"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. Then Monroe, 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 louder the applause the better Earl's going to be." 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]."