Earl "The Pearl" Monroe is a basketball legend whose impact on the game transcends statistics, a player known as much for his unorthodox, "playground" style of play as his championship pedigree. Observers said that watching him play was like listening to jazz, his moves resembling freefloating improvisations. "I don't know what I'm going to do with the ball," Monroe once admitted, "and if I don't know, I'm quite sure the guy guarding me doesn't know either."
Traded to the New York Knicks before the 1971–72 season, Monroe became a key member of the beloved, star-studded 1972–73 Knicks team that captured the NBA title. And now, on the 40th anniversary of that championship seasonthe franchise's lastMonroe is finally ready to tell his remarkable story.
Written with bestselling author Quincy Troupe (Miles, The Pursuit of Happyness) Earl the Pearl will retrace Monroe's life from his upbringing in a tough South Philadelphia neighborhood through his record-setting days at Winston-Salem State, to his NBA Rookie of the Year season in 1967, his tremendous years with the Baltimore Bullets and ultimately his redemptive, championship glory with the New York Knicks. The book will culminate with a revealing epilogue in which Monroe reflects on the events of the past 40 years, offers his insights into the NBA today, and his thoughts on the future of the game he loves.
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About the Author
EARL MONROE is one of the greatest and most beloved players in basketball history. Inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1990 and named to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players list in 1996, Monroe left an indelible stylistic mark on the game of basketball. He lives in New York City.
QUINCY TROUPE is the author of seventeen books including Miles: The Autobiography of Miles Davis (with jazz legend Miles Davis) and The Pursuit of Happyness (with Chris Gardner), which was a New York Times bestseller for 40 weeks. He lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
EARLY LIFE IN SOUTH PHILLY
I WAS BORN AT 2:15 IN THE MORNING on a wintry day, November 21, 1944, at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. My mother, Rose, named me Vernon Earl Monroe Jr., after my father. Being born on that day makes me a Scorpio, and the biggest significance about that is the fact that I'm pretty perceptive about a lot of things, at least I think so. One thing is certain: I don't forget a lot of things and I'm very vindictive, which some say is a trait of Scorpios. Generally, though, I look at how people treat me and then I treat them the same way. See, I'm a big advocate of the old saying that you do unto others as they do unto you.
Anyway, they tell me the day I was born was a very cold day and after my older sister Ann came to see me, she told people I was about 23 or 24 inches of nothing but skin and bones. She also said I was "the ugliest thing she'd ever seen." At least that's what she told me she said over the years. But, you know, she loved me so much when I was coming up that later on I kind of forgave her for that comment, though not altogether.
My mother's last name changed to Smith when she married again after my father left, but while my father was around she was Rose Monroe. Before that she was just Rose Hall, which was her family name. She was one of 18 kids, born somewhere in the middle of my grandmother's children. By the time I was born, all of my mother's brothers and sisters except three had passed away: There was just my mother and her two sisters, Aunt Nicey and Aunt Mary, and Uncle Jim. But Uncle Jim died on the 22nd of November, the day after I was born. Ma--that's what I called my mother--told me later that Uncle Jim had died relatively young, at around 40, after he swallowed a red-hot potato that burned up his insides. I don't know if that's the real truth, but there's no one around to refute it. So people in my family always said things like "when God takes something away, God brings you something back," and that "something," I guess, was me.
Ma was born September 14, 1914, in New Bern, North Carolina, and my father, Vernon Earl Monroe, was born on Christmas Day, 1912, in Columbia, South Carolina. They were married in the early 1940s but didn't stay together very long: I think he left when I was five or six years old. She was 30 years old when she had me, and my parents brought me home to a row house located at 2524 Alter Street in South Philadelphia (it's no longer there), where I lived until I was 11 years old.
Philadelphia is famous for its row houses, which line the streets of the inner city for block after block. I think row houses were first built in Philadelphia, or at least that's what I remember some people telling me when I was growing up. Anyway, row houses are attached to each other at the sides and most are not too big in size. They have white stone steps that lead up to the entrance of the house from the sidewalks called stoops, and you find people sitting on them, especially during the hot summers. I lived in that row house on Alter Street with my mother, my sister Ann, and my father, until he left. John Smith, my stepfather, moved in a couple of years later. A year or so after my stepfather moved in, my baby sister, Theresa, was born. But we all, at one time or another, lived in that two- story house I was brought home to when I was born.
That house had a basement with a furnace, and it also served as a place that we stored a lot of stuff in, including coal for the furnace. On the first floor there was a living room, dining room, and a kitchen. Behind it was a small yard that had an outhouse nobody used. Behind the yard was an alleyway piled high with a lot of trash (some stinking garbage, too), and it ran the length of one city block. We sometimes used to play hide and go seek back there in the daytime (but never at night), and when we ran through the alley it would be like running up and down small hills, with low-lying flat stretches between each hill of trash.
At night--and sometimes even during the day--criminals used to run through this alley to try to escape from cops who were after them for whatever crimes they had committed--mostly small-time stuff. Many times they would get away, because the cops were afraid to really search for them back there. Plus, the crooks were guys from the neighborhood and they knew where all the hiding places were, which route to take to get away--you know, the tricks of the trade of being escape artists. But sometimes they would get caught by the cops and go to jail, though this didn't happen often.
In the front of the house, on the first floor, there was a small vestibule you had to go through to get to the front door, which led outside to Alter Street. Then you went down four whitewashed steps to cross the sidewalk and then you were on the street, which was dirt and cobblestone. On the second floor of the house were a small bedroom for my sister Ann and a larger master bedroom that my mother and father (and later, my stepfather) slept in, along with me. I slept in a baby crib until I outgrew it and bunked down on a cot. It was cozy up there, a little tight, but no one ever complained.
Around the time I was four or five years old, I remember Ann--who was 15 years older than me--was going with a man named Andrew "Big Jimmy" James, who later became her husband. Anyway, when Big Jimmy would come over to the house in the daytime during the summer to see Ann, they would be trying to make out in the front room, because Ma and my father were away working. So they would be on the couch, trying to be romantic, you know, kissing and whatnot, and I'd come into the front room, put two chairs together and lay there looking at them. They never said anything, but I knew they were pissed off by the way they looked at me. Big Jimmy probably thought I was part of the CBA, you know, the Cock Blockers Association! Maybe he even thought I was the king of it, you know what I mean? (When I spoke at Ann's funeral in 2007, I said, "I know Andrew must have been thinking back then when he and Ann first met that I was the king of the CBA.")
My maternal grandmother, who we all called "Mom," ran a speakeasy next door to our house, at 2522 Alter Street, from the time I was born. And, at the same time, my mother ran card games in our house on weekends, when people got off work. They would come over to my mother's house and play card games like bid whist, pitty pat, and tonk, and they played for money. As I grew older, I would stay up late just to watch what was going on. Sometimes someone--I can't remember who they were, though it might have been a man named J.D.--would carry me on their shoulders over to Mom's place and I'd watch the people gambling and playing the numbers, because my grandmother did this, too. Then someone would say, "Hey Earl, what number should I play?" And I would give them a number and they'd play it. Or, somebody would be shooting dice and my grandmother would say to me, "Earl, call the number." And I would call it. And if they won she would say, "See, I told you. Earl's a good luck numbers guy."
But my mother didn't like me being there, around this kind of stuff. So she'd be monitoring what was going on and she'd tell me sometimes, "Go on home, Earl. Stay upstairs, boy, and go to bed."
During the day my grandmother had a store where she sold candy and food all year round and shaved-ice cones drenched with different-colored sweet syrups we called "water ices" (they called them "snowballs" or "snow cones" in other places) during the summer, when it was hot. At night Mom would sell liquor for 50 cents a shot--you know, bourbon, scotch, and gin--and glasses of wine, beer, and whatnot in her house.
She also sold pork sandwiches, pickled pigs' feet from a big old jar full of them, chitlins, anything fried. Just slap some bread on whatever it was to absorb some of the liquor and people could drink more because they had a base of grease in their bellies. So she'd be selling fried porgy sandwiches- -with all the bones left in the fish--that people ate like there was no tomorrow. Sometimes, all of a sudden someone would start choking and coughing because they had a bone caught in their throat. Then somebody would have to run and get a loaf of bread so they could wash the bone down their throats with water. (I never liked greasy food like pigs' feet or chitlins, myself. I just couldn't get down with it, especially chitlins, because the smell just turned me off.)
Everybody who came by gambled, shot craps, drank, played the numbers, things like that. All of this went on in my grandmother's house. Later, as I grew older, I watched people dancing and listening to the music of Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, the Platters, and James Brown.
The first real lasting image I can recall of my father was him pulling me aside one day and telling me he was going away. I remember this day vividly, because before he left he told me to hold out both my hands, and I did. Then he poured two handfuls of shiny silver dollars into my cupped hands. When my father gave me all those shiny silver dollars, I thought it had to be all the money in the world. That made me real happy, even though I never really cherished money too much--although I always knew I needed to make some--when I was growing up. But I thought after my father gave me those silver dollars that I could always make do in my life, because the actual fact that my father gave me all those shiny silver coins could really carry me through to accomplish whatever it was I wanted to do in my life. Now, whether that's true or not, I have never forgotten that moment. After all, I was only five.
Back then those silver dollars really meant something special to me. My mother kept them for me for safekeeping and she would give me one every now and then, whenever I really needed something. Maybe that's why later on, after I hooked up with my father again, I always saw him as a source of money until I got to know him much better. I don't know, I never thought about it. But when he gave me all those silver dollars that day, that was the last time I remember seeing him until we were reunited 14 or 15 years later, when I was 19 years old and in my first year of college. That was an important, eventful day for me and I will talk more about it later. But I didn't know anything about my father when I was growing up. As a matter of fact, I told everybody he was dead, even though I knew he wasn't. I guess I might have been ashamed of the fact that I didn't have a real father around, so I lied. Plus, I really didn't know where he was, so it was almost as if he was dead.
In 1951, when I was six, I remember my mother started living with John Smith, who I called Mr. John. Suddenly, he was just there. My sister Ann, who was living with us at the time, left the house after she married Andrew James in March 1951. Big Jimmy was in the army, stationed out in Colorado Springs, Colorado, so Ann moved out there with him and I moved into her room and laid claim to her bed.
My sister Theresa was born September 11, 1951. Her father was John Smith. I remember Ann bought Ma a TV set for her birthday, which corresponded with Theresa's homecoming from the hospital. That was great timing! Because it was the first TV set on our block, that was when a lot of neighborhood people started coming by our house, especially young kids, to sit up and look with wonder at the black-and-white images coming out of what was then considered a magical little box with a screen.
It was something else just watching people's faces as they craned their necks, leaned forward to watch that rectangle with a flickering small screen and those rabbit ears sitting up on top. My grandmother used to talk to the set, saying, "don't you go there, don't you see people are waiting for you!" People would be staring in amazement--and disappointment, too--at all that weird-looking white and gray flickering and listening to the buzzing fuzz sounds coming from the TV, until somebody had the sense to get up and turn the set off. Then the people visiting our house would file out the front door looking bewildered and dazed and our family would go upstairs and go to bed.
When "Mr. John" first came to live with us, I was very young and really didn't have any thoughts about him one way or the other. I mean, he was just somebody else there, and I can't recollect drawing any kind of conclusion about him beyond the fact that he had come to live with us. After Theresa was born we became a family, and that stood for something. But as time went on and I grew older, my stepfather started to get on my nerves and I began to dislike him, especially the way he treated my mother. Still, I must admit, he always had a good job--he was a butcher at A&P Market--and he made really good money, which took care of us and all the bills very well.
Table of Contents
Foreword Senator Bill Bradley v
Part 1 Growing Up in South Philly: 1944 to 1959
Chapter 1 Early Life in South Philly 3
Chapter 2 Coming of Age, Junior High School, and My Introduction to Basketball: 1956 to 1959 33
Chapter 3 High School Years: 1959 to 1962 53
Part 2 Stepping on the Gas: Running Over Potholes on the Road to Glory
Chapter 4 Becoming a Star in South Philly: The Turning Point, Summer 1962 83
Chapter 5 A Lost Year: 1962 to 1963 93
Chapter 6 Lessons from My First Year at Winston-Salem: 1963 to 1964 103
Chapter 7 Reuniting with My Father: Summer 1964 119
Chapter 8 Reaching for Stardom in My Sophomore Year: 1964 to 1965 124
Chapter 9 Becoming "Black Jesus" in My Junior Year: 1965 to 1966 134
Chapter 10 Becoming "Earl the Pearl" in My Senior Year and the Pan American Games Debacle: 1966 to 1967 148
Part 3 My Hunger for NBA Respect and a Championship Ring
Chapter 11 A Paradigm Shift in Pro Basketball: My Rookie Year, 1967 to 1968 169
Chapter 12 Pressing Pedal to the Metal, Full Speed Ahead: 1968 to 1969 210
Chapter 13 Reaching for the Dream of an NBA Championship: 1969 to 1970 239
Chapter 14 The Pain of Getting Close But No Cigar: 1970 to 1971 261
Chapter 15 Leaving Baltimore and Going to Play for the "Enemy": 1971 to 1972 286
Chapter 16 The Death of My Mother and the NBA Holy Grail: 1972 to 1973 321
Epilogue: My Take on NBA Basketball and the Future of the Game 359
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Earl Monroe played basketball on a different level than mere mortals, with jaw-dropping skill that glued me to my TV. I remember his battles with Clyde Frazier who was one of the top guards in the NBA. Earl explains how he attained such a high level of play and in the process conveys a message that many youths today can benefit from. Earl Monroe was not the greatest athlete in the world. He couldn't jump like Dr. J, didn't have the size or strength of Wilt Chamberlain or the speed and quickness of Calvin Murphy. What he had was a good head on his shoulders. He also had a loving mother who supported him and fueled his competitive spirit. On the playgrounds of Philadelphia, Earl watched other players and listened to what they said. He and his friends shared their knowledge to help each other improve, often passing along knowledge learned from older players. Earl tweaked different moves to fit his own abilities and practiced them until they became instinctive. He followed his mother's advice of keeping a notebook listing everyone who was better than him and seeking them out as competition. If he got beat, he figured out why, adjusted his game, and came back better than before. Once he could finally beat a player on his list, he crossed their name off and moved on to someone else. He became the best player on the playgrounds in Philadelphia. When he played organized ball, he listened to what his coaches said and integrated those fundamentals, such as screening and moving without the ball. His coach at Winston Salem State University, Clarence Gaines, made him sit the bench his first year of college even though he was the best player on the team. Earl didn't like that but he benefited from observing the rhythm of the game and thinking of how he could best impact the game on rare occasions that he saw playing time. He got better every year at Winston Salem and graduated after winning a national championship while leading the nation with 42 points per game and shooting over 60 per cent from the field. Earl refers to this recurring process of watching, listening, practicing, and testing new moves against top competition as the "science of the game" approach. Indeed as the great philosopher of science Karl Popper once said, "Good tests kill flawed theories; we remain alive to guess again". The scientific approach was Earl's way of life and he kept at it even after winning NBA rookie of the year. For example, he played in the Baker league during the NBA off-seasons, which was less scripted than NBA games and allowed him to test new moves against top professionals. He developed such a diverse repertoire that he could adjust to any style of play and be successful. He made the necessary adjustment and became an NBA champion after he was traded from the Bullets to the Knicks. I was surprised at how open and honest the book was in terms of Earl's personal life. I watch Earl sometimes when he is a commentator on Knicks telecasts and he is more reserved in that venue. Earl doesn't hold back in this book and allows readers to really get to know him. One point that floored me was that Earl has endured 30 operations as a result of his basketball playing days. His mother taught him not to complain about things like that and he lives life to the fullest. Although he may not realize it, he continues to inspire. Steve Watkins, Author of "Finding a Rhythm: Basketball Scoring Fundamentals Based on Science"