Head bobbing, arms akimbo, Earl Monroe moved like a marionette in agony.
Even while his arthritic knees were often as swollen as bath sponges and bone spurs rebelled against his every step, Monroe was a funky acrobat whose moves were no more predictable than those of a Ping-Pong ball in a wind tunnel.
When he was in his prime, as he was one spring afternoon in 1969 at Madison Square Garden, no one, not even a defender as quick and cagey as Walt Frazier, could do a thing to stop the "la-la," one of Monroe's spinning, blind-man's-bluff jump shots.
With his Baltimore Bullets teammates spread to the four corners of the half court like so many irrelevant, well-paid squires, Monroe backed in on Frazier, dribbling high to his armpit, sneaking ironic glances over his shoulder at the frantic Knickerbocker guard.
With the 24-second clock down to four or five seconds, with the New York fans screaming for "DE-fense," Monroe suddenly lifted his left arm, as if to shoot.
Frazier went for the bait like a catfish after an earthworm.
His defender leaning left, Monroe wheeled right and lofted a true 20-foot jump shot that had the implacable Gus Johnson waving his fist.
John F.X. Condon, for years the voice of the Garden, announced the obvious to the awestruck:
"That was Earl Monroe."
It certainly was.
Monroe finally settled for "Pearl," but he was also "Doctor" before Erving and "Magic" before Johnson. At the legendary Baker tournament at the Hope Baptist Church in Monroe's native Philadelphia, he also went by "Black Jesus" and "The Savior." Monroe's nicknames were tribute to his wizardry, his unapologetic individuality.
"Earl was one of the only players ever who could score whenever he wanted," said a former teammate, Wes Unseld. "Al Attles was one of the toughest defensive players there was, and one night Earl just frustrated the hell out of him, throwing up jumpers in his face, doing whatever he felt like. After a while Attles just sat down on the bench and never came back."
Monroe will play in a charity exhibition tonight at 7:30 at Capital Centre before the Bullets-Hawks game with some his old Baltimore teammates against a squad of Washington Redskins.
No doubt Monroe, now 38, will take it easy, flipping up a few shots that will be but an arch shadow of his youth's work. No need to aggravate his knees and bone spurs for nostalgia's sake. A fan's affection for Monroe's old magic is unshakable. A trick is best done once. The memory replays it and the event grows more astonishing with the years.
Some of Monroe's former teammates and foes assembled yesterday at a restaurant in Lanham, appropriately named "Memories," and recalled some of the Pearl's jauntier performances.
Jim (Bad News) Barnes took time out from pushing his "Bad News" barbecue sauce to comment on Monroe: "I remember the night he hit for 56 points against the Lakers. He shot from everywhere, it didn't matter where. Jerry West was one of the best defensive players going, and he couldn't do a thing against Earl."
Walt Bellamy, who has gained some girth and has seen his hairline race for the back court, said, "Earl was a menace to every team he played against. When I played against him, he was always capable of taking the game into his own hands.
"It was always . . . uh, interesting to play defense against Earl Monroe."
"I usually guarded Walt Frazier when we played the Knicks, but sometimes I moved over to Earl," said Phil Chenier. "Frazier was consistent, but Earl was so creative. He'd do anything, even shoot through his legs, to beat you.
"You'd think you had him stopped and then he'd just do something like flip it off the glass with his left hand. He added something new to the game all the time."
For those who grew up as New York sports fans in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the signal teams were the Knickerbockers, the Jets and the Mets. All three, with varying degrees of surprise, became champions that exemplified cohesion and depth, as well as talent.
It was Monroe's misfortune to play for the Bullets in 1969-70, when New York was on the way to its dramatic championship win over Los Angeles. The Bullets lost to the Knicks, 4-3, in the opening playoff series. Monroe was magnificent, but his play alone was not quite enough to disrupt the team of Frazier, Dick Barnett, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley.
Two years later, Monroe left Baltimore.
"Don't want a raise. Don't want Baltimore," he told owner Abe Pollin during their short-lived contract negotiations.
So the Bullets were forced to trade their pearl to New York for Dave Stallworth, Mike Riordan and cash. Monroe, who was NBA rookie of the year in 1967 after leaving Winston-Salem State with his high-scoring, freewheeling play, had to tailor his game to Red Holzman's more deliberate patterns. Where once Monroe dazzled Frazier with the ball, he would now have to share it with him. And to the suprise of nearly everyone, it worked. With a little help from Jerry Lucas, the Knicks won a second championship in 1972-73.
His trade to the Knicks, and his successful pairing with Frazier, was a boon to the adolescence of at least one New Jersey kid--the same kid who waited for him to appear at yesterday's luncheon, pen and pad in hand.
"Man, don't wait too long for Earl," said Barnes as the crowd began to thin. "When we played this game last year, he never showed up until halftime, and he was carrying a tennis racket."
"That's Earl Monroe," said Chenier with a laugh. And John F.X. Condon never said it any better.