Five or six years ago Manigault was never lost when it came to basketball. On the Harlem playgrounds, where one-on-one is usually more important than the team and where reputations are made or lost on the swoosh of a reverse, two-hand dunk or the volleyball block of a jump shot, Manigault ranked above such stars as Lew Alcindor and Connie Hawkins, who were also playing in the school yards and public courts of Harlem at that time. It was Earl who dazzled onlookers with his speed, his moves and his leaps, and he knocked them dead when, despite being only 6'2", he would jump, dunk, catch his own shot as it came through the net and then dunk again, all on the same hovering vault.
In those years he proved he could play on a team as well. Manigault made All-New York City—an honor tougher to gain than all-state in most other areas of the country—while playing at Benjamin Franklin High School, a massive chunk of scarred masonry located on the same block as a reputed Mafia headquarters for numbers and narcotics in East Harlem. Manigault did not graduate from Franklin, but he subsequently received a diploma, which he says he did not deserve, from Laurinburg ( N.C.) Institute, which he attended on a basketball scholarship. He went no farther.
"I was aware that other guys got college scholarships, but I didn't have the education, I wasn't smart enough," he says. "I just looked at basketball as something to do. I didn't think about it as a job. Later, after high school, when I had already lost my chance, when I was already hooked on the stuff, I finally thought of it."
Within a year after he completed school Manigault tried drugs for the first time. He did not bother easing into the scene. He simply shot heroin into his arm. "I just didn't have things I wanted," he says. "I was bored and I didn't know how to figure things out for myself. I'd get high, and then I wouldn't have to think. I'd wake up in the morning and I'd have to have a fix. I had to get high before I washed my face or put on my clothes. I lost a job I had because you can't work with a habit."
Finding that he could no longer jump and that he tired quickly, Manigault stopped playing basketball, and the true extent of his local esteem became apparent with chilling abruptness. "I know a lot of kids got on drugs because I did," he says. "I realized it then, but it was too late."
Inevitably, Manigault was arrested while stealing to finance his habit. In prison he found that his reputation had preceded him. "When I got there, guys would come up to me and ask what I was doing there, why wasn't I playing ball," he says. "Even guys in the other section sent me notes and told me I didn't belong there, that I should get into shape and get out."
After a year and a half of group therapy, of steering clear of the lifers and other hardened criminals who lived in the same cellblocks with addicts and of playing basketball in the prison yard, Manigault was paroled. For nine months he worked in an Urban League program for addicts in Harlem and, he says, drugs never tempted him. "I'll stay off," he promises. "I've made up my mind. I've never done anything for myself. Now it's time for me to experience the good. I've given myself enough bad."
The most rigorous test of Manigault's cure came last week. When he arrived in Utah, he spoke optimistically of making the Stars, but it was clear immediately that he was going to fail. After five years without strong competition, to say nothing of two years of mainlining, much of what Earl once had was gone. Later he guessed that he had played at 75% of his best, but his estimate was probably high. His rebounding and defense were absent and, although there were brief glimpses of quickness on offense, his shot had lost its trajectory: even layups trickled around the rim and fell off. It was as if the old Earl Manigault had been only a fiction of playground idlers.
The Stars wanted to help. Though they had to cut him, they arranged a scholarship for Manigault at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, and initially Earl seemed eager to accept it. Then a visit home to the streets and the playgrounds put the edge of defeat back into his voice. "I'm interested in school, but I know I'm not ready, I've been out too long," he said. Instead, he will keep a job he has had with the Urban League and play this winter in Harlem's Bowman League, where his teammates will be other fallen idols who were not quite good enough or smart enough to make it up the ladder toward the pros. There he hopes he will regain what he needs to make the Stars. Neither Bill Daniels nor Utah Assistant Coach Larry Creger has given up. "Discipline is what I believe in," Daniels says. "The guy I don't like is the one who's lying in the park and figures the world owes him a living."
"If Earl had been picked up at 19 by a good basketball college," says Creger, "he would have been an exceptional pro player. He still has the quickness, speed and body control."