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If the Garden was Eden, Earl Monroe in the CIAA was heaven

by Lut Williams

Anyone who saw Earl “The Pearl“ Monroe play in the NBA, never really saw him play.pearlTHE PEARL: Earl Monroe earned nicknames like “Black Jesus,“ “Black Magic,“ and “The Truth“ during his career at Winston-Salem State.

To do that, you had to see him at Winston-Salem State College (now Winston- Salem State University) in the 1966-67 season.

As much as he was a marvel in the NBA, he was more than that at WSSU.

Just as they say the only person that could hold Michael Jordan to 16 points (per game) was his college coach – North Carolina‘s Dean Smith – for all practical purposes, that is what you could say in the reverse about Earl Monroe.

Only the NBA could hold “The Pearl“ to 24 points per game, his average in 1967 when he won the NBA Rookie of the Year award with the Baltimore Bullets, or 18.8 points per game, his NBA career average.

At Winston-Salem State, he would get held to 34.

That‘s about what he was held to when the Rams lost in the CIAA Tournament semifinals in 1967 to rival North Carolina A&T. A&T put two players on him, George Mack and Carl Hubbard. One played in front of him and one behind him. They didn‘t play zone, they just had two people play Monroe. Besides a loss to High Point to open the season, the 105-82 decision to A&T was the only game Monroe and the 31-2 Rams lost that year.

monroe oscar-3

Under legendary head coach Clarence “Big House“ Gaines and with Monroe as the unquestioned leader, WSSC became the first black college team to win an NCAA championship when they won the Small College Division title, 77-74 over Southwest Missouri State.

Monroe averaged an unbelievable 41.5 points per game that year, numbers hardly ever heard of before or since in college basketball. It was unbelievable until you saw him.

That was the case for the national media who continually downplayed Monroe‘s talent and that of the Rams, continually ranking them below others in the nation until they witnessed them firsthand. Once you saw him however, you were a believer. He‘d drop 40, almost effortlessy, and you‘d believe.

He was relentlessly smooth as silk.

During the national tournament, Monroe put up 49 on #6 Akron in a secondround win. He scored pedestrian totals of 34 in a first-round win (over Baldwin-Wallace), 29 in the quarterfinals (vs. Long Island) and 23 in the semis (over #2 Kentucky Wesleyan).

In the championship game, before a national TV audience, Monroe fhrew in 40, with all the flash and panache in his repertoire. Behind-the-back and between-the-legs dribbles, no-look passes, long-range as well as contested jumpers over taller defenders, he showed it all - and they all believed.

He had so many moves – hesitations, head fakes, shot fakes, spins and reverse spins, hang-in-the-air double-clutches, pull-back jumpers – that you were in awe whenever he had the ball. And the points kept coming.

But Monroe wasn‘t just a scorer. He was a player, as adept at passing the ball and setting up his teammates as he was at dazzling you with his scoring. And he wasn‘t some one-man team as some have asserted. Gaines had other players like Eugene Smiley, the other guard if you can call Monroe a guard, burly 6-7 forward William “Bill“ English and 6-8 center James Reid on the team. But make no mistake, Monroe was the orchestrator.

Admiring 41.5 points per game from a distance is highly questionable. Seeing it in person makes it very real.

Being from Danville, Va., I was relegated to watching Monroe only during the CIAA Tournament or the one time my father ventured down Route 29 to Greensboro, N.C. to catch Earl and the Rams play in the regular season against North Carolina A&T.

Other than that, it was only through word-of-mouth or through reading the box scores of the Rams games, when I could find them, that he and the Rams could be followed.

But I saw enough of him in the Tournament to know the phenom that he was. Those lucky enough to be at Winston-Salem State or on the CIAA circuit were the truly fortunate ones.

When you did see him is when all the nicknames started to make sense.

“The Pearl“ was certainly apropos, perhaps the best nickname in all of sport. But “Black Jesus,“ “Black Magic“ and “The Truth“ are nicknames you come to when you‘ve run out of ways to describe somebody.

And as thrilling as the CI-double A was, and it was indeed thrilling, Monroe brought it to another level. What you were witnessing was a once-in-a-lifetime occurence. There‘s been nobody like him since.

My brother Jerry (eight years older) has always said that another Winston- Salem State great, Cleo Hill, was the greatest player he‘d ever seen (other than Oscar Robertson). And when you look as his numbers – 23.5 ppg., 24.5 ppg., 27.7 ppg. and 26.7 over his four-year career – its easy to see why. Hill, those who saw him say, could shoot hook shots with either hand, had Michael Jordan ups, and was virtually unstoppable.

Monroe was 6-3 or so and probably never dunked in his life. What he did didn‘t require much jumping ability, only a flair for the dramatic and the acrobatics of a virutoso.

The NBA saw it and believed, as did the Baltimore Bullets who made him the second pick in the first round of the NBA Draft behind Div. I Player of the Year, Jimmy Walker of Providence. But Monroe was second to none. He weaved and twirled his way to an outstanding 12-year NBA career including an eight-year stint with the New York Knicks.

I understand he‘s one of the players featured in an upcoming ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, When The Garden Was Eden. If the New York Knicks‘ NBA championship teams made Madison Square Garden Eden, Monroe made the CIAA heaven.

monroe stats


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