Monroe, Earl "The Pearl" (1944—)

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Monroe, Earl "The Pearl" (1944—)

From the playgrounds of South Philadelphia in the early 1960s, through a 13-year career in the National Basketball Association (NBA), Earl "The Pearl" Monroe earned renown for his artistry on the court. Widely considered one of the greatest guards in basketball history, Monroe is best known for his hesitation fakes, 360-degree spins, and other entertaining individual moves. Yet Monroe's successes were as dependent on his discipline and intense dedication to winning as they were on the crowd-pleasing displays of flashy brilliance that earned him the nicknames "The Pearl," "Black Jesus," and "Magic." As part of the generation of African American ballplayers who transformed major college and professional basketball in the 1960s and 1970s, Monroe was crucial in popularizing the one-on-one style of offence which is now common at all levels of play.

Monroe did not begin seriously playing basketball until he was 14. Although his interest in the game was prompted by a junior high school coach, Monroe's initial basketball education occurred primarily on the playgrounds. As he put it: "All my style came from the Philadelphia schoolyards." At that time, African American basketball in Philadelphia centered on the Baker League, a summer program that featured playground legends, experienced pros, college stars, and promising teenagers. Largely self-taught, Monroe learned the game by closely observing the Baker league players, imitating their moves, and inventing his own.

At Philadelphia's John Bartram High School, Monroe mostly played center, averaging 21.7 points his senior year. After a year working in a factory and attending Temple Prep School, Monroe enrolled at Winston-Salem (North Carolina) College. At the all-Black Winston-Salem, Monroe came under the tutelage of Basketball Hall of Fame coach Clarence "Big House" Gaines. Despite clashes over Monroe's freewheeling playground style, the coach became a kind of surrogate father to the young ballplayer, aiding his maturation both off and on the court. Of particular importance were Gaines' caution-ary tales about flamboyant, talented African American ballplayers (especially Cleo Hill, a guard whose game resembled Monroe's) whose professional opportunities were limited by the racism of owners, coaches, and fans. Monroe flourished at Winston-Salem. His scoring average climbed from seven points per game as a freshman to 41.5 points per game in his senior year, breaking the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Division II record for most points in a season (1,329) and helping Winston-Salem become the first all-Black school to win the NCAA Division II championship.

On breaks from college, Monroe continued to frequent the playgrounds of Philadelphia, where his skills and style generated an almost religious devotion from his fans. In his book Giant Steps, future all time NBA scoring champion Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recalls two busloads of Philadelphians coming to New York to cheer on the Monroe-led 1965 Baker league champions in the legendary Rucker tournament: " … [T]hey set up a continuous wail that seemed to be coming from everywhere. 'Where's Jesus?' 'Black Jesus!"' On the first play of the game he caught their attention and delighted his fans with a stop-and-go hesitation dribble that developed into a leaping 360-degree spin, culminating in a pinpoint pass for an assist. Jabbar, at that time a nationally known prep star and seasoned veteran of New York's playgrounds, had never seen anyone play like Monroe.

In many ways, Monroe was unique. Unlike most other elite African American basketball players (of his and subsequent generations), Monroe did not rely on physical intimidation or tremendous leaping ability. He played with finesse, and he played mostly below the rim. His ability to score was dependent on his quickness and his rhythmic deceptions. His herky-jerky moves and off-balance shots appeared awkward, but were very effective. His tendency towards individual improvisation prompted more than one writer to compare Monroe to a great jazz soloist. The obvious joy Monroe displayed while individually dominating his opponents and forging his distinctive style made him a fan favorite. Many young players have emulated Monroe to the point where the qualities that once made him unique—360-degree spins, double-pump fakes, one-on-one play, stop-and-go dribbles—are now common. The style that Monroe brought from the playground has, as Village Voice writer Clayton Riley put it, become "institutionalized."

In 1967 Monroe was selected as the Baltimore Bullets' number one draft choice (second overall in the NBA draft). In his first season, he averaged 24.9 points per game and was named rookie of the year. The Bullets made the playoffs each of Monroe's four seasons in Baltimore, while Monroe averaged 23.7 points per game. In 1972, after a disagreement with Bullets management, he was traded to the New York Knicks.

The move to New York raised Monroe's profile. The Knicks had won the NBA championship in 1970, becoming media darlings in the process. Overall, basketball was growing in popularity. In part this new popularity can be credited to the ways in which African American players were changing the game. The civil rights movement had helped open up opportunities in the NBA for exciting players like Monroe. To some fans, and many in the media, basketball's appeal was tied up with romantic notions of African American life. Ironically, the very qualities that would have hindered Monroe a decade earlier now enhanced his appeal to many whites.

Initially, many doubted that Monroe's individualistic style would mesh well with the team-oriented Knicks. To a great degree, these doubts reflected more general misgivings about the style of play that African Americans were bringing to the game. After his first year, Monroe learned to integrate his individual brilliance into the Knicks' framework, and helped lead the team to the NBA championship in 1973.

Summing up Monroe's contribution to basketball, in Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball, Nelson George wrote: "… he ushered in a jazzy, exciting, demonstrative approach, that old-school NBA observers hated." It is this approach, pioneered by Monroe and his contemporaries, which has largely been responsible for basket-ball's global popularity in the 1980s and 1990s.

—Thomas J. Mertz

Further Reading:

Bradley, Bill. Life on the Run. New York, Quadrangle, 1976.

Hoffman, Anne Byrne. Echoes from the Schoolyard: Informal Portraits of NBA Greats. New York, Hawthorne Books, Inc., 1977.

Jackson, Robert B. Earl the Pearl: The Story of Earl Monroe. New York, H. Z. Walck, 1969.

Nelson, George. Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball. New York, Harper Collins Publishers, 1992.

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Monroe, Earl "The Pearl" (1944—)

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Monroe, Earl "The Pearl" (1944—)