By John Hareas
His Philadelphia schoolmates called him Thomas Edison long before anyone coined him Black Magic. Earl Monroe’s inventiveness on the court mesmerized teammates, fans and especially opponents.
“When we used to play him with the Bullets, the crowd would be in a frenzy,” said Clyde Frazier, who guarded Monroe in the fierce Baltimore-New York rivalry before welcoming him to the Knicks’ backcourt in ’71.
“He didn’t know what he was going to do, so how could I? He had the spin move, which was new at the time. Nobody was using that. When you think of Monroe, you think of shakin’ and bakin’, you think of spinnin’ and winnin’.”
The second overall pick in the 1967 NBA Draft, Monroe won Rookie of the Year honors in Baltimore while humiliating opponents in the process. Monroe was the ultimate virtuoso, possessing a lethal combination of skill and showmanship, serving as the ultimate forerunner to today’s style of play.
While Monroe eventually won a title with the Knicks in ’73, it was Baltimore where he enjoyed his most productive years. Tonight, the Wizards pay homage to Monroe’s career, retiring his No. 10 jersey.
Are you are aware that you’re only the 11th player in NBA history to have your number retired by two franchises?
Monroe: I don’t know what to say. It’s very very gratifying that it has happened. Obviously being with the New York Knicks was a real treat for me and they’ve always treated me very well. When I had my number retired there it really was at the urging of Dave DeBusschere at that time. It really worked out well since he was a teammate and friend. Then Baltimore is really special because it was the first team that I was with. It tells me a couple of things. First of all they made the right decision when they drafted me and secondly I must have done something right while I was there. It’s a great honor for them to think of me like this. After all these years you don’t think these things will come to you, but I can only put a smile on my face.
Baltimore is the home to your most memorable moments as an NBA player, isn’t it?
Monroe: Yea, that is the reason why I chose to go into the Hall of Fame as a Bullet. It was no slight on the Knicks and the fans, but the fact that I did make my name in Baltimore, I thought it would only be right to go into the Hall of Fame as a Baltimore Bullet. Thank goodness it doesn’t defer me from being a New York Knick.
The Knicks-Bullets battled in the playoffs for five straight years. Which games or memories stand out?
Monroe: Obviously finally beating the Knicks in ’71 and going on to the NBA championship has to stand out. As far as competitiveness, I think the first seven-game series we played against the Knicks in 1970 was much more competitive. I’ve never seen a series and battle like we had in 1970. That was just a fantastic series. It must have been something because we lost it and I’m still talking about it. (laughs)
What happened in that series?
Monroe: It was just two good teams going against one another. I guess the best team won because they went on and won the whole thing that year. But we were just two competitive teams that were basically mirror images of each other in terms of the players – Gus Johnson and Dave DeBusschere, of course Willis and Wes, myself and Clyde, Dick Barnett and Kevin Loughery, Fred Carter, Jack Marin and Bill Bradley. So for me, it was one of those series that I’ll always remember.
When Baltimore selected you with the No. 2 overall pick in 1967, they were struggling and the team slowly turned it around.
Monroe: When I was drafted I always felt as though we were a better team than what we put on the floor, but after a while of playing there it got to a point where the Knicks were our nemesis and we felt like we needed to get over that hump. We weren’t ever able to get over that hump.
In my first year we were in last place in the first half of the year, but over the second half we played very good basketball, so we had a lot of incentive going into the next year. The next year we got Wes Unseld and that kind of put us over the hump a little bit. We went from last to first. Then we lost to the Knicks again in a four-game series. Then we started getting other players – Fred Carter, Mike Davis – and I think even more so than everything else, we had a nucleus of guys with our starting team and we just got better because we believed in each other so much. That camaraderie is something that you really can’t duplicate.
How important was the arrival of Wes to your game?
Monroe: Wes was able to get the ball off the backboard and he had a tremendous outlet pass, but even more so, he brought a sense of stability in the middle that we hadn’t had the previous year, and the fact that we also had a guy like Gus Johnson. Wes and Gus used to bet each other on how many rebounds they would get. They would both be out scrapping for rebounds all the time. They made it even that much better for our little guys because those guys were hard on the backboard. It was a situation where we became not only a better team, but a very, very exciting team because we got out and ran the ball and we got a lot of people involved in it.
How aware were you of the impact you were making on the game with your style of play?
Monroe: As in most things, the things that we do, we just do them and we leave it up to other people to say if in fact it’s good or if it’s not good or what it means. I think my style of play, I didn’t realize at first the impact it was having. After the middle part of my rookie year I became a starter. I didn’t start the first part of the year because Don Ohl was the starter. He wore No. 10, which I got when he was traded. To see the fans and how they reacted to me and the things that I did, all of a sudden I started to realize that my game, though I knew it was different, was being appreciated. The fans came and they were just wonderful to me.
Who coined the nickname Black Magic?
Monroe: That comes from Philadelphia. I had a bunch of names that came out of there. Philadelphia Magic came basically out of there. I did a lot of slight of hand type of stuff. In Baltimore at halftimes I did magic shows, so I guess it was born out of all that.
What kinds of tricks would you perform?
Monroe: I would come out and I would do slight of hand type of stuff. After we went up and found out what we were going to do for the next half, I’d come out and do some magic tricks. I remember one instance where we played the Philadelphia 76ers and Wali Jones, who was my homeboy, came out with me and I put a sword through his neck. It was always showtime with me. I did it a few times and then as the season wore on, it got to a point where we got much more serious about everything and I kind of stopped it. But everyone always remembers that about me as well as the fact that I also did stand up comedy there. I did a couple shows with guys like Pig Meat Markam and another guy named Cliff Nobles, who had a big song out during the time called, The Horse. So I had guys coming in from Philadelphia looking at me doing my stand up comedy act. Wes Unseld and Sonny Hill and all those guys would come in and start booing me when I was on stage doing my thing. (laughs)
When did you become interested in magic?
Monroe: When I was growing up, my mother bought me a chemistry set and I had this nickname that had nothing to do with basketball called The Mad Scientist of 26th Street. From that it evolved to slight of hand type stuff and I just kind of did it. I don’t even know how it started in Baltimore. It was fun. At that time, we weren’t putting a whole bunch of people in the stands at that point because we weren’t winning that much. Once we started winning, people started coming out to the games a little more, so I went back in my shell again. That was probably the first two years of my career in Baltimore.
You attended Winston-Salem State and not one of the Big 5 schools in Philly, how disappointed were you?
Monroe: I thought that I would probably go to one of those schools and that somebody would pick me up, but my high school coach never really gave me all my letters of intent from people who sent them and inquired about me. The few letters that I got were to Montana and Western Michigan and places like that. I wanted to go to the ABL, the American Basketball League, that was running at that time. So I kind of discounted all those things and figured I was going to do that. Thank goodness it folded because I certainly wasn’t ready for it. I was disappointed but went to Temple Prep with hopes of maybe going to a bigger school and it just never happened.
How did you end up at Winston Salem State?
Monroe: Before going to Winston Salem, I worked at Tartan Knitting Mill in Philadelphia. I was making $1.15 an hour. A guy named Leon Woodley came up to me and asked me if I wanted to go to college down in Winston Salem. He had also come up to me the year before and I told him I was going to the ABL. Once he came back again and I was making that $1.15 an hour, and if I missed a day -- I was only bringing home $19 a week -- I jumped at the idea to go to school somewhere. That is how I wound up in Winston Salem.
You played for Clarence “Big House” Gaines. What kind of influence did he have on you as a person and as a player?
Monroe: Coach Gaines had a profound influence on me because he was not only a coach, but also a mentor. We talked about a lot of things. He also had a player there named Cleo Hilll. Cleo was the No. 1 draft pick of the St. Louis Hawks and he eventually got black balled. Coach didn’t want that to happen to me, so he just kind of mentored me on. I remember one of the words he said when I got drafted. He said, ‘Boy, go up there and keep your mouth shut.’
After four in a half seasons in Baltimore, how difficult was it for you to leave and why did you leave?
Monroe: It was tough leaving Baltimore because I always loved Baltimore. I loved the city, I loved the guys I played with, and it was very, very tough to leave. My agent at the time, Larry Fleisher, had talked to the Bullets the year that we lost in the NBA championship and they had come up with some kind of situation where they were going to trade me. Well, they asked me to come up with some places that I would be traded to. I gave them three teams, which were Philadelphia, which was where I was from, Chicago and L.A. because they were all big cities. As it turned out, I stopped playing and Archie Clarke did the same thing for the same game, so they thought we were trying to pull a Koufax and Drysdale holdout. But basically it was to force a trade. Looking back on it, I didn’t really want to go but I was being led so to speak.
Then I went to Indiana to look at the Pacers and maybe I was going to go play there. I saw those guys pulling guns out of their locker and I called Larry and said, ‘This isn’t the place for me.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ve got a deal on the table with the Knicks.’ I kind of rebuffed that and said, ‘No, they’re out mortal enemies, I can’t do that.’
We started talking more and he said, ‘Come to New York and we’ll talk about it.’ On my way from Baltimore to New York, I stopped at home in Philadelphia and talked with Sonny Hill. We talked about what the implications would be in terms of being able to sustain being a Knick. I said, ‘Well, if this is the case, I’m a basketball player and I can do it either with the Knicks or whoever I had to do it with.’ That’s how it all went down.
What were your thoughts on playing alongside Clyde after competing against him for some long?
Monroe: That was one of the things that Sonny and I talked about. I felt as though if I were going to New York, it’s Clyde’s ball and I have to adjust and make the best of it. That’s basically what I did. I kind of took a back seat to everything and let the game come to me when I played. It was tough when you’re used to taking over games at certain points. Basically the way I played, I managed the game. When I felt as though we needed to score, I would do that or other things to manage the game. I couldn’t do it with the Knicks. It was kind of frustrating a lot of times, but I had to hold true to my old feelings about being able to play.
What is your fondest memory as Bullet?
Monroe: My rookie year playing against the Lakers in Baltimore. All during the game Jerry West was calling me Ben because there was a guy by the name of Ben Monroe who played in Mexico. I think Jerry thought that I was that guy. Even though we lost, I had a pretty good game with 56 points, and after the game Jerry came up and said, ‘Good game, Earl.’ I felt that that was really my acceptance into the NBA. That stands out in my mind.
Secondly, finally beating the Knicks, winning that seven game series in ’71 has to be a highlight because that was really our NBA championship. We finally got over the hump and beat them.
What happened against Kareem and the Bucks in the ’71 Finals?
Monroe: Our championship was beating the Knicks and Milwaukee was another story. We were hurt, even though I don’t know if that would have made any difference. We may have won one game in that series. They came like gangbusters on us and just knocked us off. It was a funny thing that Kareem was over my house after we lost the first two games in Milwaukee and they came to Baltimore. We were over at the house and talking and watching TV and all that and he says, ‘After we finish up here I’m going to go back to New York.’ So I said, ‘What do you mean? You think you’re going to beat us?’ It just so happens that’s what they did and that’s what he did.
What is your legacy to the game?
Monroe: When I looked at the game being played as it is right now, to me, that’s a legacy. I feel this is the kind of game that I brought into the NBA. As in anything, as the game progresses it gets taken to a higher standard and what not. For the most part, the things that Bob Cousy did, the things that Elgin Baylor did, the guys before me did, I brought the so-called playground basketball into the league. They did their thing, and I think I took it to another level. Similarly, these guys today are taking my thing and taking it to another level.