Earl Monroe Innovator, Game Changer
In every major professional sport there are players that are looked at in history as “game changers”, players that take the basic principles of their sport and transform them and in the process revolutionize the game. These game changers challenge the “system” of that sport, they challenge the idea that the games fundamentals can not be varied; in 1968 the Baltimore Bullets franchise and the entire sports world, witnessed one of sports great game changers.
Born without great jumping ability, height and speed, Earl Monroe adapted his game on a daily basis to allow himself to succeed. He created shots and moves in a so called “playground” style that changed the way people play the game of basketball. When Monroe started to play basketball there were basic concepts that were taught, these concepts stated that guards could not turn their back while dribbling, that players didn’t leave their feet before making a pass, and that shooters did not fall away to create separation on shot attempts. What Earl Monroe did was mix in fundamental basketball with a style and flair that was his own, and in the process he altered the game while still keeping the games most basic offensive principle intact.
"The game is about advancing the ball to the basket,” said Earl Monroe. “The game is about the shortest distance between two points ... if someone was between me and the basket, then the shortest distance for me was the tightest circle I could spin around them."
Growing up in Philadelphia, Monroe was not a basketball junkie, in fact it wasn't until he was 14 years old that he started playing the game that would eventually become his first love. While it took Monroe awhile to start playing basketball, it wasn't long until he made a name for himself on the court, becoming an urban legend by the time his high school career was over. Whether he was called "The Pearl", "Doctor", "Magic", or even "Black Jesus" if you grew up in South Philly in the 1960's you knew who Vernon Earl Monroe was.
The legend of "The Pearl" started in those South Philly pickup games in a summer league called the All-Pro Baker League, a league made up of Philly's best that traveled around defending The City of Brotherly Love's honor. It was in those games where Monroe developed and implemented the moves that became so popular around the nation and gave him his first nickname, "Thomas Edison", because he invented new moves everyday.
"I was aware that my style was different just by the fact that people called me a hot dog," says Monroe with a laugh. "I wasn't aware of the fact, that particular style changed the game, it was just part of me and what I did and how I did it."
His unorthodox style of play transferred over well from the High School level to collegiate ball, as Monroe dominated the competition setting records on his way to a NCAA Division II National Championship by averaging over 41 points per game. While Monroe set scoring records on his way to a national title, "The Pearl" faced his fare share of skeptics on his way to the NBA. Seen as mostly a scorer with few other attributes, he was told one day by a friend that NBA scouts were doubting his ability to pass the ball.
"Well," says former NBA GM Jerry Krause who at that time was a scout with the Bullets, "after his 15th or 20th assist that night he kind of cocked his head and looked up to where we (the NBA scouts) were sitting -- just sort of asking if that was enough. He also went for 45 or 50 points."
Following his college career, the Baltimore Bullets selected Monroe with the #2 overall selection in the draft. It was with the Bullets were Monroe's style and moves gained national recognition.
"I remember as a kid watching him with his spin move and his freeze move and his herky-jerky movements where he just froze his opponents and got his jump shot off," said Wizards General Manager Ernie Grunfeld. "It was just what everybody tried to do on the playground and what everyone tried to emulate."
While people on the playground tried to emulate him, the NBA tried to figure out how to stop what many people to this day still consider the greatest 1 on 1 basketball player of all-time.
"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." said Monroe.
His unique style and offensive versatility made an instant impact with a Bullets team that went from cellar dweller to playoff contender in Monroe's first year in the NBA. The quick resurgence to the Bullets franchise had much to do with "The Pearl's" fantastic rookie season, a year in which he averaged 24.3 points per game on his way to earning Rookie of the Year honors.
Following his rookie season, Monroe would his best statistical season in the NBA averaging over 25 points per game in leading the Bullets to the playoffs. In what would turn out to be the first of three playoff clashes with the New York Knicks the Bullets were swept in four games by a veteran Knicks team. Despite losing in the first round, Monroe was at his best in the playoffs increasing his scoring average to over 28 points per game.
In the 1969-70 season the two teams would meet up again. With one postseason under their belt the Bullets played the Knicks toe to toe, with the Bullets pushing the series to a seventh game. However, for the second consecutive year the Bullets would fall to the Knicks, 127-114, in a game that would jump start the Knicks to an NBA title. Once again Monroe led the Bullets in postseason scoring increasing his points per game from 23.4 in the regular season to 28 in the postseason. Despite the loss the Bullets felt they were the better team and would prove it the following season when they enact their revenge.
In what would be his final full season with the Bullets, Monroe would finally be able to avenge his post season shortcomings against the Knicks. After falling behind 2-0 in the best of seven series, the Bullets responded by winning games 3, 4 and 6 in Baltimore to send the series back to a deciding game 7 in Madison Square Garden. Despite losing the previous season in a game 7 at MSG the Bullets would walk away victors this time, winning in a classic contest, 93-91, that would send the Bullets to their first NBA Finals.
Following a loss in the Finals, Monroe would be traded to the New York Knicks three games into the 1972 season. Monroe would go on to play 9 season with New York, however when the Hall of Fame came calling for his induction in 1990, there was only one jersey he wanted to wear.
"When I went into the Hall of Fame, I gave Abe Pollin a call and I told him that for everything that happened to me in this league and what I ever I did, it started right here," said Monroe. "I wanted to go into the Hall of Fame as a Bullet and Abe said he felt great about that and that is how I am in the Hall of Fame -- as a Bullet. I think that anything and everything that I’ve done really starts with the Bullet organization and now I have come full circle and I really appreciate it.”
While Monroe appreciates all this organization has done for him, it is the NBA, the Wizards organization, and basketball fans everywhere, that appreciate everything “The Pearl” has done for the game of basketball.