Posted Aug 2 2010 7:48AM
Long before he was Earl the Pearl and a champion in the NBA, Earl Monroe was known at John Bartram High in southwest Philadelphia as Thomas Edison.
For all the moves he invented.
Before even the legend of Black Magic began to spread from coast to coast, the fans at Philly's Charles Baker League knew him as Black Jesus.
For all the miracles he performed.
"The thing is, I don't know what I'm going to do with the ball, and if I don't know, I'm quite sure the guy guarding me doesn't know either," Monroe once famously said.
But for all of the inexplicable and amazing things he could do with a basketball in his hand, there was never one time that he didn't want to have the best players on his team when he stepped onto a court.
That's the main reason why Monroe is so bewildered by the negative reaction to LeBron James and Chris Bosh deciding to team up with Dwyane Wade in Miami.
The conversation had been mainly reminiscing about his former Baltimore Bullets teammate, the late Gus Johnson, who will finally be inducted into the Hall of Fame this month. But when James' name came up, Earl the Pearl was off and running again on a fastbreak.
"When you go the playground and the game is at its most basic level, don't you always try to choose the best guys that are there for your own team?" Monroe asked. "Or maybe you get together your own bunch of guys who you think are the best team and then you show up at the playground and take on everybody.
"Sure, I always liked to put on a show. I liked to do the things that nobody expected or maybe nobody had seen. But the reason I always played was to win and you do that by having more of the best players. What's not smart about that?"
So the Hall of Famer sees James heading south and figures that's one clever fella.
"Then again," Monroe said laughing through the phone, "the guy is 25 years old and I know at that age I would rather have been on the sandy beaches of Miami than up in the snow of Cleveland or anyplace else. So I guess it doesn't take a genius to figure that out."
But at the root of Monroe's puzzlement remains the criticism from the likes of Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson that James gave up some part of his legacy by joining Wade and Bosh.
"I'm not so inclined to talk about a guy's legacy when he might not even be halfway through his career," Monroe said. "And nobody has more respect for anyone who has played the game than I do for Bill Russell. But when he won those 11 championships, didn't he have some pretty good players with him all those years, guys who were All-Stars, guys who are in the Hall of Fame?"
The 65-year-old Monroe lives in the New York area now, running his Reverse Spin Entertainment Group, which produces films and music, and is also a spokesman for EmblemHealth and Merck & Co. He watches plenty of basketball on TV, but says he changes the channel quickly if the game isn't competitive or he's not watching a great.
"I don't want to watch a lot of what's out there," Monroe said. "The game is sloppy. There just aren't as many very good or great teams these days. That's because of the way the game is structured today. There aren't a lot of veteran teams with guys who really know how to play together. That's how you win championships -- with veterans.
"That's why I kind of like what those guys are doing in Miami. They're young. They're in the prime of their careers. They're saying we can really build something together. I say let the chips fall where they may."
Monroe broke into the NBA in 1967 with a Baltimore Bullets team that included future Hall of Famers Wes Unseld and Johnson. Then in '71, he was traded to the New York Knicks where he joined a Hall of Fame filled roster of Dave DeBusschere, Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and Jerry Lucas that won the championship in '73. Every one of those Knicks players -- including Monroe -- was also voted as one of the NBA's 50 greatest.
Nobody ever criticized the Knicks for having too many great players on the same team. History has not been any less kind to any of the individuals.
"You have fewer teams and fewer NBA players then, so you could have more really good players on one team," Monroe said. "But the Knicks won the championship in 1970 and that didn't stop them from trading for me the next year.
"The Lakers had tried stockpiling talent before that. They brought [Wilt] Chamberlain to L.A. to play with Elgin Baylor and Jerry West and Gail Goodrich. I don't remember the whole basketball world getting down on them for doing that. Actually, I think everybody was excited. You wanted to see a great team and what they could do, how much they could accomplish.
"That's the way I feel about Miami now. You bring Wade, LeBron and Bosh together it could be great. How is that any different from what happened a few years ago when the guys -- [Kevin] Garnett and [Ray] Allen -- went to Boston? They were chasing after a championship at the end of their careers. And they got it and everybody praised them. The only difference here is these guys are younger and they might get more than one."
Monroe also believes James, Wade and Bosh are different because they have a sense of history about the game.
"I see those guys and a few others like Kobe and Shaq who understand the whole picture," he said. "With all of the young kids -- 18 and 19-year-olds -- that have come into the league, I think the game has lost something. Most of these guys think the game started with Jordan or maybe as far back as Magic and Bird.
"I think guys like LeBron and Wade understand there was a lot that happened in the '50s, '60's and '70s. They know there were some really great teams then. They know those teams had more than one great player. Maybe they're trying to get back to that. Maybe they're just trying to see how good they can be.
"I know I'll be watching them. I want to see what they can do. I never get tired of seeing great basketball."
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