The Doctor Works His Magic
His reputation preceded pro basketball's Earl Monroe, one of the finest players ever to come out of Philadelphia. After a slow start -- he was only Rookie of the Year -- Monroe is challenging as king of the backcourt
By Frank Deford
Issue date: November 4, 1968
Gimpy, hobbling along like an arthritic old man until the game begins, he comes onto the court and suddenly is whole and strong and agile, as if touched by some faith healer. Renowned for his flash, he is actually the model of efficiency, controlling the ball, and with it the game and the crowd, until, with a whoosh of verve, he has made the play.
The man weaving this magic spell is Earl "The Pearl" Monroe. He is a backcourt man of the new era in pro basketball. While the famous backcourt names of the '60s are not yet about to be eclipsed, they are being forced by Monroe, Detroit's Dave Bing and a lot of other young stars to move over and share their reputations as the movers and shakers of the game. Already this year Oscar Robertson and Jerry West have been injured. Robertson will be 30 later this month, and of the established backcourt stars, he is the youngest. West, Hal Greer, Sam Jones, Lenny Wilkens, Guy Rodgers, Don Ohl and Dick Barnett are all older still.
Archie Clark and Wally Jones at Philadelphia; Jeff Mullins and Jimmy King at San Francisco; Chicago's Jerry Sloan; Altanta's Walt Hazzard; New York's Walt Frazier and Bill Bradley (if they, like their team, ever untrack themselves) are among the best young guards now exerting themselves in the league. And Bing, in only his second season, managed something last year that no guard -- not even West or Robertson -- had done in 20 years of league play: He won the league scoring title.
But to keep that title, the man he is going to have to beat is Monroe, who as a 22-year-old rookie last year was the fourth-highest scorer. Monroe has started off this season averaging 28.5, and is tops in scoring in the NBA. Slick and always exciting, he has carried the Baltimore Bullets to their best start ever. He may even take them to the playoffs.
Al Attles, the San Francisco player-assistant coach who invariably draws the league's best offensive guards, says that Monroe is "as close as you can come to Oscar Robertson." West, among others, thinks that Monroe is likely to succeed Bing as the scoring champion. Monroe himself is more interested in moving up in the assists standings. After losing to the Bullets a few days ago, one opponent just shook his head and said: "Earl didn't get his average, but you could tell he scored just enough to beat us, and he didn't see any reason to go for any more."
Earl Monroe's rise to a position of such acclaim has been sudden. Until he averaged 41 points a game and led little Winston-Salem State to the small-college title in 1967, nobody much outside of the Negro communities in south Philadelphia and Winston-Salem had heard of him. Even after that season began to lift him out of obscurity, many pros still tended to dismiss him as a nickel-dime fancy gunner.
In February of his senior year, for instance, after a game in which Monroe seriously sprained his wrist early in the first half, but still managed to score 53 points while getting nine assists and 10 rebounds, an NBA general manager tactlessly told Monroe that is was a pretty fair job considering the competition but that Jimmy Walker and Walt Frazier were certainly much better prospects. Monroe just nodded his head. If his feelings were hurt, he did not let on. The chances are, though, that he only became more determined. "I can't see anyone better than me," Monroe said the next fall while discussing rookies before the NBA season started.
Baltimore, however, could. It had its heart set on Walker, and after the Bullets lost him to Detroit in a coin-flip of last-place teams, they chose Monroe reluctantly and only after once debating for 12 straight hours without reaching a decision.
Coach Gene Shue had seen Monroe on the one night all year when Winston-Salem lost, a game in which Monroe was checked by an old neighborhood buddy, George Mack of North Carolina A&T. On a return trip, Shue did see Monroe at his typical best. Still, the Bullets might not have drafted Monroe if they had not been sure that another good guard, James Jones of Grambling, now in the ABA, would still be available in the second round.
This sort of initial rejection has been the pattern of Monroe's life. Pudgy as a boy and devoted to soccer -- he was all-public school in Philadelphia -- he did not take up basketball until he grew to 6-foot when he was 14 and was shamed into trying the sport.
"Of course, once I started, it was every day, 10 to 11 hours a day in the hot summer, with maybe just a break for lunch," he recalls. "Now in the beginning, you know, I wasn't always picked to play in the games. I didn't even make the high school varsity at John Bartram till the middle of my junior year.
"You feel it when you're not picked in those games, but I still stayed out, and I played. I remember, lots of times I would come home with a sore shoulder -- right in here -- from shooting all day. It sounds like the same old story, the All-American boy, but that's really the way it was." Monroe shakes his head. "You don't see that anymore that way," he says, "kids playing all the time. "It's different. Now everybody's a lover."
After graduation from John Bartram, Monroe tried to pull up his grades with another year at Temple Prep -- he had college feelers from places like NYU, Temple and Western Michigan -- but he dropped out after a semester to become a $60-a-week shipping clerk. "That just made me realize how much I hated working," Monroe says now, smiling, but not so much humorously as clinically. He is most often that way, very direct. He does not waste motion.
Although Winston-Salem coach Clarence (Big House) Gaines did not hear about Monroe until after he had left school, Ray Scott -- Monroe's close friend on the Bullets today -- remembers that he and other pros had long known about The Pearl. They had gone out of their way to see him play when he was still in high school. Of the multitude of players who have come out of Philadelphia in recent years -- Chamberlain included -- it is doubtful that any has been held in such esteem at home as Monroe. He is sovereign in the all-pro Baker League, the toughest summer wheel in the country. The Baker floats to various locations, but no matter where it goes, Monroe's fans follow it.
The hub of the action is at 12th and Columbia, in the gym that stands behind the Hope Baptist Church on the corner. The gym is fairly new, but it is windowless and dimly lit, and on an oppressive summer night the cement block walls stifle the humanity pressed against them. Still, nobody is unhappy. Everyone is there to watch Earl Monroe go into his magic act.
The faithful arrive early. Monroe, as has become his custom, arrives fashionably late, usually around the end of the first quarter. His presence is signaled by a knowing murmur that swells to a tremorous rattle. The fans cannot see Monroe, but they can feel him, and as he nears the court the buzz increases.
"Magic's here, Magic's here," it goes, sweeping the gym. Monroe has been called more nicknames than any other athlete -- and not one of them is a phony alliterative or geographical title invented by a P.R. man. He is called Pearl as much as he is Earl. And Magic, too, a lot. Also he is Doctor, Slick and Batman, and underground he is Black Jesus or The Savior.
It is seldom that he disappoints his devoted followers, and often there is a special treat for them, as the time this past summer when Monroe and Bill Bradley of the Knicks, still trying to find himself as a pro player, got into a shootout one night and ended up with about 100 points between them. "They were dueling," Hal Greer of the 76ers remembers. "Bradley would come down and hit 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."
Since Monroe's loyal followers cannot abide watching anybody else on the team handle the ball, much less shoot it, this was a classic performance, the kind Monroe likes himself. "That basketball floor," says coach Gaines, "well, I think that is Earl's world." And the applause is not confined to Philadelphia. In the Baltimore Civic Center, there is now a special reaction, an excited murmuring every time Monroe gets the ball; there are disappointed sighs when he gives it up.
Baltimore is a branch town that generally has difficulty convincing itself that anything special could actually get started right there. It was, for instance, initially very upsetting to Baltimoreans when Johnny Unitas, a sandlot nobody, beat out George Shaw, a recognized All-America, as quarterback of the Colts. Monroe's rise to fame similarly has unsettled the order of things. The city would have felt easier about him if he had made it big in Baltimore after having gained a reputation elsewhere, if he were, say, a Bradley or a Walker. Even the Bullets continue to operate under the impression that Monroe is only a cog in the franchise. Although owner Abe Pollin maintains that his team appreciates Monroe's special drawing value, he did not give his star a better contract when the two met after Monroe had declared publicly that he was thinking of jumping to the ABA once his two-year contract ran out. Says Pollin: "We agreed to agree [on a future raise]."
Monroe is put off by the club's attitude. "Basically, like anybody," he says, "I am worried about making money. This is not fun anymore."
Monroe is 1-Y in the draft because of arthritic knees that also include bone chips and calcium deposits. His knees, says Bullet trainer Skip Feldman, have been swollen up to the point where they could be squeezed like sponges. Another NBA trainer doubts that Monroe can last out this year. He limps painfully most of the time off the court or before he gets warmed up. He moves tentatively, and when he straightens out his legs after they have been cramped in a car, his face, usually so bland, suddenly flushes with pain. There is, apparently, no easy remedy. "The doctor told me it is just something I have to live with," Monroe says. "This is the reason I got to get it all as soon as I can."
Monroe is not instinctively avaricious. In fact it was his pride that caused him to turn town money the first time he signed. Pittsburgh of the ABA got in touch with Monroe on the weekend of the NBA draft and offered him more than the Bullets eventually would -- plus a car -- but got nowhere. When the Bullets' erstwhile general manager Buddy Jeannette and the team treasurer, Arnold Heft, routed him out of bed at his mother's on the same weekend, he agreed to terms almost immediately. Wearing Jeannette's sports jacket the next morning, Monroe was dozing in a chair in the Bullets' hotel suite in Philadelphia when coach Gaines arrived. He was to be a consultant in contract matters, but learned that Monroe has already signed a one-year at $19,000. Monroe was still tired and had lost interest in the details. Seymour Smith of The Baltimore Sun remembers that an exasperated Big House finally called over to Monroe:
"Will you say something, boy? It's your future we're talking about."
"I just want to see if I can play in the NBA," Monroe replied, expressionless, hardly stirring.
The contract was amended a few minutes later to two years at $20,000 each, but the point had been made -- Monroe would play in the NBA. "I think Earl tricked himself there," says coach Gaines, "because he was given specific instructions -- by me -- not to sign. He had plenty of time to sign, he wasn't going anyplace. And now also, here's a kid who ends up Rookie of the Year and he finds it hard to -- well, nobody wants to come up with the endorsement. I hope that this will change, or that some firm that feels the youngster has something to offer will put him in some type of executive-training program so that when basketball is over he will end up by making a contribution to something other than sport."
This past summer, Monroe did work for the Opportunities Industrialization Center, a social organization headed by the Rev. Leon Sullivan with up to 50 agencies in this country. Monroe also traveled to veterans' hospitals in the Orient for the Defense Department.
"Earl has group loyalties I've never seen," says coach Gaines. "One of his teammates who might be the lowest scrub on the team would get involved, and Earl would be there, trying to protect his teammate. On and off the court, too.
"If Earl had a dollar and everybody was hungry, the dollar was spent. He had a mother and a sister who indulged him and spoiled him, and when they'd send him money he'd take his group and they'd blow it all at one of those hamburger joints.
"I had one or two problems with him -- well, only one major problem. I simply called his mother, and I think that was the person he didn't want me to call. He and his mother had their little talk, and that was about it. He's very devoted to his mother and sister. He was so mad last summer at Baltimore because he still hadn't been paid some of the bonus money he should have got at first. Anyway, he had already made a down payment on a house for his mother: in fact, he'd already moved her."
Unmarried and with a studied intention to remain so for a while, Monroe lives in as easygoing a manner off the court as he appears loose on it. "He is the most even person I've ever met in my life," says Bullet Player-Assistant coach Bob Ferry. Monroe's official residence remains Philadelphia, but in Baltimore he will stay sometimes at the Lord Baltimore Hotel or otherwise live, as he says, "just here and there."
Six feet three, he played at 180 in college, but finds the pros less physically demanding than coach Gaines' treatment, and when Shue started resting Monroe in the exhibitions this year, he promptly put on 12 pounds and is now over 200. His uniform pants tend to catch now and bunch. The added bulk around the middle embarrasses Monroe, for he is, above all, possessor of great court awareness.
He will occasionally sneak a quick, but deadpan, look over to the press -- the critics -- after a particularly good pass to see how well the play registered. When he was playing a day-night tournament in Chicago in his senior year, his old Philadelphia friend Guy Rodgers visited Monroe after the afternoon game and informed him that the pro scouts watching had been impressed with his shooting -- he had made about 55 points -- but still had some doubts about his passing ability. Monroe nodded.
"Well," says Chicago Bull scout Jerry Krause, who was then with the Bullets, "after his 15th or 20th assist that night he kind of cocked his head and looked up to where we were sitting -- just sort of asking if that was enough. He also went for 45 or 50 points."
Monroe was a starter from the first as a rookie last season but, despite occasional brilliant patches, he did not assume leadership of the Bullets early in the season. Shue found Monroe's defense lacking, and since he had three good veteran guards -- Kevin Loughery, the only one still with the team, Don Ohl and Johnny Egan -- he would pull Monroe quickly when his guarding was off.
He was bringing Monroe along, "I wouldn't give a damn if he played defense or not," coach Gaines had told coach Shue at the beginning of the season. "Let him concentrate on what he has been doing -- he can't do everything for 40 minutes -- and he'll make you a pretty good coach. He made me a darned good coach."
Monroe was feeling his own way, too, afraid, as a rookie, to offend his older teammates by exerting his dominance. "That's funny," says Scott. "We were just waiting for Earl to take over."
"It happened one night," says one astute Bullet observer. "It wasn't any gradual thing. It was a game against the Knicks in January. At one stretch, for about 10 minutes in a row, Loughery brought the ball down, took it in himself or went the other way from Monroe with it. The first time Earl got the ball after that it was all over. He moved the ball. He directed traffic. He was in charge."
The Bullets, a distant last-place then, went on to just miss the playoffs, and Monroe, who didn't even make the mid-season All-Star Game, jumped from 21st to fourth, and was the second highest scoring rookie guard. Despite his knees and the fact that he was used sparingly in the early games, he appeared in every one and ended up 10th in the league in time played. He was 15th in assists.
Only his defense failed to improve significantly. It is not that he cannot play it, but, rather, that he loses concentration and can become lackadaisical. He giggles derisively at himself when the subject is brought up. Shue does not. Having done a complete flip, he now is almost doctrinaire in backing Monroe's defensive credentials whenever anyone challenges them.
On offense, Monroe must be guarded with the kind of defense that reminds most Baltimoreans of their favorite spring sport, lacrosse. The point is, a defender cannot let Monroe get too close to him. Monroe controls the ball so well that close guarding is not going to bring enough steals to make what happens next profitable. He employs the close defender as a fulcrum, whips around him and scores.
So opponents keep their hands on Monroe -- which is extra-legally tolerated in the NBA -- and put just the amount of pressure on him that will not draw a foul but will prevent Monroe from snuggling up and then whipping around them. Lacrosse defensemen play it the same way with attackmen, although they have long sticks to do the job, and poking is not against the rules, either.
The nuances of guarding Monroe are all a bit academic anyway. "I don't believe I can be stopped," he told George Kiseda of The Philadelphia Bulletin on one occasion. "The thing is, I don't know what I'm going to do with the ball, and if I don't know, I'm quite sure the guy guarding me doesn't know either."
Monroe and several of his teammates still retreat too often into their old one-on-one ways at both end of the court to play a good all-round game. Skeptics are convinced, too, that the Bullets have too many good players up front. Consequently, they do not get to play enough, and with Monroe controlling the ball on the outside they do not get their hands on it often enough, either. The problem exists and could become serious in time, but it is significant that Gus Johnson, a prideful individual who was the team's best and most exciting player before Monroe arrived, has grown in stature in the eyes of his teammates for the way he has accommodated his own considerable talents to work best with Monroe's leadership.
"All I know is, we started winning when I started shooting," Monroe says, not with braggadocio but in the straight-forward manner in which he says these things. He flinched again with the pain in his knee. If the Doctor can just stay well enough himself, he should be able to keep the whole team healthy.
Issue date: November 4, 1968