The Parable of the Pearl

Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe proved two stars with similar skills could share one ball and win a title. Many Rubio/US Presswire

The trade of Earl "The Pearl" Monroe from the Baltimore Bullets to the New York Knicks in November 1971 provided a fascinating window into the future of the modern NBA. The deal presaged coming struggles between superstars and owners, the difficulty in keeping leveraged talent aligned with small-market teams, and the hysteria created when franchise-level players and hard-core rivals -- in this case Monroe and Walt Frazier -- had to coexist with overlapping skills and one ball.

Long before LeBron and D-Wade electrified the pro basketball world during the 2010-11 season, Monroe took his talents to Madison Square Garden -- the self-described World's Most Famous Arena -- in New York City. And before Monroe and Frazier teamed up to win the 1973 NBA title came the story of Monroe's sensational and difficult defection from his beloved Bullets. In this excerpt from the new book, "When The Garden Was Eden" (Harper Collins), author Harvey Araton tells the inside story of the move and why Monroe, in some ways, lived to regret it.

The trade was announced on November 11, stunning the basketball world. Imagine hearing in 1985 that Magic Johnson had been traded to the Celtics -- that's how unimaginable the dealing of Earl Monroe to the Knicks was in 1971. Even more incongruous was the notion that he and Walt Frazier could share a backcourt. Not only were they impassioned rivals, stars who both wore a perfect 10 on their jerseys, but their efficacy was predicated on control of the ball -- no one knew what would happen when they didn't have it in their hands.

The question of whether or not Frazier and Monroe could coexist immediately consumed the sport. Oscar Robertson recalled arguing with teammates, telling them they were crazy to think Monroe wasn't good enough to adapt to the Knicks' style. "A basketball player is a basketball player," he told me. "And Earl Monroe was a great one. There was never any doubt in my mind that he would succeed." He meant Monroe, with Frazier, and vice versa.

In the backseat of a taxi on the day the trade was announced, Phil Jackson -- whom Mike Riordan had introduced to "blue-collar New York" -- told Bill Bradley he had doubts the experiment would work. Bradley, a fan of Monroe's going back to their summer league shootout in Philadelphia, told him he was nuts.

"Earl will fit right in," Bradley said. "He's a hell of a player."

When Abe Pollin finally agreed to the deal that sent Monroe to New
York, Monroe was shocked. He was intrigued by the idea of seeing
his act on the Garden stage, if a little concerned about how it would
play. Larry Fleisher told him not to worry: his ship had come in, with a new
contract that would be worth about $200,000 a season for three years,
with an option for a fourth.

Still, Monroe, crazy as it sounded, was conflicted, because what
he really wanted was to stay with the Bullets and get paid, too. He
called Jerry Krause, who had scouted and befriended him, to vent;
Krause was now working for the Bulls in Chicago. "Those bastards
don't think I'll give up my game," he told Krause. "They think I'm a
loser. Well, f--- them. I'm a winner. I'll give it up. Walt can get the
glory, and if they need me in the fourth quarter, I'll be ready."

But Monroe understandably had doubts, and needed a shoulder to
lean on, someone to talk him through the dramatic career shift. He
went home to Philadelphia to see his longtime confidant Sonny Hill.

Based on the strong bond they had formed through Monroe's
participation in the Baker League and in Philadelphia basketball circles
in general, he and Hill had kept in touch through college and
the Baltimore years. Hill watched his friend play his first game with
the Bullets at the Civic Center -- October 18, 1967, a 121-98 romp
over the Knicks -- and often traveled from Philly to Baltimore for the
games after that. "We had what I considered to be an inseparable
relationship," Hill said. "I said, 'We are talking about you leaving Baltimore,
your team -- can you go up to New York and fit into that style?'
And I kept repeating myself -- 'Can you fit in? Can you fit in?'"

Monroe grew annoyed with the implication that he couldn't. "You
have to understand that Earl was the quintessential school yard player
and he was going to go to the team that was the most anti-school yard
team in basketball," Hill said. "So I kept asking him, 'Can you be part
of that kind of offense? Can you play without the ball?'"

"Sonny," Monroe said, "I can play basketball."

"What he was saying was, 'I'm from Philly. I'm from the Baker
League,'" Hill said. " 'Whatever someone needs me to do on the court,
I can do it.'"

Monroe was offended by the skepticism as if his individual prowess
couldn't shine in an environment more structured than Baltimore's.
"You know, Philadelphia's a different animal than New York," Monroe
said. "In the playgrounds down there, we pride ourselves on teamwork,
on passing the ball, whereas in New York, most of the guys
made a move to the basket, one-on-one."

The way Monroe saw it, Philly ball was really more Old Knicks
than New York ball was. As Holzman had noted all those years ago in
his scouting report, Monroe knew the game, but like a great jazz artist,
he was blessed with the ability to riff. Joe Lapchick once remarked
that if a deceased player could rise from the grave, he would think
Monroe was playing a different sport.

That said, beyond Bradley and Jackson, other Knicks were skeptical
of the deal. Frazier had a view that went beyond Monroe's ability
to assimilate. He believed the Knicks, following the disappointment of
the previous spring, were in the process of remaking the team. They
had already shipped Cazzie Russell out west to Golden State during
the off-season for Jerry Lucas, adding a quality big man as protection
for Willis Reed's tendinitis-ridden left knee. Frazier dwelled on newspaper
speculation that the Knicks were also in the hunt for Houston's
talented young post player Elvin Hayes, using him as bait.

"I'm taking that sort of for true," Frazier told reporters. "That's the
only way the trade for Monroe makes sense. They don't need both him
and me in the backcourt."

Unbeknownst to Frazier, Monroe had put his ego in storage when
he packed up and left the Baltimore Civic Center. He sat down at the
Garden for a get-acquainted session with his new coach, and when
Holzman asked what he needed, Monroe said: "Just one thing. Before
anybody asks the question about whether I'm going to start over Barnett,
I don't want to. I'll earn my way."

Holzman was surprised. He was prepared to work Monroe in
slowly but to make him a starter as soon as he could, having already
consulted Dick Barnett, who was on board. "I was 34 years old," Barnett
said. "I wasn't going to be playing that much longer. I understood
what they were doing."

Monroe's debut that night was a fascinating study in the transition
the Knicks were undertaking. For one thing, Golden State was in
town with Cazzie, who had left New York generally appreciative of his
time there, and grateful for the chance to rebuild his reputation as a
big-time scorer, though with some lingering regret that was similar to
what Monroe felt over leaving Baltimore. New York had been his first
professional home.

"It was strange -- me coming back as an opponent, the Minutemen
broken up, Earl Monroe and Jerry Lucas in the Knicks uniform," Russell
said. "It was a moment of saying, 'Wow, this is really different.' But
at the same time, life teaches you to move on."

Russell went forward with a 42-minute, 20-point, 6-rebound,
5-assist performance in a 112-103 Warriors victory that was the
Knicks' fourth straight defeat. Appearing for the first time in two
weeks, Reed played 23 scoreless minutes, missing all five of his field
goal attempts.

Monroe was marginally better, logging 20 minutes and scoring 9
points after receiving what the New York Times described as a "thunderous
ovation" from the sellout crowd of 19,588. Afterward, he said
he wasn't in game condition and would need about two weeks to get
in shape. But the real Monroe appeared that season only in occasional
flashes. What New York saw that first night was pretty much what it
got the rest of the way: 20.6 minutes a game, 11.4 points, 2.2 assists --
Earl without his Pearl, fitting in to the point of becoming another foot
soldier, a moneyed Minuteman, pressing for minutes off the bench
along with the rookie Dean Meminger.

Monroe liked his teammates well enough. "I'll never forget DeBusschere
coming up when I walked into the locker room for the first
time," Monroe said. "Then Bradley and Reed. And that was good." He
found them to be cordial, businesslike. The old line about the Knicks
was that when they left the Garden, they hailed 12 different cabs -- an
exaggeration, but Monroe could see right away that they were not fraternal
like the Bullets. And he certainly was not one of them, on or off
the court.

"As far as my game," Monroe said, "it went from spectacular to
being like a student. It was very hard when the game was at a certain
point not to try and take over, because I was so used to doing that.
I'd always played at a certain pace and rhythm, managed the game as
opposed to just playing it."

More transcendent showman than traditional superstar, Monroe
was never as dominant as Oscar or West. But because he was an
anti-establishment cult figure in a sport fast becoming a bastion of
black expression, his sacrifice was even more painful for devout fans.
Those who had watched him or played against him from his earliest
playground days didn't recognize the role player he'd become in
New York.

"I'd go down to Philly and guys would say, 'Eleven points a game --
what's up with that?' " Monroe said. "I got dogged a lot, you know, but
I made sure to go down to the Baker League that summer to bust
them all up, just so they knew I was still me."

Considered in the context of the modern era, Monroe's sacrifice had
a "He did what?" quality that players like LeBron James -- secure in
his expectation of getting paid, location notwithstanding -- would
find incomprehensible. Joining forces with Dwyane Wade in Miami
was one thing; going to the bench was another. "What Earl did could
never happen today," said Kevin Loughery, Monroe's backcourt partner
in Baltimore. "Can you imagine an agent or a shoe company allowing
a guy like Earl to go to a team where he wouldn't even start?"

Big-market influence remains a persistent story line in the modern
NBA, and twenty-first-century players do make sacrifices. Kevin
Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce happily teamed up to win a 17th
title for Boston in 2008, proving to be perfect complementary pieces.
James, Wade, and Chris Bosh in the 2010 summer of free-agent insanity
at least had the same idea, even if year one ended unhappily. But
no NBA star player has ever made so radical a career transformation
in his prime as did Monroe.

Though he, too, departed Baltimore in the Archie Clark trade,
Loughery conceded that for admirers of the Old Knicks, Monroe over
time became the ultimate example of putting team values first.

"It's been one of the great questions: is Earl remembered as an even
greater player because he fit in and won a championship in New York,
or did his career suffer because he couldn't be what he was in Baltimore?"
Loughery said. As the man who coached the revered doctor,
Julius Erving, with the New York Nets in the ABA, Loughery reached
his own biased conclusion.

"Because of how the league evolved into one that was about entertainment,
I think it would have been better for him had he stayed," he
said. "I know you wouldn't have seen any seasons where he scored 11
points a game. In Baltimore, he was one of the great showmen, maybe
the best. The NBA lost that. Earl lost that."

Monroe wasn't one to hide his misgivings, especially when he
knew how much it delighted the Baltimore lifers. "I never thought of
myself as a real Knick," he told The Washington Post at Pollin's Top 50
dinner. "I always felt as though the Bullets and Baltimore was the way
I made my name."

Did he really believe that he'd cheated himself, given up too much
individuality for the sake of being part of a cherished collective?
Apparently so; when he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1990, he
called Pollin and told him he wanted to go in as a Bullet.

"We talked about the Hall of Fame thing many times," Sonny Hill
said. "It always came down to: how do you want them to remember
you -- as a guy who changed, sacrificed, and fit into what the Knicks
did, or as Earl the Pearl? He worried that people would see it as being
disrespectful to the Knicks. I told him, 'This is not disrespectful to the
Knicks. You have your championship ring.'"

Excerpted from "When the Garden Was Eden" by Harvey Araton.