltimore Bullets. He wanted out of Baltimore in the worst way. Over the next few days, I’ll post cut material from my recently published book, Shake and Bake, that chronicles one of the testiest trades in NBA history. Here’s part 1.]
Baltimore, October 20, 1971—Earl Monroe popped open the driver’s side door of his silver-blue El Dorado Cadillac, reached across the console, and clicked up the lock on the passenger’s side. The passenger door immediately swung open, and into the seat angled Phil Chenier, a quiet rookie guard from the University of California.
Chenier settled into the leather seat and pulled the car door shut. He was living the dream. Not only had the twenty-year-old appeared this week in his first games for the Bullets, one of the biggest names in pro basketball had befriended him. Every morning, the Pearl and his tail-finned El Dorado breezed in front of his hotel to drive him to practice at Fort Meade Army Base, about 30 miles from Baltimore. And tonight, the Pearl had swung by to take him out to dinner. How cool was that?
Monroe slipped the car into gear, and they rolled through the darkness past abandoned storefronts, wisps of white steam vented cauldron-like from street grates, and the tired urban grit that was 1970s Baltimore. “I’ve got to stop and see a buddy of mine,” said Monroe. “You might know him. Archie Clark. He just got traded to the team.”
“I don’t know Archie, but I know who he is.” Chenier remembered answering.
“He and I have to talk about something. We’ll just go by there for a minute.”
A moment later, Chenier found himself standing in front of a hotel door drowned in dim yellow light. Monroe knocked.
The door clicked, and Archie greeted Monroe like an old Army buddy. In a way, they were. The two had teamed over the summer to conquer Philadelphia’s Baker League, winning the regular and post-season championships.
Archie shot a puzzled glance at the unfamiliar, light-skinned figure that accompanied Monroe.
“This is Phil,” Monroe jumped in to dampen the confusion. “He’s one of the rookies on the team. I’m trying to show him the ropes.”
“Nice meeting you,” Archie softened, sticking out his hand in welcome. After exchanging a few more perfunctory comments, Archie’s demeanor hardened again, as though returning to an unpleasant thought.
“Look Phil, we’re about to talk some business,” Archie said. “Why don’t you go down to the lobby and wait for a minute.”
The door clicked shut, and Archie launched into the details of the last twenty-four hours. He explained how Jerry Sachs had promised him a new contract before he joined the Bullets, and Baltimore owner Abe Pollin was nowhere to be found to keep the promise. Here the Bullets were one signature away from securing the most dynamic backcourt in the NBA, and rumor had it that Pollin was in Oregon attending his niece’s bat mitzvah.
A bat mitzvah?
Archie remembered something else. In the middle of today’s press conference to introduce him as the newest member of the Bullets, a journalist asked for his thoughts on Monroe’s pending trade. Archie knew the twenty-seven-year-old Monroe wasn’t fond of Baltimore, but a trade? Now? Archie played it cool with the reporter. Just then, a fly buzzed onto the glass in front of him, and Archie calmly caught the insect in his right hand, released it, and replied, “I wouldn’t have wanted to come here without Earl. Maybe my coming will help him decide to stay.”[i]
Now, Archie needed to know the truth. Monroe answered that he wasn’t quite sure of his plans. He said the Bullets had sweet-talked him into a lowball rookie contract and underpaid him on his current deal. His knees hurt every day, reminding him that his career could end tomorrow. He needed to make as much money playing basketball while he still could.
“Why don’t you take some time off from the game and get your knees right?” Archie encouraged.
Monroe didn’t answer—and with good reason. There was more to the story than Monroe was telling. In this new age when unhappy NBA players lawyered up to air their grievances to management, Larry Fleisher, the attorney for the National Basketball Players Association who doubled as Monroe’s agent, had arrived in Pollin’s office on September 22 with the Pearl in tow. Fleisher informed Pollin that his client would no longer play in Baltimore and requested a trade to one of the following teams: Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago.[ii]
Pollin, in his late forties, gangly, with short black hair combed over a high, narrow forehead and eyes that alternated between doleful and penetrating, took the news hard. Pollin liked to think that he formed strong personal bonds with his players, and Monroe in particular was like a member of his family. After mulling over his options, Pollin finally advised Sachs and Bullets head coach Gene Shue to make a few exploratory phone calls. The reported asking price: $250,000 to get Monroe, plus one or two name players. Chicago balked. Philadelphia wasn’t interested.
“They can’t give Earl away,” Cleveland coach Bill Fitch said, taking issue with Monroe’s gutsy demand more than the asking price. “If they asked me to come up with a ball boy for Monroe, I’d say, ‘Hell no.’”[iii]
At Pollin’s request, Monroe had agreed in good faith to start the season in Baltimore while Shue and Sachs brokered a trade. No hard feelings. Yesterday, another of Pollin’s proposed trade deadlines had passed without news, and Monroe was now antsy.
Monroe also was in the option year of his Baltimore contract, and, if the Bullets didn’t trade him soon, Fleisher had discussed sitting out the remainder of the season and entering free agency in the spring. For the NBA, nothing would be worse. Toby Kimball’s free agency had been stealth; Monroe’s free agency would reverberate across professional sports and straight through the halls of Congress. That’s why Pollin had to play ball with Fleisher, reluctantly though he was to do so, and honor Monroe’s request.
All of the above was a little overwhelming, and Monroe, nicknamed “Clam” by Baltimore reporters for his propensity to clam up in interviews, seemed unsure of how or what even to confide in Archie. As much as he wanted to play with Archie, events had overtaken that possibility. There would be no Monroe-Clark backcourt in Baltimore.
Monroe rose and said he needed to drive Chenier back to his hotel. As Monroe headed for the door, he reminded Archie that the Bullets had practice tomorrow afternoon at Fort Meade in a white, bubble-roofed facility called Murphy Field House. Monroe chuckled that Archie would face his own bootcamp of sorts. Shue, a former NBA player and incurable gym rat, would be waiting to play Archie one on one. That was how he welcomed every new addition to the team.
[i] Bethea JD, “Disenchanted Monroe Has Bullets in Quandry [sic],” Washington Evening Star, October 21, 1971.
[ii] Pollin A, “The Statement,” Baltimore Sun, November 5, 1971.
[iii] Carry P, “Playing in the Comedy Circuit,” Sports Illustrated, November 8, 1971.