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Frank Deford
November 04, 1968
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
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November 04, 1968

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

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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 down 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 had already signed a one-year contract 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 these 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."

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