Archive 75: Earl Monroe | NBA.com
For Earl Monroe, genius was in his hips. With basketball in hand, he could keep the defenders locked by his side at bay; the rhythm he was moving to could only be found between his ears, with would-be stoppers to guess the beat. The guards who came before him usually moved in a straight line, purposeful and economical. And then came “The Pearl” who tore up the blueprint and began to scribble his own interpretation.
He would squeeze the ball out with every fascinating spin move and almost trick his defender into falling without losing control. However, that was only half the process. Then there was the act of scoring, each game seemingly never being repeated. He could move, circle, pump and spin the ball. Monroe didn’t need the air to make room, it needed an angle of his choosing, just enough to place the ball on the backboard and magically let it do the rest.
Some have tried to express Monroe’s career as a basketball response to a jazz musician, the ultimate improvisation artist with tremendous and creative abilities. It raises several questions: Do music and basketball overlap? And where does Monroe fit in when investigating this crossover?
Monroe’s reputation as an entertainer quickly established itself in the professional ranks, and his unique style quickly earned him a legion of admirers and national notoriety. He built a portfolio of incredible moves just as quickly as he built a fan base. But what happens when we reimagine that experience? What if the artist criticizes his own work? Here is Monroe as a member of his own audience, barely removed from retiring in 1980, trying out a collection of his greatest moves.
Part curiosity and part mythology, when Monroe was designed by the Bullets in 1967, he had set point records (41.5 ppg as a senior) while leading little Winston-Salem to the minor college national title. From pure word of mouth as a colleague in the south to full, lively color with the professionals. His answer: Rookie of the Year. He scored 56 points in a game against Jerry West and the Lakers, the most points a rookie guard has ever scored in a single game to date. In his second season he was all-first-team NBA, and by the third year 1970 he had given eventual champions Knicks everything they could handle in an epic seven-game series. Monroe went one step further with the Bullets in 1971, helping pull his injury-ridden squad past New York at an annual spring get-together before falling in the final against Milwaukee.
Baltimore was the highlight of the Monroe Experience. However, the accomplishments themselves could never rival the feeling of watching him at work. Monroe’s legend on the streets of Philadelphia, where he learned and developed his game as a teenager, has slowly been surpassed by his legend in the NBA, where he brought these two worlds together and sprinkled a bit of the streets onto the professional courts. When two of the most physical players in their positions – Wes Unseld and Gus Johnson – smashed the defensive back walls at the Civic Center and kicked the ball to the eagerly awaited Monroe, magic usually ensued.
Between 1969 and 1974 – a remarkable six post-seasons in a row – the Bullets and Knicks clashed in the playoffs. It remains one of the most intriguing rivalries in league history; two teams that are diametrically opposed in style, but are evenly coordinated across the entire floor. Unseld and Willis Reed. Johnson and Dave DeBusschere. Jack Marin and Bill Bradley. Kevin Loughery and Dick Barnett. Monroe and Walt Frazier. It was the school yard, choosing and dividing pages, brought to the professional game. The Bullets sought power by reducing the game to five one-on-one matches and taking advantage of their individual brilliance. the now legendary Knicks, on the other hand, formed the ultimate team unit, a diverse collective of star power ready and able to lean on one another. This is the NBA story you need to know folks.
In contrast to Monroe, Frazier, also from the 1967 draft class, was a master at the defensive end of the floor and the owner of his own unique grace. When the two faced each other, it was pure theater: street wizards met sneaky pickpockets with 19,000 spectators who held their breath. For Monroe, Frazier was the ultimate test of his one-on-one skills; shake Frazier, throw him off balance, and everyone was dominable. For Frazier, the idea of staring at a dribbling Monroe while in the background a scared crowd chanting at Madison Square Garden was his kind of nirvana.
Yet that rivalry was neither Russell v Chamberlain nor Robertson v West, with an endless stream of competitions played out over a decade. It was a short, sharp rivalry – with a most unusual twist.
What arrived in New York alongside Monroe was an almost unprecedented level of speculation, mostly about his ability to adapt and live with Frazier. He had freelanced as a bullet and the results were glorious. But only six months after leading Baltimore into the championship series, he was now a member of arch-rival Knicks, not an immediate starter and played sporadically. After that spotty first season, he had to have his feet operated on as he had played in pain for most of the year. Was the best of “Earl The Pearl” already in the rearview mirror?
If the New York Believers died for a magical moment at the Knicks’ early this second season to claim Monroe, they got it. While that season ultimately ended with a title for Monroe and the Knicks, his reputation as one of the most popular players in franchise history can be traced directly to what happened on November 18, 1972 at Madison Square Garden against the mighty Bucks. With 5:50 remaining in the fourth quarter, it was Milwaukee 86, New York 68.
Many words could be used to describe what happened next; the Knicks’ 19 unanswered points, 11 from the hands of Monroe; about how it stays one of the most dramatic comebacks of all time. Or we could take a look. Here are the last few minutes. Listen to the garden crowd. Watch out for Monroe’s brilliance.
Legends in this league come in a variety of forms. Some rely heavily on continued greatness, a collection of numbers and accomplishments that leave no room for interpretation. Others just give us a moment of greatness, maybe on the biggest stage, maybe when it’s least expected. Somewhere in between are the chosen brothers who changed the way the game was played.
The guards played differently when Monroe left the game in 1980, certainly different than the guards when he arrived in 1967. The style he popularized was once subject to skepticism, accepted, and was undeniably wonderful to look at. Stop, stare and admire – Monroe’s legacy in visual form.
More about Earl Monroe
+ NBA team player page for the 75th anniversary
+ 75 stories: Earl Monroe