Catching Up With ... former Bullet Earl Monroe
Each Tuesday in The Toy Department, veteran Baltimore Sun sportswriter Mike Klingaman tracks down a former local sports figure and lets you know what's happening in his/her life in a segment called, "Catching Up With ... " Let Klingaman know who you'd like him to find and click here to check out previous editions of "Catching Up With ... "
He wasn’t much to look at – a slender, 6-foot-3 guard with knobby knees, creaky hips and elbows that looked as if they’d been run through a pencil sharpener.
But, oh, could Earl Monroe play basketball.
For four years, Monroe wowed the crowds in Baltimore with circus shots, between-the-legs dribbles and no-look passes. Head fakes, stutter steps? Earl The Pearl wrote the book. Double pumps, reverse layups? Fans howled. Monroe suckered teams with triple spins that would have awed Kimmie Meissner.
"God couldn’t go one-on-one with Earl Monroe," the Bullets’ Ray Scott once said of his Hall of Fame teammate.
From the time Monroe hit town as a rookie in 1967, the Civic Center was his juke joint. A first-round draft pick out of little Winston-Salem, he scored 22 points in his first game and a team-record 56 that same season against the Los Angeles Lakers. With Baltimore, he won Rookie of the Year, made All-NBA first team and led the once-dreadful Bullets to the NBA finals in 1971.
On the court, Monroe was a wizard long before the team moved to Washington and changed its nickname.
And then he was gone, packed off to New York, the Bullets’ archrival, following a contract dispute with Baltimore management. Though Monroe played nine years with the Knicks and helped them win an NBA championship, his edge had gone pffft, harnessed by a team that frowned on spontaneity.
Now, at 64, Monroe wishes he’d never skipped town. When the Hall of Fame called, he went in as a Bullet.
"I felt that was the way to go," he said of his induction. "Baltimore took a chance on me and gave me the opportunity to be ‘Earl The Pearl.’
"I loved that team – me and Wes (Unseld) and Gus (Johnson) and Jack (Marin) – because we started from nothing and grew together. I never wanted to leave, but during negotiations (in 1971), for some reason, I got angry. Now I don’t even remember what I was mad about."
Monroe resides in Harlem with his wife of 31 years, Marita. There, he runs an entertainment company, Reverse Spin Records. But he still visits Baltimore often – a daughter and granddaughter live here. On Wednesday, he’ll have a diabetes-friendly lunch at Samos Restaurant, in Highlandtown, the first of Monroe’s five-city stop as spokesman for Diabetes Restaurant Month campaign. Diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 1998, he promotes awareness of the disease as he has done for other causes (prostate checks and organ donations).
"I want to give people the right information so they can enjoy life. It’s very precious," he said.
Last week, Monroe had spinal surgery, the 24th operation for a man who scored nearly 18,000 career points and averaged 18.8 per game.
"I’ve had five hip replacements, nine sinus surgeries, four back operations and both knees done," he said. "People lookk at me and say they can’t tell. I guess I camouflage very well."
Monroe is still faking them out.
His memories of Baltimore run the gamut, from battling the Knicks to the buzzer in fierce playoff showdowns to watching Dancing Harry, the Bullets’ voodoo mascot, cast spells on opponents during timeouts.
"We really meshed as a team," he said. "In 1971, just before we met New York (in the Eastern Division finals), Gus Johnson drove up in a brand new Lincoln Continental Mark III, charcoal grey, the same color as the leather suit he was wearing. He did it just for the Knicks.
"Me? I wore a black suit with a black hat that had a red band around it. That told folks I meant business."
The Bullets won in a classic seven-game series but lost the NBA finals to Milwaukee, 4-0.
For the club, Monroe was more than a basketball showman. At halftime, he did magic tricks at midcourt, impressing the crowd with his legerdemain.
"Once I put a sword through (guard) Wally Jones’ neck," he said.
How big a name was Monroe in town? One night he played the Lyric Theater, a would-be comic on a card with entertainer Pigmeat Markham.
"I came on stage all dressed in white and having written my own material," Monroe said. "I guess I was up there too long because the emcee had to usher me off."
His talents lay elsewhere.
Bottom photo: Carl D. Harris/Baltimore Sun/1971