Monroe, Earl Vernon, Jr.

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MONROE, Earl Vernon, Jr.

(b. 21 November 1944 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame who is considered one of the top fifty players in National Basketball Association (NBA) history.

Monroe was the first of three children born to Earl Vernon, a touring dancer and a night watchman, and Rose Smith Monroe Vernon, a grocery store manager, who divorced when he was five. Monroe graciously credits his family with helping him reach his dreams. As a child, Monroe's athletic interests favored soccer and baseball, but a leg break and reaching his full adult height of six feet, three inches by the age of fourteen, directed his life to the world of hoops. As a center on the John Bartram High School court in Philadelphia from 1959 to 1963, Monroe invented many clever and flamboyant basketball moves, earning the nickname "Thomas Edison." Monroe claims that he needed to invent these trick shots and fancy moves because other centers were taller than he was and had more experience on the court. Monroe finished his senior year in high school in 1963 with 21.7 points per game, earning him a spot on the Philadelphia All-City team.

Attending North Carolina's Winston-Salem State College (now University) from 1963 to 1967 as an elementary education major, Monroe played guard on its basketball team, the Rams. He was influenced and guided by one of the most successful coaches in college basketball, Hall of Famer Clarence ("Big House") Gaines. During his senior year in the 1966–1967 season, Monroe averaged an amazing 41.5 points per game. As the leading scorer in both the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) College Division and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), he led the Rams to an NCAA Division II championship. That season he earned a most valuable player award as the most outstanding player in an NCAA college division tournament. Monroe scored 1,329 points that year, the most ever scored by a Division II player in a single season. During his college career, Monroe tallied 2,935 points in 110 games, an average of 26.7 points per game. An All-American in 1966 and 1967, he was elected to the NAIA Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975. Monroe's other collegiate honors include the Sporting News First-Team All-American in 1966, the NCAA College Division All-Tournament Team in 1967, and the NAIA Golden Anniversary Team in 1986. In addition to these athletic honors, Monroe received a B.S. in education in 1967.

Monroe began his professional basketball career as the second choice in the 1967 NBA draft. Picked up by the Baltimore Bullets (now the Washington Wizards), he scored 1,991 points, an average of 24 points per game, playing guard in his first season. In a 13 February 1968 overtime game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Monroe scored a staggering fifty-six points, the third highest ever scored by a rookie and his own career scoring high. He was NBA Rookie of the Year in 1968.

Awesome scoring ability was not the only talent that drew attention to Monroe—his dazzling style infused fresh energy into the NBA, introducing new moves only seen before on urban playgrounds. Indeed, NBA great Bill Bradley described Monroe as the "ultimate playground player." Monroe could hang in the air before making one of his acrobatic shots. He called this mid-air state "la-la." Among his many "patented" moves were the wrap-around dribble, the super-quick spin move, the turn-around jump shot, and his fancy double-pump dribbling, often done between his legs. These jazzy moves led film director and avid Knicks fan Spike Lee to dub Monroe as "the Miles Davis of hoop." Monroe is also recognized as the master of the one-on-one, easily "juking" (faking out) opponents with head, shoulder, and body fakes. He was a deadly shot from outside, and although only six feet, three inches tall, he could also move easily from a shot that would score two points to one that could score three.

Monroe pioneered the "finesse, aggression, one-on-one play" that is now common in the NBA. Wes Unseld, Monroe's teammate and eventual Bullets general manager, acknowledged that Monroe "revolutionized this game." Many criticized Monroe's innovations, and he was called a flake, a "hot dog," and too flashy. The Bullets left him alone, however, perhaps because, as Monroe has said, "it's hard to knock 40 points a game." These critics "never understood that I was never overly big and I needed to use my guile." His guile and style earned the admiration of many fans and players alike.

Monroe finished the 1968–1969 season with a career high 2,065 points, an average of 25.8 points per game. In a 6 February 1970 double overtime game against the Detroit Pistons, Monroe scored thirteen points in one overtime, setting a record for that time. Monroe led his team to the NBA finals in 1971. Following that season, unhappy with management's contractual negotiations, he requested a trade to the New York Knickerbockers (Knicks).

Early in the 1971–1972 season, the Bullets honored Monroe's request, and he became a Knickerbocker. Many sportswriters and fans questioned whether Monroe could fit in with the team-oriented structure of the Knicks, particularly with its flamboyant Walt Frazier and other greats including Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, and Bill Bradley, plus coach Red Holzman—Hall of Famers all. Spike Lee observed that Monroe unselfishly sacrificed some of his flashy style of play to mesh with the Knicks offense. Not only did he fit in, he was named team captain during the 1976–1977 season.

Monroe missed much of his first season with the Knicks due to bone spurs in his left heel. In the following 1972–1973 season, Monroe helped New York win the NBA championship. That season, he averaged 15.5 points per game, and performed even better during playoffs, averaging 16.1 points per game. During his nine-year tenure with the Knicks, Monroe averaged 16.2 points per game and ranks as the team's eleventh all-time leading scorer.

Monroe retired in 1980 because of an arthritic knee condition. Within his thirteen-year NBA career, he racked up some remarkable statistics. As a guard, Monroe scored 17,454 points, averaging 18.8 points per game, which ranks 24th on the NBA all-time list. He is also credited with 3,594 assists, an average of 3.9 per game, and scored 1,000 points or more in 9 of his 13 years. He was a four-time member of the NBA's All-Star team, was named to the 1969 All-NBA First Team, and was selected for the NBA's Fiftieth Anniversary All-Time Team in 1996. In 1986 the Knicks retired his number 15 jersey. Monroe was bypassed for three years by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame but was eventually inducted in 1990.

Monroe remains interested in basketball. In March 1985 he was named the first commissioner of the fledgling United States Basketball League. He actively gives his time and one-on-one contact to inner-city kids playing basketball, and has been a radio commentator for the NBA All-Star game. Monroe has also been drawn to another passion, music. He founded an entertainment production and management firm called Pretty Pearl, Inc., and is its president and CEO. Appropriately coined from his basketball career, the company's two record labels are Pretty Pearl and In Your Face.

Throughout his successful career, Monroe earned several nicknames, including "Black Jesus" and "Magic." However, the one nickname that suited him best was "the Pearl." He sparkled on the court and bedazzled the game.

Monroe and former teammate Wes Unseld wrote The Basketball Skill Book (1973). Monroe himself has been the subject of a number of books, including Robert Blake Jackson, Earl the Pearl: The Story of Earl Monroe (1974), and Donald Goines, Street Players (2000). He has also graced the covers of a number of magazines including Basketball Digest (Mar. 1973), and Sports Illustrated (4 Nov. 1968), which contains an excellent article about his early career by Frank Deford, "The Doctor Works His Magic."

Bennet Susser

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Monroe, Earl Vernon, Jr.