Up Close And Personal

By Harold Bell
Updated: December 28, 2007

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Saturday, December 1, 2007, some 36 years after he made his exit from Baltimore to the Media Capitol of the World, New York City, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe returned to the scene of the crime, the Verizon Center and Washington Wizards (formerly the Baltimore Civic Center and Baltimore Bullets).

Earl left the Bullets for the New York Knickerbockers in 1971. He left because of a bitter contract dispute with owner Abe Pollin. Abe didn’t think that “The Pearl” was worth the money he was asking for. The late Hymie Perlo, a friend and confidant of Abe Pollin once said, ‘Harold that was the biggest basketball mistake Abe ever made,’ I agreed.

During the ceremony Wizard’s owner Abe Pollin joked to fans saying to Earl “Not only did the people not know what you were doing out there, you didn’t know what the hell you doing either.” Abe, the same could be said of you in 1971 when you gave one of basketball’s true treasures away.

There are two men who changed the way the game of basketball is played. I am talking about from the playgrounds to college and on to the pros, they both hail from Philadelphia — Wilt Chamberlain and Earl Monroe.

When you make the “powers-to be” change the rules of how the game is played it is only then can you be called the greatest. Meet Wilt and “The Pearl.”

Wilt made them widen the lane and raise the basket. Earl made carrying the ball and traveling legal. He put the “E” in entertainment. Earl revolutionized the play of NBA guards. My question is what rules did Michael Jordan change?

NBA Show Time did not originate in LA. Earl, Wes Uuseld and Gus Johnson were the first “Show Time” act in the NBA. When Earl led the fast break in Baltimore with Wes on one wing and Gus on the other the crowd would come to its feet.

Wes just filled the other lane. It was the Earl Monroe and Gus Johnson show. You never knew what the end result would be except it was going to be something spectacular (Gus dunking and shattering the backboard or Earl spinning and throwing up an unbelievable shot).

It has taken Abe Pollin 36 years to get over his biggest basketball blunder. Earl said it best, “Better late than never.” The stories about Earl never wanting to leave the Bullets, forget it, he could not wait to get to the “Big Apple.”

In conversations with me he said, ‘What is there about New York not to like, it is the best move I ever made.’ His not wanting to leave, he was just being politically correct.

When Earl changed uniforms there were so-called basketball experts saying “He will never make it in New York with Clyde Frazier, they will need two basketballs.” Not only did he make it, he thrived with the Knickerbockers and won his only NBA Championship. I never had any doubt that he was going to make it.

It was 1963 when I remember seeing Earl Monroe for the first time. He was on a visit to Winston-Salem State University in Winston-Salem, NC. My roommate and teammate the late Barney Hood came into the dinning hall raving about some skinny guy from Philadelphia tricking everyone at a local playground off campus.

I was from DC and I had played against and watched some of the greatest playground basketball players to ever come out of the city, Elgin Baylor, Willie Jones, Dave Bing, etc. I was not easily impressed. I finished my dinner and made my way to the playground to see this magician with a basketball.

I stood at courtside and watched as Earl spun and twirled his way to the basket with his “now you see and now you don’t moves.” During that time I thought I was a pretty good basketball player.

I could not wait to get my chance to play against this magic man from Philly. Before the game was over I was a believer. He had turned me around so many times I left the court with a headache. Barney was laughing at me and saying “I told you so.”

Earl was recruited to Winston-Salem by the late college basketball legend Coach Clarence “Bighouse” Gaines. Gaines had a pipeline of former athletes from Boston to New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and all the way to DC. He used us as recruiters.

In Philadelphia it was Leon Whitley a well known athlete in his own right who sold “Bighouse” on The Pearl. Coach Gaines had never seen Earl play the game but he knew if Leon said “He can play” he could play.

My encounter with Earl on that playground in Winston-Salem in 1963 would turn into a friendship that has lasted for over 40 years. His performance during his college basketball career was nothing short of spectacular.

Earl followed another great player to Winston-Salem that he is often compared with, Cleo Hill who hails from Newark, New Jersey. Cleo was the No. 1 draft choice of the NBA St. Louis Hawks. Racism cut his promising career short.

He was a sure bet to be inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame. Cleo had every shot imaginable and black and white folks traveled from around the state to see him play. He was Michael Jordan in North Carolina long before Michael Jordan.

On game days, the students had to camp out in our own gym to make sure we had seats. I was lucky enough to be a witness and watch two of the greatest players to ever bounce a basketball.

People often ask me “Harold who was the greatest” I am lost for words when it comes to comparing the two. But I can say, ‘They were both great human beings.’

Earl during his entire NBA career was one of my biggest supporters when it came to reaching back to support my community projects. I don’t ever remembering him saying “No” to me or to Kids In Trouble, Inc. Even though Earl was an introvert, people loved being around him. He was a “class act” and a gentleman.

He modeled for my celebrity fashion shows, played in my celebrity tennis tournaments and brought toys for the kids during my Christmas toy drives for needy children.

When I would take kids to basketball camps out of town Earl would be there giving clinics (John Chaney & Sonny Hill and Bighouse Gaines camps in Philly and North Carolina). Unlike some, he never forgot who he was and where he came from. He was a poor child from the inner-city of Philadelphia and his ties remained strong there during his career in the NBA.

When I went to New York City on business or pleasure, my wife Hattie and I had access to his Manhattan apartment. He made sure we wanted for nothing on our visits, taking us out to dinner and making sure we had tickets to Broadway shows.

Dave Bing is a native Washingtonian and was voted along with Earl Monroe as one of the “NBA’s 50 Greatest Player” of all time. I watched Dave grow up on the playgrounds and we attended the same high school, Spingarn in Northeast DC. I have gone head to head with Dave on the playgrounds and in our high school alumni basketball games.

He is one of my favorite people and we have also worked together on several community projects. When Dave returned home to visit after being named NBA Rookie of the Year, we ran into each other at a restaurant in Northwest DC.

I congratulated him on his outstanding season and for being name the game’s top rookie. His response surprised me. He said, “Harold you helped prepare me for the NBA.” What he meant was I never made it easy for him when we faced off on the basketball court.

When Earl was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 1990 it was a day I would never forget. Joining Earl on the dais would be none other than Dave Bing. It didn’t get any better than that for me despite the fact that Dave and I had gone our separate ways (another story).

Traveling with me to Massachusetts for the ceremony was our high school basketball coach, Rev. William Roundtree. We were at a table with Philadelphia playground basketball legend and former NBA color analyst Sonny Hill. Sonny was a dear friend of Earl’s and mine.

We were so proud of the two basketball icons who were being inducted.

Dave accepted his induction first and thanked his family, friends and Rev. Roundtree for his guidance and patience. Coach Roundtree was sitting next to me and Dave pretended like I was not even there.

Earl followed Dave to the microphone and thanked his family and friends and had each one of them stand (class act). I was among those friends he introduced; he thanked me for being a part of his life. I will never forget the look on Dave Bing’s face — it was priceless.

It is easy to remember “The Pearl.”