Damn Elevator

[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 the finale of this four-part post titled, “Damn Elevator.”]

Baltimore, November 11, 1971—The hydraulic whirr stuttered, and then Jim Henneman, the Bullets’ publicity man, felt the elevator groan to a jarring. abrupt halt. Henneman jabbed the button for the lobby. Nothing. He punched again and took a deep, God-help-me breath. If only he had taken the stairs. The freight elevator was notorious for breaking down between floors of the Baltimore Civic Center. 

Henneman, the Baltimore Bullets’ publicity director, glanced at his watch. It was almost noon. The news conference would start any minute now. In his arms, Henneman clutched a stack of warm, mimeographed news releases. At the top of page was a bolded headline, followed by a lead paragraph explaining that the Bullets had traded Earl Monroe to New York for forward Dave Stallworth, swingman Mike Riordan, and $450,000 in cash. 

Henneman checked his watch again. Maybe somebody would hear him if he yelled. Heck, maybe his boss Jerry Sachs, the Bullets’ general manager, was already roaming the halls in search of him. Before he could start this momentous news conference, Sachs needed the stack of news releases in the elevator.

Ten tense minutes later, the elevator jolted, and the hydraulic whirr continued its programmed descent, alighted on the ground floor, and dinged. The double doors thankfully rolled open, and Henneman darted off to the media room. 

“Where have you been?” Sachs whispered.

“I got stuck in the elevator.”

Sachs stepped the podium, checked the microphone, and blurted out the news. Within the hour, the headline dribbled out onto the radio then into the Baltimore Evening Sun. “Why did the Bullets let him get away with this?” wrote Bill Tanton, the newspaper’s sports editor. “Why did they let this contract jumper have precisely what he wanted—the Big Apple? A lot of our fans had told me since Earl jumped the club, knocked the town, and called owner Abe Pollin disloyal that they would like to see Monroe rot.”[i]

In New York, the Knicks held a concurrent press conference to introduce their new arrival. Larry Fleisher walked to the podium to place a final exclamation mark on his disdain for Pollin. Fleisher stated for the record that Pollin’s punitive action to cancel Monroe’s deferred salary marked “in my mind the worst possible display of unbelievable behavior by a club owner toward a player.”[ii] He vowed to sue Pollin to get every penny back for Monroe.

Fleisher’s parting blast brought sweet payback. In last week’s statement, Pollin had ripped Fleisher’s veracity and questioned his push-comes-to-shove commitment to Monroe.[iii] The comments had to rankle. As Monroe’s agent, Fleisher charged him a barebones 2.5 percent of his final negotiated contract, not the going-rate of 15 percent.  And as the lead attorney for the players union, Fleisher served pro bono. Even tell-it-like-it-is broadcaster Howard Cosell, who could find evil lurking in a Girl Scout troop, considered his good-friend Fleisher “the most honest man I’ve ever met in sports.”[iv] Cosell exaggerated a bit.  To advance the common good, Fleisher sometimes would accommodate management on a case-by-case basis instead of inflexibly shouting it down.[v] But his pragmatism aside, Fleisher was all in for his players.[vi]  For Pollin to claim otherwise was like calling George Washington unpatriotic. 

“As far as I’m concerned, Thanksgiving came early this year,” declared a relieved Monroe, decked out in a tan sports jacket over a black sweater, slacks, and shoes. “It was depressing in Baltimore, playing before only 5,000 fans.”

“How tough will it be for you to play in the same backcourt with Walt Frazier?”

Monroe shrugged that he foresaw no problems. He was a fundamentally sound player. A reporter, giving Monroe the benefit of the doubt and pondering a dream backcourt in New York, finally piped up.

“Weren’t you and Archie Clark supposed to be that great backcourt in Baltimore?”  

That evening, Monroe debuted for the slumping Knicks against Golden State, and a sold-out Madison Square Garden buzzed again with all the opening-night anticipation of a new Broadway play. Twenty minutes and a sluggish nine points later, a stiff-legged Monroe made his way back to the New Yorker Hotel, where Fleisher had stashed him prior to the trade and where his light-gray 1967 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow stood parked.  

A few years from now, Fleisher would purchase the Rolls from Monroe “as is”—dents, bumper stickers, and all—and drive it to his home in the all-white, upscale village of Chappaqua, New York. As his son Marc recalled, Fleisher often would take the Rolls out for a spin. His neighbors would stop and take notice of the stylish car—and then nudge each other. Who the hell is that crazy white guy driving around Chappaqua with the Black Power sticker in his rear window? 

[i] Tanton B, “Bullets Badly Need Stallworth’s Help,” Baltimore Evening Sun, November 11, 1971.

[ii] Associated Press, “Knicks Obtain Earl Monroe, Trade Stallworth, Riordan,” Bangor Daily News, November 12, 1971.

[iii] Pollin said he had asked Fleisher to lend Monroe some cash to get out from under a tax lien.  According to Pollin, Fleisher declined.  Pollin paid it.  

[iv] Cosell H and Whitfield S, What’s Wrong With Sports, Pocket Books, 1991, p. 219.

[v] There are numerous examples. Toby Kimball’s decision to play out of his option leaps to mind.  Fleisher did nothing to protect Kimball from the slings and arrows of management.  Why?  Kimball was a rank-and-file player. Another example involves former NBA center Zelmo Beaty, whom Fleisher represented. Fleisher helped Beaty jump to the ABA but later would betray him in the name of the status quo. More on that later in the book. 

[vi] There is a qualifier.  Having conducted umpteen interviews with former players, I kept hearing from the rank-and-file players that Fleisher played favorites. They said Fleisher maintained his clique of superstars, which included Earl Monroe, and skimped on protecting their more-modest, end-of-the-bench interests. While the facts support this interpretation of Fleisher at first blush, I think it’s too simplistic. One of the secrets to Fleisher’s success as a labor organizer was his recognition of the power of the superstar.  The owners couldn’t afford to blackball the celebrated Oscar Robertson for his union involvement.  That wasn’t the case for the twelfth or even sixth man in Cleveland.   For Fleisher, the superstars were better bargaining chips with management and were respected by rank-and-file players for their stellar play to keep the union together.

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