For Monroe, ring wasn't always the thing

NEW YORK -- It was on the corner of 88th and Columbus, outside Earl Monroe's apartment building, where The Pearl took off his 1973 New York Knicks championship ring to show it to his friend and barber, Lenny Clay.

The ring came off Monroe's finger and was in the process of being handed to Clay when the transfer went awry, the gold ring crashing to the pavement so hard that the facing flew off, leaving a hole in the middle.

The diamond from that facing would soon be gone forever, too, as Monroe gave it as a gift to his ex-girlfriend, Tina, who had it transferred to a necklace. Monroe replaced the diamond with an onyx, and it wasn't until years later that Monroe's wife, Marita, sent the ring to an uptown jeweler to have the diamond replaced.

Most recently, the ring spent several years stored in a box in Monroe's closet before he and his wife dug it out to tell the stories behind it in an interview with ESPNNewYork.com.

"I hadn't planned to wear it again until the Knicks won another championship, but my wife convinced me that it looked good on me and I needed to start wearing it again," Monroe said a day after the interview, when he was spotted wearing the ring at a summer programming party for MSG Network, where Monroe worked as an on-camera analyst during the Knicks' playoff loss to the Celtics in April.

That ring may have never belonged to Monroe, and his teammates on the 1972-73 Knicks, if not for the biggest trade in franchise history (until, perhaps, last February's Carmelo Anthony deal) on Nov. 10, 1971, which Monroe fondly recalls was three days shy of the month and date when Felix Unger was famously asked to remove himself from his place of residence. (That request came from his wife).

In the days leading up to that trade (the Knicks sent Dave Stallworth, Mike Riordan and cash to the Baltimore Bullets for Monroe), Monroe was angling for a trade to the Lakers, Bulls or 76ers.

"Larry Fleischer was my agent at the time, and after the [1970-71] season he told the Bullets that I wanted to be traded," Monroe recalled. "In the latter part of the summer they made a trade for Archie Clark, and I remember their statement saying that now we've got the best backcourt in the league, so I kind of took that as they weren't going to trade me.

"So we got four games into the season and still hadn't heard anything, so Larry called me and said, 'Earl, stay home.'"

Monroe stayed away from the Bullets, but instead of staying home he traveled to Indianapolis to meet with the Indiana Pacers of the rival ABA to discuss switching leagues -- a leverage ploy very much in vogue at the time as the league with the red, white and blue ball was becoming quite adept at pilfering players from the older, more established NBA.

It was in Indianapolis that the phone rang in Monroe's hotel room, with Fleischer on the other line.

"He said he had a trade for me with the Knicks, and my first impression was, 'Larry, that's not going to work,'" Monroe said. "It was because we played against the Knicks all the time, and they were the hated ones as far as we were concerned. But eventually I said give me a couple of days, and I went home to Philly and talked to my good friend, Sonny Hill, and my mom, and I emerged from those conversations saying I'm a basketball player, I can play with anyone in any style, and I'm going to come to New York."

And so commenced the union of Monroe and Walt "Clyde" Frazier in the Knicks' backcourt, a pairing that helped a team constructed around Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere and Phil Jackson make it to the NBA Finals in 1972 and '73.

In '72, the Knicks upset the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals then won Game 1 against a Lakers team that had set an NBA record (that still stands) with 33 consecutive victories. The Knicks then lost the next four.

In '73, the Knicks faced the Lakers again and the exact opposite result happened, the Knicks dropping the first game before winning the next four to give the franchise its second championship in four years. (Game 5 was Wilt Chamberlain's last in the NBA, and he scored the final two points of the series on an uncontested breakaway dunk with a second remaining).

"I think the first year I wore it all the time, and then the next year only when it made sense," Monroe said of his championship ring. "I never really wore a lot of jewelry, and then I got to a point where I looked at the ring as a symbol of the team, and that's kind of how I wore it. I felt this was an accomplishment, but the accomplishment of it was for the team, and that's why I probably wear the Top 50 ring more, because that's more of an individual accomplishment."

Monroe is now associated with Knicks lore nearly as much as Frazier and Reed, both of whom were members of the 1969-70 championship team and the 1972-73 title team. But before he was traded to the Knicks, Monroe was an archrival.

The Bullets and the Knicks met in the playoffs three consecutive times in the years leading up to the Monroe trade (plus the three years after the trade), with Baltimore knocking the Knicks out of the playoffs and denying them a chance to defend their title in 1971 by winning Game 7 on the road at Madison Square Garden.

But Monroe, at least in his mind, was not a hated player.

"I always felt comfortable here. People always cheered for me here, and that was one of the reasons why I finally decided I would come," Monroe said. "I felt the team was against me but the people weren't. We played a lot of hard ball against the players, and I was sort of apprehensive about that. But at the same time, this was a great city, and it kind of played to my lifestyle."

Monroe remembers the time he walked into a plate-glass door at a hotel in Seattle, shattering it when the first thing that touched the glass was the diamond in his ring. He remembers loaning it to former teammate Dean Meminger so that Meminger could have a replacement ring cast after he lost his original, and he remembers backing out on his vow to never wear the ring again until the Knicks won another championship "because it was getting a little ridiculous."

Now, 38 years later, it is back on his left hand -- and it still looks sharp. And meanwhile, the wait for the Knicks' next ring endures, a level of chagrin among the fan base that pretty much approximates the feeling of helplessness that Monroe felt all those years ago when that ring crashed onto the concrete at 88th and Columbus.