[I mentioned yesterday that New York Times’ reporter Sam Goldaper was prolific. Here’s more of his copious NBA output: a profile of Earl Monroe with the New York Knicks. The profile is culled from Goldaper’s 1975 paperback titled Hot Shots.
A couple of quick points. This profile tracks Monroe over all the usual places: South Philly, Winston-Salem, Baltimore, and Madison Square Garden. What’s nice is Goldaper adds plenty of quotes and perspective to help draw out the Monroe mystique that we all know and still love more than 40 years later.
However, Goldaper had a bad habit of repeating himself and squeezing unnecessary details into his copy. It can make for a circular read, and one that’s way longer than necessary. To help you, the reader, I’ve gone in and done some cutting to tighten the text and respect your time. With that, here’s “Earl, Earl, Earl The Pearl.”]
Earl The Pearl. It fits. It has just the correct show business ring because on the basketball court Earl Monroe is the consummate showman. His style is all his own as he waves, wiggles his hips, and shuffles his feet. He whirls inside past bigger men. He takes an opponent into the corner, spins, and hits a jump shot.
During his entire college and professional playing career, Monroe has had a special communication, a rapport, with crowds. He likens his role to that of an actor. Dim the lights, cue the players and provide the audience, and Earl turns on—and everything turns on with him.
Monroe calls this acting. “Did you ever see an actor on set?” said Monroe. “Ever see the way they yell and scream until someone says, ‘roll ‘em’? Then they go into their role. Well, for two or three hours during the game, that’s what I do: act. Crowds turn me on. I put on a show for them, and they put one on for me.”
When Monroe pounces on a free ball to convert one of his curling shots; where he commits himself and hangs in the air with his knees tucked to his chest—his eyes flash and his body quivers. It’s difficult to describe the bedlam he generates in the arena. Little kids scream. Mothers and fathers forget their dignity and roar their delight over a sweating individual in short pants. The Pearl becomes their bauble.
The response from the crowds has been a variation of chants. In the South Philadelphia playgrounds, they would chorus, “Holy Cow,” every time Monroe threw in one of his 30-footers, and added a touch of his showmanship along the way. At Winston-Salem State, a predominantly Black college in the heart of North Carolina tobacco country, the chant changed too, “It’s Earl, Earl, Earl The Pearl,” and that chant has followed him throughout the 18 National Basketball Association franchise cities.
The Monroe flair that sets off the crowds, includes the behind-the-back dribble and the Harlem Globetrotter pass. It has established him as the Pied Piper of the playground set. Whenever and wherever youngsters gather, on the cracked asphalts and schoolyards and playgrounds, for games of three-on-three or five-on-five basketball, they try to emulate the tactics he uses to shake loose from the defensive man. Monroe isn’t easy to copy. He rarely does the same thing twice.
“I am a very complicated person,” said Monroe, “I never know what I’m going to do. It’s just the way I play the game. It’s my style. When I do something on the basketball floor, it’s because that’s the way I think I can get the job done. I think the pros need players who can excite the fans.”
Often, seemingly trapped by opposing players who had left their men to help out on him, Monroe will go into his favorite dance. He will bounce the ball through a maze of arms and legs like an automobile bobbing through traffic. What Monroe calls “just plain instinct” is enough to chase defensemen right out of their sneakers.
Dave DeBusschere, formerly Monroe’s teammate with the New York Knickerbockers, would say, ”Nobody can play Earl one-on-one. You never know which way he’s going.”
When Monroe’s one-on-one act is in all its splendor, the most-devoted Monroe watchers, his teammates and opponents included, miss part of his magic act. When he drives for a layup, what invariably begins as a right-handed shot, quickly switches to a left-handed shot.
Normally, there were only two sport seasons in Baltimore. Spring was celebrated when an Oriole pitcher tossed out the first ball, and Fall was a Sunday afternoon when Johnny Unitas heaved touchdown passes for the Colts. Baltimore was never a basketball town.
But on a rainy October night in 1967 when the rookie, Earl The Pearl, made his pro debut against the Knicks at the Baltimore Civic Center, the fans sensed that here was something special, the instant he first handled the ball. Monroe missed his first two shots, but with three minutes gone, he dribbled between his legs, cut down the left side, and came off the dribble with a jump shot from the corner. The crowd went wild.
Monroe had not been shooting well during the exhibition season. That one play, Monroe later said, “revived everything.” He had never seen the Knicks before and did not know the players guarding him, but it hardly mattered. The rookie who had averaged 41.5 points a game and led Winston-Salem to the NCAA small-college championship, finished with 22 points and five assists.
With the ball cradled in his hand, Monroe tried to move through the air for a right-handed layup. But Walt Frazier, in perfect position, went up with him, prepared to stuff the ball in Earl’s face. It appeared so easy for the split second. Suddenly, there was no ball for Frazier to stuff. While the two hung in the air, Monroe whipped the ball behind his back in an incredibly rapid motion and scored with a left-handed layup. For the moment, the crowd was too stunned to react. Then came a standing ovation.
When the Bullets led by as much as 39 points, Gene Shue, the then-Baltimore coach, rested Monroe, but the crowd implored him to send The Pearl back into the game. “Ahh no,” said Shue after his team had battered the Knicks, 121-98. “Let them pay to see him the next time.”
They did. The Baltimore fans were waving money when the ticket windows opened the next morning at the Civic Center. For the Bullets second game against the Boston Celtics, Monroe had attracted the largest advance gate and the biggest cash gate in Bullet history. A crowd of 9,164 showed up to scream.
“I don’t know how much he is getting paid,” said Bill Russell, the force that turned the Boston Celtics into one of sports’ greatest dynasties, “but he’s worth every penny.”
Added to his 16 points, Monroe had eight rebounds and five assists. By the third quarter, the Celtics had broken open a close game, but the fans stayed, and when he put on some razzle-dazzle in the closing minutes, they cheered his every move. No one could recall a Baltimore crowd reacting so enthusiastically to a single players’ performance.
It has been said that a basketball player is not fully appreciated or gets his just due until he plays Madison Square Garden and meets its knowledgeable fans. Monroe went through his test during the 1967-68 season when he played the old Madison Square Garden, and some 18,000 fans watched with glee as he drove against fellow rookie Walt Frazier.
“I’m tired of dreaming of that cat [Monroe],” said Frazier, after the Knicks and Bullets had played several games. “He’s like a horror movie. It’s a lot of sweat chasing him. He’s such a good shooter, I say to myself, how can I stop him? I have often given thought to [Baltimore’s] Kevin Loughery’s advice, ‘Use a gun.’”
“Back home, we always knew Earl had it,” said NBA veteran Ray Scott, who grew up in the same Philadelphia neighborhood as Monroe. “I’ve only seen one other rookie come into the league like Earl—where you can just tell. That was Dave Bing with the Pistons last season.” Later, Scott made a classic remark in describing Monroe at his best. “God couldn’t go one-on-one with Earl.”
Joe Lapchick, an Original Celtic who previously coached the Knicks, watched one of Monroe’s acts and said, “If old-timers came out of their graves and saw him play, they would think they hadn’t ever played basketball.”
Shue said while coaching Monroe, “Invariably, the name of Bob Cousy crops up when basketball people talk of ballhandling magicians. But with the things that Earl does on the court, he makes Cousy look like a boy. That’s not to knock Bob’s past feats. It’s just that Monroe is one of those great talents.”
Monroe’s flair, his seemingly unbreakable cool, his larger-than-life image on the court, does not hold true off it. He lives alone on a quiet street, not far from Central Park West in New York City, in an old brownstone he recently purchased. Outside, it is stately and traditional, but inside, it is decorated creatively in soft reds and blues.
Monroe reflects his home. He is quiet and reserved on the outside, almost shy. He fingered a gold name necklace that read simply, “Pearl.” From the “A,” suspended from a tiny eyelet, is a black pearl. He said, “I’m happy just to be myself watching television. I enjoy people, but not when they’re pushed at me. I don’t like that.”
Monroe’s 13-room townhouse is a far cry from South Philadelphia where he was born on November 21, 1944. “I’m from the slum area,” says Monroe. “It was like the line Bill Cosby used in one of his record albums. ‘Either you grew up to be a priest or a hoodlum.’ As a matter of fact, most of my friends did grow up to be hoodlums, cops, or teachers.”
Earl’s father, a salesman, and his mother Rose, who ran a grocery store, separated when Monroe was five. His mother subsequently married John Smith. But Monroe said he had no major difficulties growing up. “The most important thing is that we were a family, a close one,” he said. “I had love not only from one source, but from two.”
That the Monroe family was closely knit was quickly proven when Earl signed his first pro contract. Part of the $20,000 was spent as a down payment for a new home for his mother, stepfather, and baby sister. “I looked all over Philadelphia for almost a year,” said Monroe. “I finally just got tired and said, ‘I’ll take this one. I can’t remember how many rooms it had, but it was in the Mount Airy section. It was a happy moment for me when I became able to do something for my folks.”
As a young child, Earl wasn’t particularly interested in basketball. While most kids in the neighborhood were bouncing and learning to do tricks with the basketball, Earl was booting a soccer ball. He began playing soccer in junior high school and, when he entered John Bertram High School, he was good enough to make the Philadelphia All-Scholastic team.
Strangely, it was a cracked ankle in his sophomore season that shifted his goals to basketball. When the cast came off, he tried out with the junior varsity basketball team, and the only reason he made the team was “because my friend Steve Smith pleaded with the coach.”
Monroe wasn’t so lucky when he tried to move from the junior varsity to the varsity basketball team. “I had one of the hottest days ever,” he said with a wide grin, “and got cut. I went back to the junior varsity, but, by midseason, I was called up to the varsity.” He scored 18 points in his first game, in 26 the next time out.
Monroe was a 6-foot-1 center in high school. As a senior, he averaged 21.7 points a game and was named to the All-City team. “The experience at center was a very valuable part in the development of my game,” Monroe said. “I always played against guys much bigger, and the only way I could get around them was to have all kinds of funny moves.
With every passing day, basketball was becoming the most important part of Earl’s life. Soon, he joined in the dream of every high school player and began to think about a college scholarship. His mistake was letting basketball interfere with his schoolwork. There werr no scholarship offers when he finished in the lower half of his graduating class.
To boost his grades in hopes of attending Temple University, Earl enrolled at Temple Prep. But that didn’t last too long. He left prep school and took a job as a $60 a week shipping clerk staying only long enough to find out that “working so hard definitely wasn’t my bag.”
Monroe does not consider the year between leaving high school and entering Winston-Salem a wasted one. His friends called it “the formation of The Pearl.” Monroe called it a year of learning. He used it to learn about life and to improve his basketball skills. “I was tired of school,” he said. “I needed a change. I wanted to see what life was like on the outside. I wanted to see if I could enjoy it. I found I couldn’t because I wasn’t able to do the things I enjoyed.
“But I learned a lot. I learned what life would be without going to college. I learned to hate [9-to-5] work, and I learned that I don’t like to do anything where I have to get up in the morning and punch a time clock”
Basketball became Earl’s way of life. He worked constantly to better his dribble, drive, and outside shot. He practiced “every day from early morning till dark, only quitting to eat lunch.“
His game became so good, he was soon the talk at the Philadelphia playground set, something not easily accomplished considering that Wilt Chamberlain, Wally Jones, Hal Greer, and many pro basketball stars, past and present, were graduates of those same worn, asphalt courts.
Meanwhile, Leon Whitley, a persuasive Winston-Salem graduate, who had watched Monroe’s unerring prowess for propelling a ball into the basket, kept hot on his trail, constantly urging him to go to his alma mater.
Monroe went to work one morning and, at noon, he and his buddy Steve Smith quit. At 3 p.m., they were on their way to Winston-Salem, where The Pearl was polished. “When I moved to guard,” he said of making the shift to the backcourt at Winston-Salem, “I had to re-evaluate my basketball skills. I had to learn to dribble the ball and drive. I also had to learn to shoot from the outside but, more important, I had to think as a guard.”
Monroe looks back at his college days with nostalgia. “It was beautiful, really beautiful,” he says. “I wouldn’t change anything that has happened to me.”
Time blurs memories, particularly the unpleasant ones. His college days were not entirely beautiful. Monroe had some painful growing up to do, a process that caused him and those around him anguish.
The Winston-Salem coach was Clarence “Big House” Gaines, a mammoth, no-nonsense, 6-foot-3, 275-pounder, who conditioned his team in the manner of a Marine drill sergeant. Although Gaines and Monroe were later to become as close as father and son, the pair did not hit it off at first. Gaines felt no need to break up his winning backcourt combination by inserting a freshman into the starting lineup.
That didn’t sit well with Monroe. Disgusted at not starting, he wired home for money to leave school. His mother wisely checked with Steve Smith. She didn’t send the money, but instead convinced Earl to remain in school.
Midway through Earl’s freshman season, he broke into the starting lineup and his inseparable friendship with Gaines grew closer each day. Monroe credits Gaines with giving him the incentive to remain in school and get his degree. “I regard him as one of the greatest influences of my life,” Monroe once said. “In some of the bigger schools, the players received money for expenses and the like. Well, he didn’t give me money; he gave me inspiration.”
Monroe progressed steadily as a shooter at Winston-Salem. After averaging only 7 points as a freshman, he jumped to 23 as a sophomore, up to 30 as a junior, and then pulled out all the stops to average 41.5 during his senior year, establishing a then-national scoring record of 1,329 points in a single season.
The legend of Monroe quickly grew with the help of the Winston-Salem sports information director, who gave Earl the nickname of “The Pearl.” “Wherever we played,” Gaines said, “they had to turn the people away. They flocked to see him, and his court tricks became legendary in the South.
“Once in Norfolk, Va., they had to call out the riot squad to chase away the fans who were storming the arena and couldn’t get in to see him. Yes, Earl is a natural. It’s just like a piano player who can only play by reading the notes and one who can really improvise. To whom would you rather listen to?”
One night in his senior year, Monroe scored 58 points against North Carolina College. But it was how he scored his points that really began to impress people, especially the pro scouts. He took 24 shots from the floor and missed two. He took 16 free throws and made 14.
Another time he scored 68 points against Fayetteville College, and, after the game, Jack McMahon, scouting for the Philadelphia 76ers, said, “Earl is the only college player in the last 15 years that I’d pay to see play again—and that includes Bill Bradley, Jimmy Walker, and Lew Alcindor.”
The game that stands out most in Earl’s memory was in Akron, Ohio, for the regional championship. “Their star was a guy called Sumthin Smith,” Earl recalled. “They had a big sign across the top of the fieldhouse, ‘Earl Monroe Just a Myth, Can’t Compare to Sumthin Smith.’ Well, we won the game, and I scored 49 points. When the game was over, we had three guys standing on each other to tear down the sign.”
Winston-Salem went on to defeat Southwest Missouri, 77-74, for the NCAA College Division championship, becoming the first black school to take these honors. Monroe scored 40 points in the title game and received 95 out of a possible 100 votes in the balloting for the NCAA College Division’s Most Valuable Player.
Although Monroe had been well publicized and scouted by the pros, the Baltimore Bullets debated for 12 straight hours whether or not to take him with the second pick in the 1967 college draft. His playing brilliance at Winston-Salem was overshadowed by pro scouting reports which dismissed him as “only a fancy gunner.”
The Bullets’ decision was an especially difficult one. The player they drafted had to be one who would immediately turn things around. The franchise was in deep trouble. During the 1966-67 season, the Bullets logged a 20-61 record, worst in the NBA’s Eastern Division. The Bullets needed to win, draw crowds, or fold.
Gene Shue saw Monroe play only once for Winston-Salem. It seemed only fitting that the then-Bullet coach should sit in on the only game Winston-Salem lost in Monroe’s senior year. Shue will be the first to admit that he was unimpressed with Monroe the first time he saw him play. Still, Shue was willing to take another look at Earl when he tried out for the 1967 Pan-American Games team. The turnaround in Monroe’s play really impressed Shue, as Earl put on an all-around display of ballhandling, passing, and scoring.
“Earl didn’t make the Pan-Am team, which was a disgrace, but he showed us all we had to see,” said Shue. “More than anything, I think we made up our minds to draft Earl off what we saw in the workouts. It was so obvious that he had a great zest for the game.”
In the 1967 NBA draft, when the Bullets called “Earl Monroe, Winston-Salem College,” it turned the heads of some people in the room of New York’s Plaza Hotel. To some, Earl Monroe was not exactly a household name. There were also the cynics who said that Winston-Salem was a small college and were suspect of the type of competition Monroe had earned his reputation against. Other hotshots had come out of small colleges and fallen flat on their faces.
The selling of Earl Monroe in Baltimore, where Shue was the fifth coach in four years, began when the Bullets reported to preseason training in the summer of 1967 at Baltimore City Community College. Before the first week’s drills were over, they couldn’t stop talking about the exhibition that Monroe had put on. Some 200 spectators came to watch the first day. They grew to 500 by the second day, and, by the end of the week, they were turning fans away from the 2,000-seat gymnasium.
Earl didn’t turn the Bullets into a contender overnight. Monroe struggled at first, learning the moves of his teammates, gaining their confidence, and finding out what would work against his opponents. Nevertheless, by the All-Star break, Earl was among the league’s top 10 scorers. By the end of the season, only three players in the NBA had averages higher than his 24.3 norm. Only five rookies in the history of the NBA had ever scored more than his 1,191 points.
Monroe was named the rookie of the year, polling 78 of the 79 votes cast by the league’s sportswriters and sportscasters. It’s one thing for an individual to compile an outstanding set of statistics, but something else if he can transform a chronic loser into a playoff contender, which Monroe had done. With Monroe joining practically the same roster from the year before, the Bullets won 15 more games.
Even more important, he had changed the character of the Bullets squad. In past years, the Baltimore cagers were almost universally denounced as a selfish, indifferent, uncontrollable collection of athletes who were interested in only two things: getting off as many shots as possible in their allotted time and picking up their paychecks.
“Earl,” Shue emphasized, “can make every pass that is to be made. He has a flair for showmanship, which is great, but basically, he is a very sound basketball player. He does the things you want a guard to do in pro ball.”
In Shue’s eyes, the most-important thing Monroe did—besides putting the ball in the basket—was to get the ball up the floor in a hurry. “If you are going to run—and you have to, if you are going to win—then the ball has to be advanced as quickly as possible,” said Shue. “And, whether he’s passing or dribbling, Earl gets the ball into the offensive zone as fast as anybody in the game. That’s something we didn’t do before.”
Monroe also got the ball through the hoop more often than any Baltimore player had in three seasons. The fact that he took over the offensive leadership of a team noted for its “gunners” was a tribute to his skills.
Probably the most overlooked statistic during Monroe’s rookie season was that he helped raise attendance by almost 5,000 fans a game. Still, Abe Pollin, the Baltimore owner, failed to tear up the second half of Monroe’s two-year contract or give him a bonus above his contract. Monroe had several conversations with Pollin, but all that resulted from them were murky statements by the Baltimore owner that “we agreed to agree.” Monroe was quoted as saying, “The less time I have to stay in Baltimore, the better. I’d go to New York. They loved me there.”
For the 1968-69 season, the Bullets made Wes Unseld from the University of Louisville their No. 1 draft choice. Monroe forgot his grievance, and the Bullets became a team with a common goal: winning. Now Monroe had someone to get him the ball, and he was even a better ballplayer during his sophomore season.
With Unseld to rebound, Earl enjoyed playing the game more and put on even fancier shows for the fans. He scored 2,065 points, averaged 25.8 points a game, and finished second in scoring to San Diego’s Elvin Hayes. More important, the Bullets finished first in the Eastern Conference with a 57-25 record, the best in the league and 21 victories more than the season before.
Of the multitude of pro players who have come out of Philadelphia—Wilt Chamberlain included—it is doubtful that any has been held in higher esteem at home than Monroe. While NBA fans enjoyed his antics at prices as high as $10.50 a seat, Monroe for a long time never forgot about the City of Brotherly Love, its playgrounds, rundown gymnasiums, and the Charles Baker Summer League, where his special fans watched him free of charge. They were the ones who most appreciated his slow dribbling, lackadaisical shuffling from side to side, bursts of speed. His sudden stop and, before his opponent had a chance to know what had happened, Earl had fired his deadly jump shot.
The Baker League is played in many broken down gymnasiums. But the hub of the action was at Bright Hope Recreation Center on 12th and Columbia Streets. The faithful would arrive early, and Monroe, as is his custom, would arrive fashionably late. But it didn’t matter when he came, as long as he was there. The faces in the crowd just seemed to light up when he arrived. He seldom disappointed his devoted followers.
His arrival was heralded with cries, “Magic’s here, Magic’s here.” He was also known as Doctor, Slick, and Batman. One night, Monroe and Bill Bradley, his Knick teammate, divided up about 100 points between them in a scoring duel. Hal Greer, the Philadelphia 76ers backcourt man, remembered the battle. “Bradley would come down and hit from the top of the key,” said Greer. “Then Monroe from the top of the key. All long shots—first the top of the key, then the corners. It was the best duel I’ve ever seen.”
Another night, Monroe waved to the crowd, grabbed a pass from a teammate, and wheeled down the court. Double-teamed at the foul circle, he dribbled twice, did a little dance, threw a head fake, and hit the open man for an easy layup. The crowd went wild.
Later in the game, George Lehmann, who played in the ABA, started hitting for the other team, and John Richter, an ex-Celtic, started getting some rebounds. Monroe, who had been relaxing on the bench, jumped into the action and started directing traffic. He cleared out one whole side and went to work on his man, one-on-one.
The crowd saw the whole thing coming. They started yelling from all parts of the stands, “Earl! Earl! Earl! Earl!” Monroe whirled off-balance and cast a 25-footer. Swish! The crowd was up screaming. A tall, beautiful woman shrieked” “Oooh, Earl, you are my baby.” Earl laughed and cha-cha’d down the court again.
After four seasons as the virtuoso of the Baltimore Bullets, Monroe was traded to the Knicks on November 12, 1971 for Mike Riordan and Dave Stallworth. He came to a team whose magic words were, “team, not individual offense,” and where Red Holzman, the coach, would ask him to share the ball with Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley, Walt Frazier, and Willis Reed.
It seemed inevitable that the flashy kid with the fancy moves would one day play in New York. Monroe was suited to the big city, and the city was ready for his flamboyant style. But Walt Frazier had beaten Monroe here, and the question immediately arose whether New York was big enough for both of them?
Monroe and Frazier are both showmen, and a basketball court was seemingly not a big enough stage for both. They were now being asked to make an adjustment designed to bring out the best qualities in both.
When Monroe played Meet the Press on his arrival in New York, someone extended his hand in welcome to Earl. The man wore a Knick NBA championship ring on his third finger. “What’s that?” Monroe asked.
“The Knicks’ 1969-70 championship ring,” Earl was told. “Do you want to try it on?”
“Uh, uh,” Monroe replied. “I want my own. All we got to do now is win the championship.”
The night Monroe made his debut in a New York uniform against the then San Francisco Warriors, the Garden was hopping for the first time that season. When John Condon, the Garden public-address announcer, blared over the loudspeaker, “Let’s have a big hello for the Knicks’ newest star,” the capacity crowd of 19,588 stormed to its feet. As Monroe came gimping out on the court, as is his habit, hobbling like an old arthritic man, the avalanche of cheers could have smashed an applause meter.
In the crowd, the man in the last row near the ceiling said, “He’s going to do wonders for the Knicks. He’s the best guard in basketball, second only to Walt Frazier, of course.”
Another man, his binoculars trained on Monroe, said, “The ball’s going to move up the court that much faster with Earl here.”
And, from down front in the expensive seats: “I didn’t think the other teams would allow it. I guess the Knicks were the only team willing to put up the money.”
Monroe entered the game with two minutes left in the first quarter. He touched the ball for the first time a minute later, and it took another quarter of play before he drilled in a layup for his first basket. The crowd responded with cheers and applause.
Playing in an unaccustomed reserve role, Monroe scored nine points in 20 minutes and shot only four for 10. “It was a little rough not knowing the plays,” Monroe said. “I don’t have my wind yet, either. I’m not used to the way players move to a spot, and how long they take to get there. The game had me in so much of a daze, I don’t know much of what happened . . .
“It was sure strange playing with the Knicks after playing against them all these years. I’m not very happy with the way I played, but it’s going to be good. Man-for-man, the Knicks have the best starting five in the NBA, and just being an addition makes me feel good. It wasn’t the real Monroe. I know I can help this team.”
The Knicks failed to win the championship in Earl’s first season in New York. Oddly enough, they were beaten by the Baltimore Bullets in the Eastern Conference final, four games to three. But Earl got his ring after the 1972-73 season, when the Knicks beat the Los Angeles Lakers for the title, four games to one.
To earn his ring, Monroe had to become a face in the crowd. He adapted well to a team of exceptional open shooters whose concept it was to work for the free shot with passing and constant movement. The Knicks were firm believers in the concepts of teamwork, team defense, and dedication.
For much of his first three seasons in New York, Monroe’s creativity was somewhat hampered by the Knick uniform. Monroe averaged 11.9, 15.5, and 14 points a game, respectively, in his first three seasons with the Knicks. By comparison, his averages in Baltimore were 24.3, 25.8, 23.4, and 21.4.
But it is not to say that the old Monroe did not exist. He still dipped into his familiar bag of tricks—the spinning, pirouetting, twisting, driving, and almost impossible shots. The team defense and dedication were just an added bonus.
“There were a lot of things I stopped doing when I came to the Knicks,” said Monroe. “I stopped penetrating and became more of a perimeter shooter. But when I penetrated, sometimes I was double-teamed, and that left an open man on the floor.”
As he gradually learned to adjust and collaborate with Walt Frazier in the backcourt, his progress was hampered by a painful bone spur on his left foot, which necessitated surgery at the start of the 1973-74 season. He missed the first 41 games.
“The surgery on my left foot made me change, too,” said Monroe. “As a right-handed shooter, I should shoot off my left foot, but it’s hard. I can’t jump off it. I shoot off my right foot sometimes now.
“I never really had a jump shot anyway. I don’t jump but an inch off the floor. I usually drive and toss up and oop-de-doop shot. Most of my game is deception. But no matter what the shot, my release is always the same. Always a flick of the wrist, with backspin. That way the ball stays dead on the rim, and that makes it easier for it to fall in, instead of banging hard off the rim with no chance to fall in.”
Of all the games Monroe has played as a Knick, the one that probably caused the greatest crowd pandemonium was his 42-minute performance on Sunday, May 6, 1973 at Madison Square Garden. It was the third game of the playoff series with the Lakers for the NBA championship.
Never did Monroe’s style appear more brilliant than that afternoon when the Knicks played their best when the Lakers had the ball. Earl contributed his share to the defense, but it was his offense that was perhaps responsible for the slight tear in No. 15 of his white Knick jersey. That was the day Monroe cut Wilt Chamberlain down to size.
The Knicks’ strategy had been to concentrate on Chamberlain. They never attacked him en masse. The idea was to wear him down. It was like playing a game of sticking pins into the big fellow, and it was Monroe’s turn in the third game.
Earl played the game of dipsy-doodle playground moves he improvised as a schoolboy to cope with the big kids in South Philadelphia. Chamberlain was trying to be all things to the Lakers: a leader, an offensive threat, and five different men on defense. He played anchored close to the basket, and it enabled Earl to begin to drive and then feed a pass to Willis Reed, who scored several easy layups.
Monroe said on at least two occasions, he played playground ball against Wilt. “Wilt was a pro then,” said Monroe, “but I wasn’t in awe of him. I’m not in awe of anyone.”
Whatever you call it, the fact was that while Chamberlain had everyone else thinking about him, Monroe had Wilt thinking about him. The one time that Chamberlain blocked Earl’s shot, Monroe got the rebound and turned it into a basket. The last time Monroe went around Gail Goodrich, who tried to guard him, and confronted Chamberlain, the big man stood under the basket in an attitude of resignation, like a groggy fighter trying to go the distance. Monroe calmly popped in a 15-footer.
Actually, no other Knick would dare get that close to Wilt, who loomed over the court like the Empire State Building over New York. “Someone had to challenge Wilt.” said Monroe. “If you don’t get some layups, you can’t win. I tried to make the initial move, then react as best I could. But I didn’t go shucking and jiving-in, or he would have given it right back at me. I went in there business-like.”
Business-like from Monroe would be show business for anyone else. Chamberlain froze somewhere between Earl’s spastic dribbling rhythm and quick fall-away jump shot, not knowing when one would stop and the other start. “He jerks the ball around on you,” said Chamberlain. “And he gives it away more than he used to. I came out to get him three times, and he passed off for easy shots. That’s a plus for him.”
Earl played his senior year in a Philadelphia high school wearing Wilt Chamberlain’s socks. “They were the only socks big enough,” Monroe recalled, “to cover my skinny legs.”
According to Monroe, Chamberlain’s brother gave the socks to him. According to Chamberlain, he had a house full of socks, and, if one pair got out to Earl Monroe, he sure didn’t know anything about it.
Monroe scored 21 points and handed off for six assists, as the Knicks won, 87-83. In the Laker dressing room, Chamberlain took a resounding swipe at a metal locker, and in the Knick dressing room, Earl pulled on a dazzling pair of green-and-yellow socks, his own.
Monroe had never appreciated those who believed that defense was a nonexistent word in his vocabulary. “They were forever saying we just played one-on-one in Baltimore and that we didn’t know anything about team play,” Monroe said. “That’s not true. We were a closely-knit team, and we were in the battle for the championship every year and even went to the finals against the Milwaukee Bucks in 1970-71.
“Sure, the Knicks are the NBA champions, but that doesn’t make me a better player. I’m more dedicated, sure, and a different type of player. With Walt Frazier around, I don’t handle the ball as much. But as great a team as the Knicks are, it boils down to one-on-one. My object is to win, and I’ve got a hell of a record in the won-lost column.
“I will say this: Last season was my best, percentage wise. I averaged only 15 points a game, but I could have averaged more than that if I’d wanted to. The playoffs are when you turn it on.”
After four seasons, Monroe and Frazier have proven they can play with the same ball, something the skeptics never would have believed when Earl first came to New York. In explaining the difference between himself and his backcourt mate, Frazier says, “Earl is flashy; I’m easy-does-it. I’ll hide out behind a screen, and Earl will drive and try to draw the foul. When I’m hot, Earl won’t hog the ball, and I’ll do the same things for him. We are forever creating mismatches and playing great together. And some thought we couldn’t play together. We kind of showed ‘em.”
Before the start of the 1974-75 season, Willis Reed’s knee problems sent him into an early, unexpected retirement, and Dave DeBusschere and Jerry Lucas went into planned retirement. The Knicks had lost the heart of their powerful frontline. Without the top rebounders and perimeter shooters who had helped bring the Knicks eight straight playoff berths and two NBA championships, the Knicks began to look again to the master of one-on-one, Earl Monroe. They welcomed his playground style and, with Frazier, he was asked to supply the major portion of the offense.
His act was rousing. The oop-de-doop kid had returned, and the new guys and the old guys looked in awe of Earl Monroe again. “He is playing like the Monroe I know,” said his former coach Gene Shue after the Knicks had won 17 of their first 25 games. “It is the major difference in the Knicks so far. Earl can beat you one-on-one, and no one else on the team can.”
One October night against the Atlanta Hawks, the Knicks turned Earl completely loose. It was the night Walt Frazier took an accidental finger in his left eye and was sidelined for the game. “I thought I might as well go back to being Earl Monroe,” he said, welcoming the green light.
The Hawks alternated three defenders in pursuit of him. There was Lou Hudson, followed by John Wetzel and finally Dean Meminger. Earl, once more The Pearl, left them all in danger of splitting their sneaker seams. He doodled, he dazzled. He did in the Hawks, as he scored 24 points in the first three quarters and then hit for 11 of the Knicks’ 21 points in the fourth period. He made the big basket, the winning one, with 37 seconds left to play and time running down on the 24-second clock.
The Knicks had their victory, and Monroe had shown he can still be a very special attraction when there’s a demand for it. Somebody asked what he meant when he said, “I thought I might as well go back to being Earl Monroe.”
“You just saw it,” Monroe said. “Going to the hoop. Penetrating. Shooting short, long, doing all the things a basketball player should do. That’s been curtailed here because of a different team style.
“I think the young Earl would like the way this Earl is playing,” Monroe said of his transition. “I’m trying to initiate things on offense and do a job on defense. I’m just trying to get myself together.”
While Walt Frazier enjoys being seen, Monroe prefers privacy. The change in his personality begins in the locker room after the game. Frazier holds court, finding new ways to avoid cliches. Monroe speaks in whispers. He answers questions reluctantly.
“Clyde’s my friend,” said Earl. “If he gets more publicity, it doesn’t bother me. I’m not one to be in the forefront of things. Instead of writing about how we complement each other, people are always comparing us. That’s an injustice. People who say we couldn’t play together don’t know us. We’re two good ballplayers working for the same cause: to win.”