By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 2, 2007
Before each game of his illustrious Hall of Fame career, Earl Monroe said his hands would start sweating, but shortly after he made one of his deft drives to the basket or buried one of his jumpers, the clammy feeling was gone. When he woke up yesterday morning, on the day the Washington Wizards planned to retire his No. 10 jersey -- more than 36 years after he played his final game for the Baltimore Bullets -- Monroe said he couldn't stop his heart from racing.
"It seemed like I was getting nervous," Monroe said. "That's not like me."
No, during his 13-year career with the Bullets and New York Knicks, Monroe was the essence of cool. He had the cool nicknames (Black Jesus, The Pearl), the coolest teammate (Walt "Clyde" Frazier) and even cool friends (Miles Davis). And last night, the Bullets finally recognized Monroe's contributions to the franchise by lifting his jersey to the rafters, where it will hang alongside those of Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Gus Johnson. "It has been a long time coming, but better late than never," Monroe said.
Unseld was among several former Bullets to take part in the ceremony, which also included Mike Riordan, Archie Clark, Kevin Loughery, Phil Chenier and Wizards President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld. After a short video with James Brown music providing the soundtrack, Wizards owner Abe Pollin addressed the fans. "Not only did the people not know what you were doing out there, you didn't know what the hell you were doing either," Pollin said, laughing. "That's why they couldn't guard you."
As Monroe walked toward the center circle, the fans at Verizon Center rose and gave him a standing ovation. "This is one of the highlights of my life," Monroe said. His eyes welled up and he smiled as he finally watched his jersey raised.
Monroe, 63, said the idea of retiring his jersey began shortly after he returned home from the Hall of Fame induction last summer. Robert Pollin, son of Abe Pollin, called Monroe to help film a documentary on his father. After Monroe taped his part for the documentary, Robert Pollin asked what he thought about having his number retired. "What did I think?" Monroe said. "I said, 'Hey that's a great idea. That's something I've been waiting on a long time.' "
"When I first got here, I mean Baltimore, that team was destined to move, either to Houston or somewhere else. We made a great showing the second half of the season and people started to come out to see games. Then Wes came the next year and we went last to first," Monroe said. "That solidified the whole scenario here. For me, it only made sense" to have the number retired."
Monroe was traded following a contract dispute in 1971. Although he played nine seasons in New York, winning his only championship in 1973, Monroe said he always felt a special connection to the Baltimore Bullets. Drafted as the No. 2 pick in the 1967 NBA draft, he dazzled fans with his improvisational style, developing a patented pirouette move in which he dribbled, spun, caught up to the ball, and scored. He finished with the third-highest scoring average in franchise history at 23.7 points per game. He held the franchise scoring record of 56 points for more than 38 years until Gilbert Arenas scored 60 against the Los Angeles Lakers last season.
"I know most of these records are made to be broken. And it was good to see that a guy who legitimately could score did it," Monroe said. Then he paused. "I will say that I wasn't shooting three-pointers at that time."
He was called Black Magic, but he was a bit overwhelmed when fans began to refer to him as Black Jesus. "They would not just say Black Jesus. They would bow," Monroe said, laughing. "That was cool for the time, I guess. Deifying me was nice."
But the nickname that meant the most to him was one he received as a high school standout in Philadelphia. They called him Thomas Edison. "Because I invented things as I was coming down," Monroe said with a smile.
As he made his closing statements to the crowd, Monroe said, "It's unbelievable that after all these years that I can still feel this great coming out to the court."
Sweaty palms and all.