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Tuesday, March 19, 2002
Updated: March 27, 4:09 PM ET
Seeing the game through Pearl vision

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

I came to Jesus last Saturday night. Now, before your eyes glaze over, before you have me committed, or nominate me to run for public office, understand which Jesus I'm talking about and marveling over. Let's get it straight from the beginning.

Earl Monroe
Earl Monroe came off the playgrounds of North Philly in '64 and revolutionized the game of basketball.
Once upon a time, they called him "Magic." This was long before Earvin Johnson of Michigan State and the L.A. Lakers. Once they called him "Pearl." This was long before the Dwayne Washington kid from Syracuse, a total NBA washout. Once they called him "Jesus." This was long before Michael Jordan of North Carolina, the Chicago Bulls and the Washington Wizards. Once they called him "Einstein." This was after Einstein.

Jordan stands alone. All the others had different levels of game, and fame.

But only Earl the Pearl Monroe had a cult following, and still does.

I'm not alone. You with me?

Earl Monroe had better than fame. He had genius. He had rep. And he had them at all meaningful levels of the game. He was a genius at the playground level, a genius at the collegiate level, a genius at the NBA level, a genius at the upper echelon All-Star NBA level, and a genius at the NBA championship level. He is all-time. He is legend. Pearl.

Like most of us, I come to Jesus at the NCAA Tournament time of year. Whatever problems there might be with the collegiate game -- and they are legion -- the NCAA Tournament absolves them all. It is like we're all in one great state championship tourney. It's time for a level of promise that young people deserve. Monroe knows something about it. So I went to him.

  Earl Monroe had better than fame. He had genius. He had rep. And he had them at all meaningful levels of the game. He was a genius at the playground level, a genius at the collegiate level, a genius at the NBA level, a genius at the upper echelon All-Star NBA level, and a genius at the NBA championship level. He is all-time. He is legend. Pearl. 
  

"The NCAA tournament is great -- for the first four days. When all schools are playing. Everybody involved has a chance. By the time it gets to the Sweet 16, Cinderella's gone back home. Everybody who stars and gets to Sweet 16 believes they belong in the NBA."

Earl the Pearl Monroe shrugged. Nothing wrong with believing it.

Earl smiled. Earl is down. You can talk with him and walk with him, and he'll tell us we are his own. And the joy you share, as you talk ball there, none other has ever known.

Just be patient. Let the game come to you. Don't rush. Be quick, but don't hurry. Soon, we'll get down to the Gospel of the Sweet 16 according to Pearl vision.

But first, you'll need some background, and a scouting report.

***** ***** *****

Did you know that Clarence "Bighouse" Gaines, the coach at what used to be called Winston-Salem Teachers College, didn't recruit Jesus? Jesus just showed up -- him and one of his disciples, from the playgrounds of North Philly in '64. Some wag sent them down. Gaines had no clue at the time who Earl Monroe was. In fact, he called wag back and said, "The little one can play, but this taller one ... he ain't showing me nothing."

Monroe was the taller one. Earl was letting his disciple get off first.

"I knew what I could do," Earl says. Can you imagine being Bighouse Gaines and seeing what happened when Earl Monroe decided it was time to play?

"Never seen anything like it before or since," Gaines told me few years ago. Was there anything Gaines could tell him? "Yeah," said Gaines. "Told him he needed a little dental work. About basketball. Well ... he advised me."

What happened then? Well ... Earl the Pearl Monroe helped integration even before Martin Luther King did -- anyway, to tell you the truth, at just about the same time. Later, as a pro, he'd read King's speeches before he played and let that inspire him. Back then, the legend went from the playgrounds of Philly moved to Tobacco Road, where tales were told about a young man with the ball on a string who could move your soul with his inspired improv.

Earl Monroe
The Pearl won an NBA title with the Knicks in 1973.
The story spread underground, like wildfire, across Hoop Nation. It was said he could not be described. He could only be seen, and even then unseen. He required faith -- the evidence of things not seen. His improv was a revelation, as much science as art. You could no more describe Pearl's game than you can describe color, music or literature.

All you can say is there's a right way to play, and a not-right way to play, and an inspired way. Earl originated the spin move, yes, and on first sighting it moved the soul like water turning to wine. But, see, the thing is ... Earl always spun toward the basket!

"No man, that's just a legend. I never scored 72 points in one game down there," Earl said. "But I did score 68 points in one game, and 58 in the next." It was all in the way he scored them that moved the viewer's soul.

Winston-Salem played Wake Forest, yes, but not officially, only at midnight. Winston-Salem won the NCAA Division II national championship in 1967. Pearl fed the multitudes at the little black schools with a couple of loaves and some fried fish. Like parting the Red Sea. Only Jesus could have done it. Now it's Winston-Salem State. Now Coach Gaines is retired with more than 800 wins. Now Billy Packer understands, because he played in some of those midnight runs. Now Earl's legacy is in a school like Hampton, beaten by high-flying Connecticut in the opening round.

"If they'd had another deep shooter, they could have won," Earl said. "Or, if they'd had somebody who knew how to move in the hole, they could've made it close."

Think 6-3 Earl couldn't get his off in today's game? No? Look at Jordan.

"Jordan? Why not come back? Jordan, I mean. Not me. Not with these hips," Pearl says. Myself, I still believe Earl could drop 20 on somebody's dome.

"Jordan showed that his level was different from the rest. Look at what he did ... 40, 50 ... taking a lesser team to a playoff level. All with knowing how. With this." Pearl then mimics his other basic, scientific move. The pump-up-ball-fake. All those human pogo sticks on the Sweet 16 teams and up in the NBA -- they'd just be taking themselves further out of the play with all their jumping ability. They'd all scream "Noooo!" from up there in the rafters, as they looked back in horror at Jesus simply laying the ball in the basket or dropping in a soft j after they'd been been faked off their feet ... Earl was Miles playing "So What?" with Trane, Cannonball, Evans and Wyn Kelly. Earl was always Miles ahead. The things Earl did became intrinsic to the playing of the game, of advancing the ball to the hoop.

Earl the Pearl Monroe went on to the Baltimore Bullets, now the Washington Wizards. He took the Gospel there. He only played there four years in Baltimore, but his number still belongs in the rafters of the MCI Center. It's not there. His spirit is.

Those who know, know. Those who don't, walk outside the Light.

We all know Earl went to the Knicks, and the Knicks won the NBA title in 1973 with him. He played at the Garden for the better part of nine years, and if you ask the Woody Allens, the Spike Lees, the real down fans, what they remember about Earl, it's this:

Genius. Pure D.

Michael Jordan
At age 39, Michael Jordan knows how to use his mind, rather than his legs, to create his own shot.
It's nearly 30 years after he won the NBA title with Clyde & Crew, 30 years after he "toned down his game to fit in with the Knicks," -- Jesus laughs at the notion. His jersey hangs at the Garden. "I always knew how to play with others. It's not hoop if you're not playing with others. I might score 68 with Winston-Salem, 50 with the Bullets. That's what I had to do for us to win. Hoop is hoop. You either play it right, or you don't."

By "right," Earl doesn't mean the same "right" as the know-it-alls who never played or the bitter who played but didn't always get it or the hayseeds who say nobody in the NBA plays "right" because they can dunk lobs. "The game is about advancing the ball to the basket. The game is about the shortest distance between two points ... if someone was between me and the basket, then the shortest distance for me was the tightest circle I could spin around them."

So today, if a skywalker can leap over you, and his teammate is right enough to lob to him -- then that's what's right. If you as a defender have the hops to break up the lob, then the game must progress on mathematically to another place where you can be beaten to the basket. If you can't stop the lob -- and most people can't -- then the progression goes no further.

It's not that it's unfundamental. It's that the defense has not forced the offense to become more creative and more mathematical. And since most of those young boys just hop over their playground and high school comp, they never get to the next level of play, of doing what's necessary to advance the ball to the basket.

If all you can do is catch a lob and dunk it, it's not that you're wrong; it's that you are fundamentally incomplete. If your lob is defensed, and you don't know what else to do, then you are fundamentally unsound. If your trick dribble makes everybody go, "Ooo!" but does not advance the ball to the basket in the straightest possible line -- unsound.

"Why not? That's what Jordan coming back should've showed all the young fellas. He had 'em leaping at their own shadows. Taking their ownselves out of the play."

Earl sucked his teeth. "Being able to jump is useful. It's a great skill to have. But you have to apply the skill to the game. Russell jumped to the moon. Gus Johnson? Heh. Moon man. When it was called for. It's a calling. Don't have to hop every play to execute at the highest level. Have to be sound. Have to have handling. Have to see angles. Have to play. And to guard me," Earl sucked his teeth again, "you had to pray. Whatever you did, it was going to be wrong."

Earl smiled, to take the edge off the Truth. Earl is a great guy, on top of being Jesus, Magic, Einstein, a legend and the creator of his own hoop cult.

Yes. Talked to Jesus last Saturday night. And it was the Deal.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."