Correction to This Article
This article mistakenly referred to basketball player Earl "the Pearl" Monroe joining the New York Knicks and passing the ball to Mike Riordan. The Knicks traded Riordan to the Baltimore Bullets as part of the deal for Monroe, so the two men did not play together on the Knicks.
Essay

Pearl's Unfaded Luster

A larger-than-life image of Earl Monroe presides over a news conference last week announcing the retirement of Monroe's Bullets jersey.
A larger-than-life image of Earl Monroe presides over a news conference last week announcing the retirement of Monroe's Bullets jersey. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)

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By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 29, 2007

It was chilly outside and the trees were barren. But when the news came, it raced around the neighborhood like blown leaves. Earl "The Pearl" Monroe and his Baltimore Bullets were coming to Columbus, Ohio, to the Fairgrounds Coliseum. We didn't have an NBA team in Columbus, but the Cincinnati Royals (now the Sacramento Kings) would schedule exhibition games at the fairgrounds.

From playground to front porch stoop, we 12- and 13-year-olds were delirious, slapping fives and giddily counting paper-route savings to scrounge up the price of admission. We were off to see the Pearl.

I listened to Bullets games on a transistor radio, a faraway announcer's voice sailing into my bedroom. I wondered how the Pearl got to be so good; if he used white shoe polish on the bottom edges of his white sneakers as I often did. (I knew he wore white hightops from the basketball magazines I hoarded.) He was something new, vivid and soulful.

Now and then -- an agonizingly rare occasion in those pre-cable days of the late '60s -- Monroe's Bullets would appear on TV. A guard, he played with a sly quickness. He was Houdini on the court, hiding the ball behind his back, revealing it at the last moment. But he also had the coolness of a white-gloved butler circling the dinner table.

On Saturday, the Washington Wizards -- formerly the Baltimore Bullets -- will retire the Pearl's No. 10 jersey. He played fewer seasons with the Bullets than he did with the New York Knicks, who retired his jersey there years ago. But it was the Bullets who introduced him to the world, both as an athlete and as a cultural icon.

Monroe eschewed the traditional mechanics of the game to serve up something new. His signature spin move seemed as potent as Yardbird's horn, as lovely as a line of Langston's verse. He ran with his arms splayed; his knees were known to be fragile. A darkly hued figure in Bullet orange, he erupted in arias both rare and beautiful. Filmmakers -- Woody Allen, Spike Lee -- would come to rhapsodize about him. In that klieg-lighted world of 1960s and early 1970s celebrity, the Pearl seemed something culled from music, fashion and black pride.

He was part of a defining era that saw athletes -- Walt "Clyde" Frazier of the New York Knicks, Joe "Willie" Namath of the New York Jets, John "Frenchy" Fuqua of the Pittsburgh Steelers among them -- flow from the sports pages into our wider cultural consciousness. Gay Talese and James Baldwin found freedom in their expressions. GQ magazine understood their vibe. There was the Pearl in fedora and long, belted coat. There he was in Essence magazine dressed in tennis whites and holding a racket. The sports figure had arrived as hipster, stopped by fashion photographers.

The Pearl didn't follow the trend in the game toward huge leaps and slam dunks. Let Julius "Dr. J" Erving or Connie "The Hawk" Hawkins handle such missions. He operated beneath the basket and preferred the finger roll, the ball floating up like a feather. Sometimes coming down the court -- fast as he could, which wasn't very fast -- he slowed like someone waiting to cross the street. Then -- poof -- he vanished down the lane.

Only a precious few had seen him play at Winston-Salem College, now known as Winston-Salem State University, part of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, the nation's oldest black athletic conference.

Those in the know pronounce it C Eye Double-A. And in the mid-'60s, in the CIAA, the Pearl was all the rage. News spread about him on the grapevine the way Southern women spread news about some gospel quartet seen in Alabama or North Carolina that had dropped them to their knees. Ebony magazine would have spreads about the yearly CIAA basketball tournament. Three- and four-page spreads, as much about the fashion extravagance of the weekend as about the basketball.

Monroe had scored plenty as a high school player at John Bartram High in Philadelphia. But the major college recruiters didn't chase after him. Maybe it was the times. Maybe it was the myopia of big-time college coaches, who were reluctant to field majority-black teams. Monroe's coach at Winston-Salem was Clarence "Big House" Gaines, who let Monroe become the Pearl. Monroe played in the South as the civil rights movement hummed beyond the campus dorms. Black college ball wasn't always on the nation's radar then, but a lot of first-generation college students would carry his exploits in their memory for years to come. The Pearl's legend grew. Some took to calling him "Jesus."

My boyhood hoops mate, Steve Flannigan, got himself down to North Carolina, to the C Eye Double-A, and into a basketball uniform for St. Augustine's College. On visits back home to Columbus, he'd regale us with stories about the Pearl that were still floating across the gyms and playgrounds long after Monroe had departed, such as how in one game the Pearl launched a jumper deep in the corner as time expired only to fade into the locker room before the ball sailed through the net.


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