A Fan's Notes on Earl Monroe

SPORTNOVEMBER 1977

Toward the end of the 1976-77 basketball season, the editors of this magazine [Sport], aware of my interest in the game, called me and asked how I’d feel about covering the NBA playoffs for them. At first the idea seemed provocative, but then the thought of traveling around, and the time required to do a good job, not to mention the disappointment of the Knicks not making the playoffs, rendered the whole notion unappealing. But I said I wouldn’t mind writing something about Earl Monroe, who had given me a great deal of pleasure watching him play over the years. I didn’t really know Monroe, although we had exchanged several sentences on the Madison Square Garden floor two years ago. I was filming a comic sequence for my movie, Annie Hall, in which certain actors, including myself, played basketball against the Knicks. The sequence was later cut from the film because it didn’t come off funny enough, but I did get to meet Monroe, who said hello and mentioned that he had received a fan letter I once sent him. He said it had meant something to him and that had carried it around and showed it to friends. I didn’t believe him because, exposed as I am to gratuitous pleasantries all the time in my profession, I am not a trusting person.

That was two years ago and it was the first and last time I met or spoke with Earl Monroe for any reason. When I suggesting writing about him, Sport‘s editors suggested I spend lots of time with him, at practice, in the Knick locker room, even travel with the team for an away game.

The truth was, I immediately saw myself cast in the role of the bespectacled, white, pseudo-intellectual trying to form a “heavy” thesis about a gift of grace and magical flair the black athlete possesses that can never be reduced to anything but poetry. I have always envied this gift and have often said that if I could live life over as someone else it would be wonderful to be Sugar Ray Robinson or Willie Mays. With my luck, however, I would undoubtedly wind up John Maynard Keynes.

Assured finally that Monroe was thrilled about the cover story and even invited by the great man to his house in eager anticipation of a long chat, I agreed to meet him for a few hours on the weekend. Of course, I knew there was also the outside chance that when I met the magician Earl Monroe he would be disappointing. This has happened to me before when I’ve met famous people whose work I’ve loved. Not every time. Not with Groucho Marx, for instance, but with certain other comedians and film directors who shall remain nameless. I did meet another magician who did not disappoint me. It was Stan Musial and he is indeed an amateur magician. For hours, in the bedroom at a party in Washington, D.C., he delighted me with astounding card tricks. It was quite thrilling to see the menacing left-handed slugger who had made my Brooklyn childhood miserable by lining one shot after another off of and over the rightfield wall at Ebbets Field, produce from his wallet the restored ace of spades that I had moments before torn up.

I didn’t follow basketball until 1967. Baseball, boxing, and the theater provided most of my entertainment. The theater has since become boring and there are no plays approaching the pleasure given by a good sporting event. Even a game against a last-place team holds the possibility of thrills, whereas in the theater all seems relatively predictable. Baseball remains a joy for me, but basketball has emerged as the most beautiful of sports. In basketball, more than in virtually any other sport, personal style shines brightest. It allows for eccentric, individual play.

Give the basketball to such diverse talents as Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Walt Frazier, Rick Barry, George McGinnis, Dave Bing, or Bob McAdoo, to name a tiny fraction, and you get dramatically distinctive styles of dribbling, passing, shooting, and defensive play. There is great room in basketball for demonstrable physical artistry that often can be compared to serious dance.

So there I was in 1967 leafing through the sports section of a newspaper one day (I still read that section first) when I came across the name Earl Monroe. I had never heard of Monroe, knew nothing of his daily rookie brilliance nor ever heard of his astounding feats at Winston-Salem. I just liked the name, free-floating, three syllables, and euphonious to me. Earl Monroe. The name worked. (Years later, when I did a film called Sleeper, I named myself Miles Monroe. On me it was kind of a funny name.) I came across Monroe’s name again every few days as I glanced over the basketball box scores in a casual, disinterested way and noticed that he invariably led the scoring column.

Monroe 34, Monroe 36, Monroe 24, Monroe 28, Monroe 40! I was impressed by the consistent high numbers and repeated his name every now and then like it was a mantra. It still sounded musical. Earl Monroe. I think I even recall seeing a picture of him on the cover of Sports Illustrated that year and thinking he was very interesting looking. I was, and I don’t know why, aware of Monroe in some special way. Although I didn’t follow his sport much then, if someone had awakened me in the middle of the night and said, “Quick, name your favorite basketball player,” I’d have snapped back: “Earl Monroe.” This was probably his first working of magic on me, though I had no real idea of what Baltimore Bullet fans were witnessing and feeling each night when they saw him play and referred to him as the Pearl or Black Jesus.

The first time I saw Monroe, an actor friend said, “Come with me to the Garden tonight. I want you to see this guy. You’ll like his style. It’s real herky-jerky.” That was in 1968. By then I was more interested in basketball and had begun following the Knicks a little. They had made the playoffs and had captured the imagination of New York. I went and saw Monroe score 32 points against Walt Frazier. This is Walt Frazier, mind you, who played the guard position as perfectly as it has ever been played and who was to be voted on the all-defensive team seven years running. Thirty-two points and Frazier said, “I had my hand in his face all night. He shoots without looking.”

I went the next night too and while the Knicks double-teamed Monroe at every turn, he tore the place up with a buzzer beater that he flipped in as he ran across the midcourt line at halftime, and he kept running right into the locker room.

My impressions of Monroe then? I immediately ranked him with Willie Mays and Sugar Ray Robinson as athletes who went beyond the level of sports and sport to the realm of sports as art. Seemingly awkward and yet breathtakingly graceful, with an unimpressive physique, knobby knees, and the tiny ankles of a thoroughbred racehourse, Monroe in seasons would put on exhibiton after exhibition of simply magical shot-making. One sportswriter wrote that his misses are more exciting than more guys’ baskets. It’s pointless to describe Monroe on the court. It’s been done a thousand times by good writers who try vainly to communicate in print the excitement with which he plays. They refer to his head fakes, shoulder fakes, spins, double pumps, stutter steps, hip shots, arms and legs flying in different directions at once, but these things in themselves do not sum up the ferocious rush he gives the audience. After all, there are players like Nate Archibald, Dave Bing, Walt Frazier, Julius Erving, Connie Hawkins, who have unusual grace, beauty, and excitement, and who also dip and twist and toss their bodies one way while their arms move another way as they hang in space.

What makes Monroe different is the indescribable heat of genius that burns deep inside him. Some kind of diabolical intensity comes across his face when he has the ball. One is suddenly transported to a more primitive place. It’s roots time. The eyes are big and white, the teeth flash, the nostrils flare. He dribbles the ball too high, but with a controlled violence. The audience gets high with anticipation of some new type of thrill about to occur. Seconds later he is moving in aggressively, one on one, against a defender and you sense the man is in trouble. Monroe is suddenly double-teamed and now there are two men hanging all over him. Then it happens. A quick twist, a sudden move, and he’s by both men. Either that or a series of flashing arm moves cease with a lightning pass to a teammate he has never even bothered to look at.

It’s amazing, because the audience’s “high” originates inside Monroe and seems to emerge over his exterior. He creates a sense of danger in the arena and yet has enough wit in his style to bring off funny ideas when he wants to. He has, as an athlete-performer, what few actors possess. Marlon Brando is one such actor. The audience never knows what will happen next and the potential for a sudden great thrill is always present. If we think of an actor like George C. Scott, for instance, we feel he is consistently first rate, but he cannot move a crowd the way Brando does. There is something indescribable in Brando that pins an audience on the edge of its seats at all times. Perhaps because we sense a possible peak experience at any given moment, and when it occurs, the performance transcends mere acting and soars into the sublime. On a basketball court, Monroe does this to spectators.

I began watching the Baltimore Bullets, and while still a Knicks fan, always rooted for Monroe when Baltimore played New York. “We had no set offense,” one Bullet player once said. “We gave the ball to Earl. He was our offense.” The Bullets did very well with Monroe (not to mention such other great stars and Wes Unseld and Gus Johnson) and I followed his career like any dedicated fan. I was sorry I had missed his rookie year and his college games and I tried to imagine what he must have been like at that age, before the problems with his arthritic knees set it. Monroe is not overly fast these days, though he once was, but like the magician he is, he creates the illusion of speed. When he takes off with the ball and races the length of the court, he resembles an animated cartoon character whose feet never touch the floor. I recall a newspaper interview with Monroe after he had scored clusters of points against the Knicks in a playoff game, and he confessed to the desire to be a comedian. I thought, A comedian? But why? Why would anyone want to be a comedian when he can do what he does?

Then in 1971 he got traded to the Knicks. Naturally, I was happy to be able to watch him more often, but there were two uneasy questions. Could he play alongside Walt Frazier? Frazier was then the premier all-around guard in basketball and had set standards so high that years later when he might be off his game a fraction and could no longer single-handedly win games, the fans could not deal with it and turned on him. I found this unforgivable and it certainly says something about the myth of the New York sports fan.

In those days, however, Walt Frazier played with a serene brilliance that made it seem that he could steal the ball whenever he wanted to, dribble it behind his back, and score at will. He was wonderful to look at (great posture, perpetual “cool”), dressed flashy off the court, drove a Rolls, and got an awful lot of rebounds for a guard.

Monroe, who when he joined the Knicks reportedly said, “Man, I got two Rolls,” was also used to being the cynosure of his team. He had never had to be overly concerned with defense and never had to share the limelight with anyone approaching Frazier’s greatness. This didn’t worry me, because I felt the two guards would be simply breathtaking together, which they indeed were. They played brilliantly in tandem. Frazier was the steadier of the two. He did everything perfectly. Monroe was, as always, the more dramatic and explosive one. Consequently, when Frazier dribbled up the middle you could count on your two points because of his smooth-as-satin style. When Monroe drove, his lust for danger took him in directions where he might get the ball slapped away or might miss a shot because of spectacular gyrations. Again, like Brando, Monroe takes risks, and while some fail, enough come off to make him an artist.

The second and more irritating question to me was, can Monroe fit into the flow of team play? Can he become part of that superb combination of Bill Bradley, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, etc., that hits the open man, retains poise, and sooner or later grinds up opponents like a well-oiled machine? Some said Monroe would not be able to adjust. Others felt Monroe could learn to give off the ball, to play defense, to sublimate his brilliant one-on-one skills and contribute to this championship club. But I asked, why would anyone want that of him? After all, here is the single most exciting player in basketball, a solo performer. Do we really want him to abandon his individuality and become a cog in a machine? Would we ask Heifetz to become a sublimated member of the string section? Great Knick fan that I was, I would rather have seen the team set up Monroe for his dazzling solo feats than the other way around. Is winning so important that we can afford to sacrifice Monroe’s essential gift to the game of basketball?

Now there were those who argued with me and said they derived more aesthetic satisfaction out of watching a five-man unit execute with the precision of the Knicks at their height. Nothing was more beautiful, they said, than the ball going from Frazier to Bradley, to DeBusschere, back to Frazier, to Reed for a basket. Well, what can I say? I don’t agree. Perhaps because I’m a performer. Artistry like Monroe’s does not come along often and I for one feel sacrifices must be made for art. It’s great if the team wins (Baltimore did quite well with a Monroe-oriented offense), but if the price included the conformity of Earl Monroe to a patterned offense, I didn’t like it.

The outcome we now know. Monroe learned defense. He modified his style in favor of team play. He scored fewer points. At other times, his irrepressible genius on the court asserted itself. The Knicks won with him until Reed and DeBusschere retired. Then Frazier and Monroe carried the offense. The team acquired other stars in Spencer Haywood and Bob McAdoo, but the Knicks have yet to jell. Monroe at 32 years old has emerged as the toast of New York’s basketball fans because with the team’s demise as a power, more and more they turned to his older one-on-one skills to get them out of jams.

While Knickerbocker problems seem to run deep, Monroe again burns brightly and enjoyed a great season in 1976-77. He has grown in all his skills and has returned to much of his own style of play. The difference now is that, if a given night demands it, he can play defense, hand off, steal, and quarterback the team. He is now the Knick captain. He is also still the magician. He might play a game as he did on January 1 and take ten shots and not miss one. Or he might win the game with a clutch basket in the last three seconds or, in the final ten minutes, score 16 of the Knicks’ last 18 points. These are just a few feats he performed last year. When the fans see him pulling off his warmup jacket they get ready for the closest thing to a magical experience. They sense nature will be defied in some way.

***

At precisely two P.M., the appointed hour, I ring the bell of a fine old townhouse on New York’s upper West Side. The name on the bell reads: Monroe. I am buzzed in and stand at the bottom of a staircase like a supplicant before Dr. No or the head of SMERSH. Suddenly an unbelievably beautiful woman descends the staircase and says with confidence unseen since the days of Mae West, “Hi—I’m Earl’s lady.” I smile, cough, look at my shoe tops, and mutter something that sounds like, “Aha-un-eh.” As usual, I’m right on top of things. “Earl’s not back yet. Would you care to wait?”

“Wait? Yes. Sure.” The music from the rock station on the radio is flowing through the house at a level that would drown out the takeoff of an SST. I follow this utterly devastating woman up the stairs. The juxtaposition of our bodies causes me to think, my God, she’s packed into those jeans with an ice cream scoop. We sit opposite one another and I manage to achieve maximum awkwardness in 30 seconds. To call “Earl’s lady” beautiful is an understatement. I writhe., shuffle. She tells me her name is Tina and assured me Earl had some errands but was looking forward to our meeting. The house is simply furnished and here and there are mementos of the great man’s career. Plaques, photos, a game ball under glass, certificates of athletic achievement that bear the name Vernon Earl Monroe. (Vernon?) I learn through conversation with Tina that the photos of beautiful kids on the wall are Monroe’s children from previous love affairs in other cities. “He’s a good father,” she tells me. “He loves kids.”

A half hour goes by as I chat with Tina. I learn how they met: at a disco-dance. I am told that Earl adores watching television. “There’s a set in every room in the house and they’re on all day and night.” Tina tells me Earl eats lightly. Fish mostly. She says Earl took up tennis as a hobby a year or so ago and swiftly achieved tournament level ability. I learn that Knick players don’t fraternize with one another that much, although they are friendly. An hour is gone. Still no Earl. Tina says that Earl has two cars and, unlike Clyde, no chauffeur because, “He’s such a fantastic driver he could never have anyone else drive him.” She says Dr. J has acknowledged Earl as an inspiration and model. Now and then the two phones ring and since they are identical but with different numbers, Tina must hold her hand on each instrument and feel it in order to tell which one is ringing.

“Earl’s not here,” she would tell various callers in her Mae West style, “he’s been de-tained.” I learn Earl and Tina stay in a lot, play board games, now and then dine late, sometimes around midnight, though then they might hit a dance hall and stay out late. They generally keep to themselves. I ask about a story on Earl wherein he quoted Descartes and Tina tells me, “He likes reading sports magazines mostly.”

Hours have now gone by and we are out of conversation. Finally I must leave for another appointment. “Earl will be so disappointed he missed you,” Tina says.

I back out the door, fumbling and apologizing, for what, I don’t know. Then, walking home this sunny, Saturday afternoon, I think to myself., how wonderful. This great athlete is so unconcerned about the usual nonsense of social protocol. Unimpressed by me, a cover interview, and all the attendant fuss and adulation that so many people strive for, he simply fails to show up. Probably off playing tennis or fooling with his new Mercedes.

Whatever he was doing, I admired him for his total unconcern. Tina said he would be very upset that he had missed me, but I knew it was not the kind of thing Earl Monroe would dwell on with the anguish of a Raskolnikov.

That night Earl scored 28 points and had eight misses against Washington; the next day he tossed in 31 points against the same team.

I thought about how Sport‘s editors had relayed Monroe’s enthusiasm about the prospect of our interview. I thought, too, that if I had missed an interview I’d be consumed with guilt. But that’s me and I’m not a guy who can ask for the ball when the team is down by a point, two seconds left on the clock, and, with two players hacking at my body and shielding my vision, score from the corner. If I miss that basket and lose the game for my team, I commit suicide. For Monroe, well, he’s as nonchalant about that tension-strung situation as he is about keeping appointments. That’s why I’d tense up and blow clutch shots, while Monroe’s seem to drop through the hoop like magic.