Before the arrival of Earvin “Magic” Johnson there was another “Magic” — “Black Magic,” also known as “Earl the Pearl.” He was Earl Monroe, a dazzling ballhandler and one-on-one virtuoso who made crowds gasp with his slashing drives to the hoop.
Monroe joined the NBA in 1967 and parlayed his talents into a distinguished 13-year career. He was part of a changing of the guard in the NBA, arriving at a time when high scorers like Dave Bing and Jerry West were showing that the backcourt could rack up points just as effectively as the center position. He finished with a career average of 18.8 ppg.
Spectators were amazed not only by the number of points that Monroe scored but also by how he scored them. “The ultimate playground player,” is how Bill Bradley once described him to the New York Post. He loved to spin and twist through the paint and then launch off-balance, circus-like shots in the tradition of the Harlem Globetrotters. His shots went in often enough for Monroe to compile a respectable .464 career field-goal percentage and earn four All-Star Game appearances. More importantly, he was a key leader on two excellent teams of the late 1960s and early 1970s — the Baltimore Bullets and the New York Knicks.
Monroe grew up in a tough South Philadelphia neighborhood. As a youth he was more interested in soccer and baseball than in basketball, but by age 14 he had grown to 6-foot-3 and had drawn the attention of school basketball coaches. Although he wasn’t immediately adept at basketball, Monroe played center during most of his youth. His “shake-and-bake” moves originated in the tough contests played on Philly’s asphalt playgrounds. “I had to develop flukey-duke shots, what we call la-la, hesitating in the air as long as possible before shooting,” he once explained.
Monroe decided to attend Winston-Salem State, a small historically black college in North Carolina. There he found a father figure in coach Clarence Gaines, a famed figure in black college sports and blossomed into a first-rate scorer. As a senior in 1966-67, Monroe led his collegiate squad to an NCAA Division II title while averaging 41.5 points. A local sportswriter penned the phrase “Earl’s Pearls” to describe the points he tallied, and a nickname was born.
Monroe, the No. 2 choice in the 1967 NBA Draft, was chosen by the Baltimore Bullets, a franchise that had not enjoyed much success. During his initial season the team showed little improvement, finishing in the Eastern Division cellar. Monroe, however, was a standout. He was named NBA Rookie of the Year after averaging 24.3 points to finish fourth in the league in scoring. In one game against the Los Angeles Lakers he tossed in 56 points.
The Bullets’ fortunes improved after they surrounded Monroe with a strong roster that included All-Star Wes Unseld, bruising forward Gus Johnson, talented Jack Marin, and guards Kevin Loughery and Fred “Mad Dog” Carter. Monroe was at the head of the pack, leading a run-and-gun attack that was fueled by Unseld’s quick outlet passes. During the next three seasons Monroe averaged 25.8, 23.4 and 21.4 points, respectively, leading the Bullets into the playoffs each year.
Lacking great speed and leaping ability, Monroe compensated with a feathery jump shot and a patented spin move that he initiated by bumping up against an opponent and making contact before spinning away to launch one of his unorthodox shots. Most of all, Monroe made his mark with his uncanny moves to the hoop. Employing a hesitation dribble or perhaps a double-pump or triple-pump fake, he would slip past mystified opponents and drop in layups.
Observers said that watching him play was like listening to jazz; his moves resembled free-floating improvisations, riffs that took off in midflight and changed direction unpredictably. “The thing is, I don’t know what I’m going to do with the ball,” Monroe once admitted, “and if I don’t know, I’m quite sure the guy guarding me doesn’t know either.”
Fans and pros alike loved Monroe for his array of entertaining shots and his special flair. “Put a basketball in his hands and he does wondrous things with it,” said Bullets coach Gene Shue. “He has the greatest combination of basketball ability and showmanship.” In a New York Post interview, Baltimore teammate Ray Scott was less circumspect: “God couldn’t go one-on-one with Earl.”
In 1968-69, Monroe averaged 25.8 ppg to help the Bullets jump from last to first in their division. He also appeared in the All-Star Game for the first time, scoring 21 points and dazzling viewers with his moves. The season ended abruptly, however, when the Bullets faced the Knicks in the playoffs and were buried in four straight games.
At season’s end, Monroe was rewarded with a berth on the All-NBA First Team, the only such honor of his career. The Bullets and the Knicks hooked up again in the 1970 playoffs, tangling in a wild seven-game division semifinal. The Knicks prevailed a second time as Monroe starred in a losing effort. He fired in 39 points in a 120-117 double-overtime loss to the Knicks in Game 1.
The following year the Bullets got their revenge by overcoming the Knicks in seven games in the Eastern Conference finals, taking the final game in the hostile environs of Madison Square Garden. Monroe had to wait for his first championship ring, however. The Milwaukee Bucks, led by MVP Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Oscar Robertson, vanquished the Bullets in four straight games in the NBA Finals, only the second time a team had been swept in the championship series. Monroe averaged 21.4 points for the season and made his second trip to the NBA All-Star Game.
Monroe continued to be a key figure in the series of Bullets-Knicks playoffs that followed — a bitterly contested, long-running saga in which the two clubs faced each other in six consecutive years from 1969 to 1974. The series offered exciting games and dream matchups, the best of all being the duel between Monroe and the cool, stylish Walt “Clyde” Frazier. Both stars had entered the NBA the same year (Frazier was drafted by the Knicks three notches below Monroe) and each was called upon to guard the other during games.
Defensive wizard Frazier often battled Monroe to a standoff, but he likened guarding Monroe to “watching a horror movie.” After one skirmish Frazier marvelled, “You’d have to knock him out to stop him. He gets his body between you and the ball so you can’t get at it. Yet, he seems so relaxed. He doesn’t show a bit of pressure.”
Amazing as he was, Monroe failed to satisfy many basketball purists, who tended to downplay his overall value. Although he had led Baltimore to winning seasons and had carried his college team to a national championship, some perceived Monroe as simply a show-off who cared more about scoring baskets than about winning games.
Monroe never had a chance to prove his critics wrong in Baltimore. On Nov. 10, 1971, the unthinkable happened: Monroe was traded to the hated Knicks. During the offseason he had wrangled with Bullets management over his salary, and he had considered defecting to the American Basketball Association’s Indiana Pacers.
The Knicks parted with Mike Riordan, Dave Stallworth and cash to obtain Monroe. New York managed to retain the core group from its 1969-70 championship team, but not everyone cheered the trade. Critics questioned whether Monroe’s one-on-one style would clash with the team-oriented Knicks, who stressed defense and unselfish basketball, and whether he would fit in the backcourt alongside superstar and archrival Frazier.
At first, Monroe had trouble adapting to the new system in New York. With Frazier in the driver’s seat, Monroe handled the ball less than ever. He was also hobbled by battered knees and ankle problems during the 1971-72 season, limiting his playing time to 21.2 minutes per game. As a result, his scoring plummeted to 11.9 ppg. But during their second year together, Monroe and Frazier began to complement one another well. By season’s end they looked so good together that reporters were referring to them as the “Rolls Royce backcourt.”
After finishing second in the Atlantic Division, the Knicks faced Baltimore again in the playoffs. Monroe encountered signs that read, “Benedict Monroe.” Nevertheless, the Knicks defeated the Bullets in five games. In one game Monroe scored 32 points, his career high with the Knicks. New York went on to conquer the Boston Celtics, who had led the NBA with 68 victories, with a dramatic 94-78 Game 7 victory in Boston. The Knicks advanced to the 1973 NBA Finals and claimed the title by defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in five games. Monroe tallied 23 points in the deciding game.
By the end of the 1972-73 season Monroe had become a Madison Square Garden favorite. Although he averaged a relatively modest 15.5 ppg that year, his moves were as dazzling as ever. Reporters noted that he played unselfishly, passing up shots when teammates had better chances at the basket. He was also routinely given the defensive assignment of guarding the opposing team’s highest-scoring guard, thereby giving Frazier more freedom to make steals by patrolling the passing lanes. “I’m more dedicated, sure, and a different type of player,” Monroe told HOOP Magazine. “With Walt Frazier around I don’t handle the ball as much. But as great a team as the Knicks are, it boils down to one-on-one.”
After that championship year the Knicks began to falter. Willis Reed, on injured legs, lasted one more campaign. Jerry Lucas and Dave DeBusschere also retired after the 1973-74 season. Bill Bradley stayed on until 1977, the same year New York traded Frazier to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
During the mid-1970s, Monroe continued to be productive. He posted scoring averages of 20.9 ppg in 1974-75, 20.7 in 1975-76, and 19.9 in 1976-77. Monroe was an All-Star in 1975 and 1977, but the Knicks fell into decline, missing the playoffs entirely in 1979 and 1980, Monroe’s last two seasons.
Monroe retired in 1980 after averaging only 7.4 points in 51 appearances. During his 13-year career he had amassed 17,454 points in 926 games, evidence of his durability despite a history of knee and leg problems.
Following his retirement Monroe took his flair for showmanship into the entertainment industry. He managed several singing groups, launched a record company called Pretty Pearl Records, and returned to basketball to work as a television commentator.
In 1989, Monroe was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and in 1996 was named to the NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time Team. “If for any reason someone were to remember me,” he said during an interview with HOOP, “I hope they will remember me as a person who could play the game and excite the fans and excite himself.”
There’s little doubt that anyone who saw Monroe play will ever forget him. “Earl the Pearl” helped herald a new era in basketball, a more exciting game that showcased dazzling individual skills within a team context. He proved that you could win-and have a magical time doing it.