[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 mostly cut material from my recently published book, Shake and Bake, that chronicles one of the testiest trades in NBA history. Here’s part 2, “Going AWOl.”]
Fort Meade, Maryland, October 21, 1971—Archie Clark stood dribbling the basketball at the top of the key. Staring back at him in a stiff, crouched defensive stance was Gene Shue. Archie unleashed a quick series of head and shoulder fakes. Shue scuttled crab-like backwards. Archie gave a hard feint right and crossed over his dribble to the left. Shue scuttled forward, but it was too late.
Shue, though an All Pro 11 years ago, was pushing 40 and in no shape to chase NBA jackrabbits. He called it a game soon thereafter and clapped practice to order. If Jack Ramsay was Dr. Jack, Shue was just plain Gene. He was a happy-go-lucky guy from working-class Baltimore who believed wholeheartedly in the power of positive thinking to win friends and influence basketball games. His Dale Carnegie approach (and the trio of Earl Monroe, Gus Johnson, and Wes Unseld) had helped turn around this once-woeful franchise, and Shue was named NBA Coach of the Year two seasons ago for his trouble. But Shue could claim another remarkable NBA distinction. He held down a second full-time job selling life insurance for the Penn Mutual Company. Shue tended to his phone calls and paperwork on most mornings before trundling off to practice.
If Dr. Jack placed his system before his talent, Gene was the consummate player’s coach who patiently, resourcefully, and, of course, positively molded his strategy around his talent. Not long into today’s practice, Shue pulled Archie aside and asked him where on the floor he liked to shoot the ball? The implication being, Shue would design plays to get him to his sweet spot.
“Gene, I use all of the court,” Archie remembered answering. “I don’t need a play to get my shot.”
Shue looked confused, as though he’d never heard of such a thing. He clapped for everyone’s attention and asked his players to walk through a few more of the team’s set plays for Archie. Later, Shue paired his players for shooting drills, and Archie found himself toeing the free-throw line with Monroe.
“I’ve got to get my contract straight,” Archie confided. “I’m not showing up for tomorrow night’s game,” referring to Baltimore’s rematch of last season’s Eastern Division championship series with the arch-rival New York Knicks.
“Neither am I,” nodded Monroe.
After practice, Archie called Fred Rosenfeld in Los Angeles for an update. Rosenfeld said he’d spoken with Jerry Sachs. Baltimore’s numbers were disappointing.
Archie asked Rosenfeld to make a phone call tomorrow afternoon. Tell Sachs thanks but no thanks.
Baltimore, October 12, 1971—The announcement reached the anxious hands of Johnny Dark, the public address announcer for the Bullets. Dark, better known around town for his day job as the hip voice on “the Big Sixty” WCAO-AM, grabbed the big metal microphone. The clock overhead read 8:10—or five minutes before tipoff.
“Ladies and gentlemen. May I have your attention please.”
As the 7,700 fans complied by degrees, Dark read from the sheet of paper. “The Bullets regret to announce that neither Earl Monroe nor Archie Clark are in uniform tonight. When they failed to report for tonight’s game, the Bullets announced that they are placing both of them under suspension.”
The usual jeers and catcalls followed, but Dark persevered. He said the Bullets were sorry for the inconvenience. So much so everyone in the house could receive free admission to the Chicago game in early November. Some cheered; others still grumped.
Jerry Sachs stood off to the side absorbing the moment. It had been one of his longest days since joining the Bullets. Fred Rosenfeld called him at noon. Rosenfeld said that unless the Bullets tore up Archie’s current contract and offered him a suitable new one, he would look into voiding the trade.[i] At 3:00, Larry Fleisher called Sachs. Fleisher told him his client’s career with the Bullets was over. Baltimore must trade Monroe immediately, he said, or the Pearl would sit out the season, enter free agency in the spring, or, if the price was right, jump to the ABA.
Sachs called owner Abe Pollin in Oregon and said something comparable to, “Are you sitting down?” Pollin approved the suspensions without pay. That was standard NBA policy when players refused to play. But in this era of agents and growing labor unrest, neither Sachs nor Pollin knew exactly what to do next, other than seek legal advice.
Pollin told his general manager that he had no intention of racing back to Baltimore two days early. Pacify the fans. Stall the media. Pollin said he would consult with Walter Kennedy to iron out his options. In the meantime, he had a bat mitzvah to attend.
Dark’s public-address announcement took care of the fans. Sachs and Gene Shue took care of the press. Puzzled reporters asked why Archie would go AWOL after practicing with the team yesterday afternoon? It’s just a big misunderstanding, they answered.
“As far as Clark is concerned, he’s satisfied with his present contract but wants to extend it,” said Shue. “We’re willing to do that, but we’re waiting for Mr. Pollin to return from Portland.”[ii]
Had the reporters hiked two blocks up Lombard Street, they would have found Archie, suspended without pay, still curiously checked into the Holiday Inn on the Bullets’ dime. Had the reporters asked Archie to explain the hold out, he would have offered a very different account. Sachs had tricked him with the carrot of a new-and-improved contract. A contract extension? Never. Archie wanted to earn as much money as possible during his pro career.
And so the next morning in Baltimore, all the news fit to print came sourced from Sachs and Shue. Archie’s holdout was officially “a misunderstanding.” Because the misunderstanding coincided with Monroe’s walk out, the reporters suspiciously linked Archie and Earl the Pearl as co-conspirators and bad apples who placed greed before team, a storyline that never sat well with altruistic fans.
“Here they are making a hundred thousand dollars a year and pull a stunt like this,” complained a Bullets fan. “Are they kidding me? Doing all the complaining about the travel and the hours. I hope the club doesn’t chicken out and take them back. We [the fans] know it’s no longer a game, but a business, yet I would expect the NBA to take some kind of a stand in this thing. It’s getting out of hand.”[iii]
[i] McGeehan C, “Monroe, Clark AWOL; Fans Irked, Bullets Knicked,” Baltimore News- American, October 23, 1971.
[ii] Goldstein A, “Bullets Suspend Monroe and Clark; Knicks Roll 110-87,” Baltimore Sun, October 23, 1971.
[iii] McGeehan C, “Monroe, Clark AWOL; Fans Irked, Bullets Knicked,” Baltimore News-American, October 23, 1971.