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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 (see cover). 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; Atlanta'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 it 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 on 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' when he was 14 and was shamed into trying the sport.