• photo by George Kalinsky
    Earl Monroe takes it to the hoop against Wilt Chamberlain

Earl Monroe The Godfather of playground basketball holds court

Congratulations on the publication of your autobiography,Earl The Pearl. You waited 40 years to tell this story. Why did you feel that the timing was finally right?
I’ve been kind of a closed person for most of that time, and in a lot of instances I felt that people didn’t really know me. I actually started writing this book with [collaborator] Quincy [Troupe] back in 2006 or 2007, but it wasn’t really shaping up the way I thought it would, because Quincy really didn’t know me. He lives right across from me [in the same apartment complex], and as we got to know each other we decided to try again, and we came up with Earl The Pearl: My Story.

What was it like for you going back and reliving your story? It must have been quite an experience.
It was, because I never really look back at things. And having to go back and relive some of the things that were in the book was a little trying at points. I think the two things that were the most difficult to get through were the passing of my mother and seeing a killing. I saw it when I was a young kid and I remembered it, but I didn’t remember it as vividly as I did once I started talking about it for the book. It was kind of harrowing at first. I got used to it, but that’s something that you never want to get used to.

Did you learn anything about yourself through the process of writing the book?
I never really thought of myself as a survivor, but that’s essentially what I’ve been throughout my career. The book showed me how I’ve always had to prove myself at every level. And then, at some levels, I had to double prove myself, as I did with the Knicks. So yes, I think writing the book definitely helped me learn more about myself, which will probably help me out in the future. The impact you had on the game stylistically is still being felt in the NBA today.

How does it make you feel to see today's players executing moves that you helped pioneer?
Well, now I find myself a pioneer. I look at the game and I see all this stuff that’s being done—obviously it’s being done at a much higher level because it’s been a long time and the game moves on. But I guess now I’m not only as the grandfather to my grandchildren but to the game as well.

A lot of those moves you learned, created or practiced on the playgrounds of south Philadelphia, including your famous spin move. You also write in the book about the importance of the playground as a place of mentoring and learning. What is it about that kind of informal basketball education that's so valuable?
On the playground, what you get is real life experience. You have guys who have been successful in certain situations, and they pass that experience on to you so that you can pull it from your memory bank when you’re confronted with a similar situation. In the book, I call this “thirty years.” That means, essentially, guys who have had experience playing the game passing that experience and knowledge on to younger guys. A lot of times we play, but we don’t know from whence it comes. And in the “thirty years” theory, you kind of learn the game from the bottom up, as opposed to today when you see kids doing moves or doing different things on the basketball court that they essentially learned from TV.

How does it differ?
The difference is that we didn’t have the TV back in those days—there weren’t that many games on TV, we didn’t have ESPN or things like that, where we could look at it and emulate moves. Back then we learned those moves and those different basketball scenarios on the playground, from the ground up. I had the good fortune to be able to go and try things out—I never really wanted to do things during a game that I had never tried before—so my whole game was basically based on trial and error. And fortunately I had people around me who would pull me aside and say, “Well, Earl you should have done this,” or “You should have done that when this happened.” That gave me a good knowledge of the game, and really, everything that I did in basketball is a result of that trial and error, from that knowledge I gained on the playgrounds in south Philly.

You wrote in the book that you were fortunate that your college coach, the great Clarence Gaines, favored an up-tempo offensive style and gave you the freedom to create, to play your own way. Do you think you could have blossomed into the player you became if you had played for a coach with a more regimented offensive system?
I don’t know. Looking back now, after having the type of career I had as a collegiate player, I don’t think many other coaches would have recognized my potential the way Coach Gaines did. They may have put me in a system that might not have been that great for me. Having the freedom to play the way I played was a big part of who I was as a player—not so much what I did but how I did it. And I think that, in itself, helped make me the kind of player that I eventually got to be.

Is there a player in today’s game who reminds you of yourself?
I know I shouldn’t say that I was unique, but I was unique in that I wasn’t the fastest guy and I wasn’t the highest jumper, but I was able to fashion a game that worked well for the tools that I had. And that made me unique to the game itself. Guys today have their own uniqueness, and it’s not built or forged in the same way that I built mine. But obviously there are tremendous players playing today. You look at the skill sets of guys like Kobe [Bryant] and LeBron [James] and you go further back with Michael [Jordan] and so forth. I think that so many times we get caught up in who’s the best and who’s this and who’s that, but I always say that the best is the best under the circumstances they face.

How do you think that great 1973 Knicks championship team would fare in today's NBA, say, matching up with a team like LeBron and the Heat?
I’ve always believed that that Knicks team in its prime could match up well against any team. We could shoot the ball, first of all, and we also had a great defensive set. That team had five or six Hall of Famers on it. And those guys were pretty doggone good. Some of the great teams today have only one or two, maybe three great players. We had five or six, seven if you want to talk about Dick Barnett. Nobody talks about Dick much, but Dick was a great player in his own right.

Who would guard LeBron?
(Laughter) With Clyde [Frazier] the way we did it was not so much individual defense, but great team defenses know how to push players into certain areas. LeBron’s a monster. He’s like parting the waves when he comes down full speed at everyone. But obviously you’d have to have a bigger guy guard him. Even though he’s listed as a forward he’s basically a guard. So that [assignment] would be a tough sell.

You were almost traded to the Lakers in 1979, to serve as a mentor to Magic Johnson, in what was his rookie season. What do you think it would have been like to play with Magic, Kareem and that early Showtime team?
I think it would have been a fitting end to my career. They called me “Showtime” anyway, so it would have been great to be a part of that whole thing. Magic had a certain maturity about him even as a rookie. And obviously [the Lakers] did well and made the right decision keeping him as he was. If I was to go out there, my understanding was that they wanted me to just kind of caddy and chauffer [Magic] and point the way, not necessarily play a whole lot. I’m quite sure I would have done well in that respect. And it would have been nice to be Hollywood. But if you can’t be in
Hollywood, New York is not a bad second.

You wrote in the book that you learned something new about basketball every time you played against Oscar Robertson. What was it about The Big O that made him such a special player?
You could look at him play and see that he was a student of the game. You could look in his eyes or at his body movement and see it. It was the way he played the game that made him really special. I tell a story in the book about being shut out one game by Eddie Miles of the Detroit Pistons. And what did I resort to? I went to thinking about Oscar Robertson and how he was using his body to back guys down and get close to the basket. Well, that became part of my game, too. I had Gus Johnson, who was our superior defensive player [on the Bullets], defend me in practice. Gus was one of the strongest guys in the league, and what I asked him to do was to make sure he pushed me and used his strength to try to get me to where he wanted me to go on the court. Back in those days the league allowed hand-checking, and Gus had some of the strongest hands in the league. If he put his hand on your hip, it looked like it was just lying on it, but he was actually guiding you to where he wanted you to go. Once I was able to back Gus down and get him up in the air to shoot my shot, it became part of my repertoire.

Speaking of Gus Johnson, you mention in the book that there are several players—Bob Love, Bernard King, Bob Dandridge, Jo Jo White—who you feel belong in the Hall of Fame. It also took the Hall until 2010 to recognize Gus. Why do you think these players have been overlooked?
It’s interesting, because at a Hall of Fame luncheon just recently at the All-Star Game in Houston, Dick Barnett was with me. We were talking to John Doleva, who is the head of the Hall of Fame, and Dick asked John why Tennessee State isn’t in the Hall of Fame as a team. They were the first team to win three national titles in a row, and it’s been 50 years. And Doleva just said, “Well, hey, it’s a process.” So I think in the process of it all, guys who are on the bubble have to have a team around them to push them. I know there was a guy named Charlie Ezrine who pushed for Gus. Every year Charlie petitioned the hall on Gus’ behalf. That’s what has to happen for guys like these guys. I’m quite sure Bernard King should be getting in this year, but I told Bob Love over All- Star weekend that someone’s going to have to start pushing and petitioning for him. Bob said, “Well, I carried Chicago all those years and Chet Walker’s in there and I carried him, too.” So I said, “Well, someone’s going to have to champion your cause.” If guys like Bob and Bernard get their cause championed, hopefully they can get through the process.

Of all your many nicknames, which is your favorite?
Actually, “The Duke of Earl.” Of course, that was from the old Gene Chandler song back in the Sixties. This was in High School, and they used to holler “Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl…” And I guess it was also my first nickname, and I used to really enjoy hearing that. It got me up to play the game.

Earl Monroe's autobiography, Earl the Pearl: My Story is available now at Amazon.com.