The Pearl Changed The Culture of the Game

By Mike Wise
Saturday, December 1, 2007

In his autobiography "Giant Steps," Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recounted the day an all-star team from Philadelphia came to claim the Rucker League crown. He spoke of a player who had moves the gangly teen never had seen, vividly describing the two busloads of worshipers who came to see him play.

Harlem, circa 1966, and the only sound was a "continuous wail that seemed to be coming from everywhere.

"Where's Jesus? Black Jesus!"

Earl Monroe parted the crowd to get to the court. They kept chanting, in a whisper now:

"Black Jesus, Black Jesus, Black Jesus."

"Mount Morris Park, that's where it was played," Monroe said yesterday. "What a place. . . . What a time."

Yesterday afternoon, it was all about back in the day. Same goes for tonight at Verizon Center, where a franchise's past and future will be seamlessly fused together in a long overdue ceremony.

Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, who played for the Baltimore Bullets from 1967 to 1971, will have his number raised to the rafters of the building alongside Wes Unseld's No. 41, Elvin Hayes's No. 11 and Gus Johnson's No. 25 this evening, 36 years after the smoothest, sweetest player of his generation left town, taking his soulful brilliance with him to Madison Square Garden.

For once, Gilbert Arenas will share the arena with another player who has taken more thrill-seeking, wild shots than himself. But his ego is okay with that.

"Come on, that's Earl Monroe," Arenas said yesterday. "I had an Earl number 10 Black Jesus shirt made just for Saturday. You got to see it."

That's the thing about the Pearl: From a teenage Lew Alcindor to a current NBA all-star, even the game's stars always have been in awe of Monroe.

He played here only four seasons, "but Baltimore and Washington is where I became the player everyone remembered," Monroe said. His titles and celebrity status were acquired in New York, but he entered the Hall of Fame in 1990 with a Bullets jersey. "Where I really got my start."

The adolescent reading this who believes improvisation and creativity started with Michael and now resides on an AND1 bus needs to check himself before he wrecks himself. Monroe spun his body 360 degrees in midair before Jordan or LeBron James's mother were born. So unpredictable, so original, Monroe painted more than he played, and the court was his canvas. He once was asked to describe his stutter-stepping, stop-and-pop game. The Pearl settled on this:

"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."

Monroe was less a symbol of basketball's evolution than society's. He was not a free-flowing player as much as an ideal -- a pirouetting vision of black empowerment, who married sport and pop culture long before Jordan. Something about his loping gait, his easygoing, "don't-worry-I-got-this-game" smile -- Monroe and teammate Walt Frazier's style and panache flat-out reflected the zeitgeist of 1970s New York.

Clyde and the Pearl in fur on Friday night -- that was how to live.

The Black Jesus tale isn't even my favorite Monroe story. No, you have to bring in Miles Davis for that one. The man who gave us "Birth of the Cool" often would telephone the embodiment of cool courtside.

"He talked with such a raspy voice, I couldn't understand him," Monroe said. "He kept saying, 'Ded, ded,' and I would keep saying, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' like I knew what he was talking about. It wasn't until I read Miles's autobiography that I realized he was trying to give me the name of his orthopedic surgeon."

Monroe needed bone spurs removed and Miles thought he could help. "Wish I could've understood him," he said.

"He was Miles," Monroe said, and he wasn't the only '70s icon to deal with adversity. The Pearl carried an awful secret to the stage the night he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame 17 years ago. Monroe was severely in debt and had no health insurance. His joints and cartilage throbbed from all the midair improvisation during his youth. Double hip-replacement surgery would have to wait.

Three years ago, he admitted to me that he owed the IRS $5.5 million, money the IRS said had been hidden in tax shelters by his accountant in the 1970s. "I looked at 'em and said, 'I didn't make this much; how did I owe this much?' " he said then.

Too prideful to ask friends for help, it took him most of the 1990s pay off the debt. "I went underground. The last thing I would do is ask somebody to help me," he said. At the time, he relied on a $5,000 donation from former NBA player Dave Bing, one of the NBA Retired Players Association's founders, to steady his life again.

This is the part of Monroe's story edited from the highlight package.

The Pearl, penniless. Crazy, right? That's what Monroe thought. So he took it upon himself to devote his efforts to bettering life for players who didn't benefit from the stratospheric salaries of today; the average salary when he and Frazier played in 1974 was $30,000. Monroe never made more than $200,000 per season.

Recent changes in the pension plan have helped the retired players a bit, but Monroe presses on. "For the most part in my era, guys already took their pensions," he said. "We need programs for hospitalization when guys need it. I mean, the new deal is all well and good, but we still have guys that have are hurting out there. If we don't do it, who's going to?"

Certainly not this generation of fans. Marita Green, Monroe's wife, told me a disturbing story about the 2004 All-Star Game in Los Angeles. The woman distributing credentials to the Magic Johnson tribute had never heard of Earl Monroe. When he finally convinced her of his worthiness to wear an NBA lanyard, he and Marita strolled down the red carpet and heard loud applause.

"I thought, 'Finally, Earl gets his due around here,' " she said. "Then I turned around. They were cheering for Dennis Rodman."

And yet Monroe makes it clear: He's not an old head about to go off on an "in-my-day" rant. He knows he had it good.

He's now a big fan of LeBron and Dwyane Wade, whose subtle flair he admits reminds of himself. And he loves Arenas, who last season erupted for 60 points one night and broke Monroe's single-game franchise scoring record against the same Lakers that Monroe once dropped 56 points on; it only took someone 38 years to eclipse his mark.

Asked if Arenas takes as many ill-advised shots as himself, he added, "Hey, if they go in, it's all good."

Monroe discovered he had an enlarged prostate nine years ago and now speaks to men about urinary care on behalf of a drug company. He still is recovering from hip-replacement surgery in July. A setback while walking in the sand in Puerto Rico this past summer left him feeling "a little gimpy" for his big night.

It's wild to think the Pearl is 63 now. He and Marita moved from New Jersey back to Harlem several years ago.

They live a 10-minute subway ride from where he and Clyde ruled Manhattan, where a flamboyant guard became something more than a basketball player. Much more.

"My first years in Baltimore, that was a great place and time. But once you leave that, you can't recapture it," he said.

As his No. 10 Baltimore Bullets jersey ascends to the roof of the arena tonight, Earl Monroe can't blame us for trying.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company