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New York Knicks great Bill Bradley said, "There has never been a basketball player like Earl Monroe. He wasn't the quickest guy or overpowering physically, but he was uniquely a great player. What set him apart was his control of the ball, his sense of the court and his uncanny ability to judge the distance between him and anyone who could block his shot. He made things happen with the ball that defied explanation."
Earl Monroe, who was in the prime before the days of ESPN, was one of the most exciting players ever to play in the NBA. His game, honed on the playgrounds of Philadelphia, heavily influenced others and thrilled crowds.
More than a showman, Monroe was named Rookie of the Year as a Baltimore Bullet and made the All-Star Team four times. He helped the New York Knicks to a world championship in 1972-73. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1990 and was named one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players in 1996.
I was fortunate to have seen Earl Monroe play for the Baltimore Bullets at the Baltimore Civic Center from 1967-1971 when I was a student at Towson University. I was an Earl Monroe fan, and over the years I have read a lot about him. What has always been lacking, however, is information about his days growing up in Philadelphia and his career at Winston-Salem State College.
The strength of Monroe's biography is his willingness to discuss these two subjects in great detail. He spends 80 pages on his childhood and another 80 pages on his career at Winston-Salem. Earl gives great insight into his early years, discussing his mother, who was the driving force in his life growing up, his friends and neighbors. He worked hard to improve his game in high school, striving to surpass those who were better than he was. A poor student at Bartram High School, Earl had limited basketball scholarship opportunities. Although he later found out that his high school coach had withheld several offers from him. Earl planned to play with the Philadelphia entry in the American Basketball League, but the league folded.
Earl says the turning point in his life came when he beat Matt Jackson, who had been the leading Philadelphia high school scorer and attended South Carolina State, in a highly touted playground match up. His reputation and notoriety soared, and he said, "Things would never be the same."
At Winston-Salem, Earl led the team to a 31-1 record as a senior and paced the nation in scoring with 41.5 points per game. Winston-Salem became the first black college to win the NCAA Division II championship and Earl was named tournament MVP and Division II Player of the Year.
Ironically, Earl was not selected for the Pan-American team in May of 1967. Earl called his omission a "racist decision." He said Coach Jim Gudger, "Didn't like my style of play. It was too street, too playground, too black." Earl writes, "Not making the Pan-Am team hurt a lot, left a scar that lasts to this day. The incident changed me fundamentally. It made me more aware of what I did as a black man and how the country treated blacks. It turned me from a pacifist to an activist."
Selected No. 2 in the 1967 NBA draft by the Baltimore Bullets (behind Jimmy Walker of Providence College), the naive Monroe signed a two-year contract for a total of $39,000 without reading it or negotiating (he had no agent). In the meantime, Walker and Bill Bradley were signing contracts worth many times more.
Bullet coach Gene Shue embraced Earl's style of play and encouraged him to take control of the game. As a rookie, Earl averaged 24.3 points per game and earned Rookie of the Year honors. Describing his play, Earl said, "I played like a musician plays an instrument in a freestyle jazz solo type of way."
The following season, the Bullets drafted Wes Unseld and the club fashioned a 57-25 record, the best in the NBA. Unseld, Monroe, Gus Johnson, Kevin Loughery, Jack Marin, Ray Scott and the other Bullets, however, were ousted in the playoffs by the New York Knicks, who were fast becoming their main rival. The Knicks knocked the Bullets out of the playoffs in seven games the following year. Monroe had surgery on both knees that summer. The Bullets got their revenge in 1970-71 when they beat the Knicks in seven games in the playoffs. They were swept in four straight in the championship series, however, by the Milwaukee Bucks.
Early in the 1971-72 season, Earl forced the Bullets to trade him. Surprisingly, he was traded to the Knicks, who already had superstar Walt Frazier in the backcourt. Despite a lot of doubters, Earl blended his game to fit the Knicks' more controlled "hit-the-open-man" philosophy. He was no longer the franchise player he had been with the Bullets. Earl's quest for a NBA championship was fulfilled in 1973 when the Knicks beat the Lakers for the title. Although he played seven more seasons with the Knicks, he concludes the account of his career after the 1973 season.
The final 45 pages of the book are an epilogue of Earl sharing his thoughts on the game and the greatest players. There are few surprises here. Perhaps most interesting is the list of people he believes should be in the Basketball Hall of Fame--Bob Love, Bob Dandridge, JoJo White, Bernard King and Coach John McLendon.
While Earl Monroe's autobiography is a welcomed addition, it would have benefited from a more in-depth discussion of his playing career. He covers just two of his nine years with the Knicks, allotting 70 pages, many of which, however, focus on his love life, which he seems very willing to discuss. He dismisses the Bullets 1971 championship series against the Bucks in two pages, and the Knicks' 1973 championship series against the Lakers in seven pages. There is no strategy, turning points or insights offered. Game accounts are dry and lifeless.