If you want to get a taste of Earl “the Pearl” Monroe’s new memoir, Earl The Pearl: My Story (co-written with Quincy Troupe), may we suggest starting with the index? Here are some of our favorite entries: “Earl accused of self-exposure,” “punched in Manhattan,” “mink coat given to mother,” “angel dust tried,” “threatened with gun,” “blackmail tried,” “hemorrhoid problem,” “country club misbehavior,” “Bible found confusing,” “knife-killing witnessed.” Even if you’ve never heard of the NBA legend, you’ll come away wondering if this is maybe the best book ever written.
Monroe’s athletic career has been well documented; his 13 years in the NBA, playing for teams including the Baltimore Bullets and the New York Knicks, leading the latter to their last championship in 40 years; his unpredictable style, full of hesitation dribbling and triple-pump fakes. But what hasn’t been as widely reported (at least until now) is that Monroe is kinda’ nuts. Not in a bad way. In a very, very entertaining way. His memoir’s index just scratches the surface. This is a man who’s been chased by hooded Klansmen, accidentally tried angel dust at Bubba Smith’s house, and who’s pretty sure he was beaten up by a ghost.
I initially called Monroe, now 68 and long since retired, to discuss the upcoming NBA draft. But when you get the opportunity to talk to a living legend who’s been involved in more gun mishaps than a Quentin Tarantino character, who has hilarious anecdotes involving Miles Davis and Woody Allen, and who, it bears repeating, is almost positive he’s been slapped around by a poltergeist as recently as this year, you don’t waste time asking which tall college kid is going to get rich this summer.
Let’s save everybody a lot of time. Just predict exactly what’s going to happen in the NBA Draft. Do you have any favorites?
Not really. I don’t even know who’s coming out, to tell you the truth. I know that Cleveland has the first draft again. They really need some help. Last time we got Kyrie Irving, which was a good draft for them. Hopefully they can get him some help.
There’ve been complaints that this is a weak season for the draft. One GM even called it “historically weak.” Does it feel that bad to you?
I was just talking last night with another guy from the NBA. The fact that they are not even looking for guys who have been in school for four years or even three years. They should stop wasting time with these kids, start paying attention to the guys who have a little more maturity, with a little more understanding of the game itself, and not just the young kids with potential.
You got drafted when you were 23. In hindsight, does that still seem like the right age? Were you more emotionally prepared for playing in the NBA?
Yeah, obviously. I was about 19 when I started playing in college. I wasn’t ready to play in the pros at that time. I wasn’t even starting on my college team. But after three or four years of honing my skills and being able to grow as a player, I was able to be the second player picked in the draft that year. And the rest is history.
You stayed all four years at Winston-Salem and graduated. What was your major?
I majored in elementary education and minored in English. I was hell bent on graduating. So I graduated on time. And that was, for me, as big an accomplishment as getting drafted to the NBA.
Was it just the piece of paper? Or did a part of you think you needed a Plan B, in case basketball didn’t work out?
I guess a little of both. I sort of set a standard for a lot of other guys, who were playing basketball and would see me coming out of college, graduated. Even back in those days, I understood the importance of role models. I knew that a lot of kids followed me, and I didn’t want them all to know me just as a basketball player.
There’s nothing more heart-breaking than realizing your idols are stupid.
Exactly, yeah, yeah. I can remember there was a guy who came to speak at our high school, a famous football player back in those days. And it seemed as though he couldn’t put three words together. That was the impetus for me to make sure that I got my schooling. I could pursue my dreams and all that, but I couldn’t forget about the schooling. Don’t be the famous athlete who talks like a kid who’s been dropped on his head.
This may seem like a weird question, but have you ever seen Annie Hall?
Yes, I have.
Remember the scene where Alvy sneaks away from a party to watch a Knicks game? And he explains that basketball is fascinating because it’s physical.
Yeah, yeah. Great scene.
He says that intellectuals “prove you can be brilliant and have absolutely no idea what is going on.” Does that seem true to you?
To a certain extent, yeah. I think it’s easy to romanticize either side if you’re not in it. You’re somebody like Woody Allen, you have these fantasies about basketball or what it’s like to be in a basketball game. Woody Allen was a great Knicks fan. He wrote me a letter once.
What’d it say?
This was when I’d decided to go to New York to play for the Knicks. He told me not to worry about what’s going on there, people should be bowing down to you for the most part, because you’re so great. He even almost put me in a film once. I can’t remember if it was Annie Hall or Midsummer Night’s Dream. One of the two. We did something at the Garden, and we were left on the cutting room floor.
Oh yeah, I remember reading about that. It was for Annie Hall. It was the Knicks playing basketball against philosophers.
That’s it! Yeah, that was fun. Woody’s an interesting guy. We used to go to a lot of his parties. He had these amazing New Year’s Eve parties. They were like four or five floors of gaiety. Everybody was happy. It was a great time.
In the same way that college kids jump into NBA careers too quickly, the same could be said about people writing memoirs. Some of them do it in their 20s or 30s, long before they’ve experienced enough life to write about.
I had publishers asking me to write a memoir all through my 40s and 50s. But I wouldn’t do it, for exactly the reason you’re talking about. I wanted to do it at a time when it really meant something to me. The fact is that I’m obviously getting older. If I’m going to write something it needed to be sometime soon. But I also felt like it was the right moment.
Is hindsight 20/20? Can you look back on your life and have a more thoughtful perspective on what you did right or wrong?
Yeah, I can. I see things that I could have done this way or could have done that way. But you know, if I would have done them differently, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. So with that in mind, I’m pretty happy that things turned out the way they did. Those things that I could have done otherwise, hey, you can’t turn back the clock. Like I tell my daughter, once something is done, it’s done. You can’t go back. You move forward.
It’s been 40 years since the Knicks won their last NBA title. Why haven’t they been able to win a championship since you left?
I honestly don’t know. They’ve had some great players coming down the pike. It’s kind of strange that they haven’t done it. Certainly during the Patrick Ewing era, you’d have thought that would’ve led to two or three championships. And they almost did it, but for some reason or other it didn’t happen. It’s unfortunate that it’s taken this long. I guess part of it is they’ve made some very bad managerial choices over the years. Last year and especially this year, I think the people in New York have reason to celebrate and be hopeful, because the team has performed pretty well for them.
Are you at all tempted to get back in the game, maybe in a coaching position?
No. No, no, no. Maybe in an advisory kind of position. But never in a coaching scenario. Once you are out of the game for any length of time, it’s hard to jump back in. There are other guys who’ve just gotten out that are more in touch with the game than I am. I might have more knowledge, but they’re closer to the game because they can still remember it. Those memories are still fresh. They’re the one who should be coaching.
Your Knicks teammate Bill Bradley called you the ultimate playground player. Can you take the guy out of the playground but not the playground out of the guy?
I’ve had my share.
You’re never tempted to get involved in a pickup game? Just walk onto an inner-city court and blow some minds?
I’ve had five hip replacements. I’ve had five back surgeries. I’ve had operations on both knees. And my foot. So there’s not a whole bunch that I need to do out there at this point.
When was the last time you played?
Maybe 10 or 15 years ago.
It’s been that long? Do you miss it?
You know, not really. Because as you go through life, things change. Your body changes, and the way you look at the world changes. The intensity of a game is not something I have any desire to be involved in anymore. That was yesterday. I love it, but I don’t want to be in that world anymore.
There are so many stories in your memoir that I want to ask you about.
Well ask. What do you want to know?
You had a pregame meal of spaghetti and meatballs?
I did that because I’m superstitious. There was one game when I had spaghetti and meatballs and then had sex before going to a game, and I scored 56 points. I wanted to duplicate that. It didn’t happen again exactly that way, but I kept trying. I always had that meal before a game, just in case.
Maybe that’s what the Knicks need. They want to win another championship, they should be carb-loading and having pregame orgies.
I’m from Philadelphia, so food has always been important to me. Before a game, I’d have a hoagie or a cheesesteak hoagie. When I was with the Bullets, the owner came to the locker room before a game, and he’d see me eating this hoagie. It didn’t exactly inspire confidence. But then I’d go out and have a great game. I’d get 40 points, and the next day he had hoagies ordered in for me.
You have so many great stories like that. I’m still reeling that you accidentally tried some angel dust at Bubba Smith’s house.
So am I.
Were you sure it was angel dust and not something else?
What else could it have been?
I don’t know. I’ve never done angel dust, I wouldn’t recognize the effects. How did you know it wasn’t LSD, or a roofie, or some other drug?
I wasn’t sure of anything when I was in the midst of it. But afterwards, I was told by the person what I’d taken. Because I confronted him about it. And I had to take his word about what it was I’d been given. Being a control freak, it wasn’t a scenario I liked very much.
Angel dust isn’t an especially productive drug.
I couldn’t get it off me. I just had to ride it out, and when it was finally over, I wasn’t going to ride it again.
Here’s something else I didn’t realize until I read your book—you originally wanted to play baseball.
That was your dream?
I was a great baseball fan. When I was in elementary school, they took us to a library to look at the World Series, for some reason. And it was the Giants against Cleveland. I saw Willie Mays make this unbelievable catch. He [made the catch with his] back to the infield, over his shoulder and turns around, and he throws the ball so hard that his hat falls off. That hooked me. That’s what I wanted to be.
But then you had an accident, and you changed your mind.
Yeah. I started out as a catcher. And as a catcher I wasn’t able to wear a mask. There was something called a ghetto mask, which is a mask that everybody uses. It was really heavy and my neck wasn’t able to hold it up. So I had to catch without a mask. It was fine for awhile.
Until you started getting hit?
A couple of fouls ran over my glove and hit me in the eye. The second time it happened, I just walked off the field. That was it. I was like, “No more. I can’t do this. I don’t wanna die playing baseball.”
So you moved on to basketball. You learned how to dribble by listening to music. What kind of music?
A lot of R&B. Shorty Long, some Gladys Knight. I would go upstairs in my bedroom and turn the music on and dribble to the beats of the songs. A lot of times I’d be making staccato type of beats, dribbling low with both hands. That’s how I learned to control the ball. I had to stop after awhile because my mother would yell up, “Earl, the plaster is coming off the ceiling downstairs!” So she kind of hampered my growth in that regard.
For some reason I thought you would’ve been listening to Miles Davis. I guess because you and Miles were friends.
I did listen to Miles. I also listened to Wes Montgomery and Bobby Timmons, all those guys, back in the day. But I got frustrated because I had friends who listened to jazz, and they were always so pretentious about it. They would always be saying stuff like, “Oh, that’s Miles at Monterey, 1958.” I hated that. So I moved away from jazz. I wanted to listen to Three Dog Night and Steppenwolf and Jimi Hendrix.
When you became friends with Miles, was he a fan? Did he have any idea what you did for a living?
Oh yeah. He was a big fan. And I was a fan of his, obviously. It was a mutual thing. The problem we had was, I could never understand what he was saying. I could understand Miles when we were together talking. I could look at him and watch his lips and gather what we were talking about. But on the phone? I couldn’t understand it. He’d be like “[unintelligible gibberish].”
I have no idea what you just said.
That’s how he’d talk. And I’d be like, “Right, right. Uh-huh. Yeah . . .” And that is how our conversations would be. I wouldn’t say much but “cool.”
That could get you into trouble. You could agree to something you never meant to agree to.
That actually happened! Back in ’73, when I had foot surgery, Miles used to call me all the time. And those conversations were pretty much like the one I just said. I couldn’t understand anything but “bed.” B-e-d. It wasn’t until years later that I realized he was offering me his orthopedic bed. He had a hip replacement, and he was offering me his orthopedic bed for me to recuperate in.
You’ve had more nicknames than anyone in the NBA. You’re Earl the Pearl, Thomas Edison, Black Jesus. Anything I’m missing?
Magic. I was Magic before Magic Johnson. I had a few other nicknames that we can’t discuss.
Why? Were they too dirty?
Some of them. My favorite nickname was Duke of Earl. It was my first. It came from a song by Gene Chandler that was popular back in the day, when I first started playing basketball. The Thomas Edison nickname came about when I started making moves and they told me I was inventing stuff that didn’t exist yet. The nicknames just proliferated from there.
According to legend, the first time you heard yourself being called Black Jesus, somebody was pointing a gun at you. Is that true?
Yeah. It happened in college. We played a game and lost, and we were leaving the Coliseum and walking back to the hotel. We were actually going to an Ike and Tina Turner concert that night. As we’re walking, this car drives up next to us and these guys jump out with guns. And they’re saying things like “You guys beat up my guy” and stuff like that—they’d clearly confused us with somebody else—and we’re trying to tell them that we weren’t the guys they were looking for. Finally another guy drives up, the one who’d been beaten up that his friends were trying to avenge. He takes one look at me and says, “No, no, that’s not the one who did it. That’s Black Jesus. He just played a game down at the Coliseum.”
You’ve got so many stories that involve guns. It’s mind-boggling.
Yeah, that came into play more often than I would’ve liked.
You once purportedly stopped an armed robbery at a Jersey liquor store by grabbing the guy’s gun.
Well, I don’t know how much of a robbery it actually was.
They didn’t want money?
Oh, they wanted money alright, but we didn’t have anything. We were broke. We just came to the liquor store to get some beer, because in Philadelphia on Sunday you can’t buy liquor. So you go to New Jersey.
Were you even legally able to buy booze?
No, we were teenagers. But we knew where to go where they wouldn’t card you. So this guy comes up with a gun and he wants our money. Just without thinking, I reached out and grabbed the gun and took it from him. It was a quick kind of thing, not even thinking.
That’s crazy. Who does that, outside of a Hollywood action movie?
I guess nobody. I wouldn’t do something like that anymore.
You don’t feel as brave?
It’s not about bravery. It’s about realizing that a gun has bullets that could kill me. Obviously, as a young kid, you don’t think about death as much as you do when you’re an older person. You just kind of react. So I reacted and took the gun and kept that gun. It was a nice little silver 25 automatic. You could put it in your back pocket.
Which you did?
Oh yeah. I took it with me to college. Because I hadn’t been down South and all I knew was what I saw on the news and those weren’t great images.
Lots of violent racism.
Exactly. So I took it with me. My sophomore year, the coach heard I had it, and he came into my room when I wasn’t there, looked in my drawer, found the gun, and took it. I found out later he had a whole trunk full of weapons that he’d confiscated from guys from the 1940s till the time I was there in the ’60s. It was his treasure trove.
Speaking of the South being a scary place for a black man, there’s a story in your book about being chased through rural Virginia by some KKK members. I can’t imagine anything more terrifying.
It was scary at the time. But then when you look back on it, it becomes funny. The fact that I found myself in Danville, driving down the street, and I see these lights flickering in front of me and in back of me. And I realize, “Oh shit, I’m in the middle of a Klu Klux Klan rally.” So I pushed the pedal to the floor. I had three or four cars behind me but they never caught me. I guess after a while they said, “Let him go.”
You didn’t immediately decide to leave the South and never come back?
Naw. Once I got back to campus, I told the guys and everybody was laughing. It wasn’t funny to me, but everybody was laughing.
I don’t see the humor there. “You were almost lynched by a racist mob? Hilarious!”
Those are the kinds of things that happen down there. Winston-Salem wasn’t that bad of a place to be in the South. At least not when you were playing basketball and winning. Our team, my senior year, we were winning so much—we went 31 and 1 and won the national championship, the college division championship—that they had to move our games out of our college gymnasium and put them in the Coliseum because so many people wanted to see us. It was the first time that blacks and whites came together to see sporting events. And our team is credited with quieting the racial tensions in that area.
You ended up moving to New York City, which can be just as racist as any southern town.
It can, yeah. There was a time during the ’73 championship when I got jumped in New York by some racist bastards. My girlfriend and I were walking down the street after a game, heading for my car. We had to get to the airport to fly to LA that night on a charter flight. And these drunk guys came up to me and started talking trash, throwing racial slurs at me. They didn’t know who I was or maybe they did. I tried to put my girlfriend behind me and the guy started hitting me. I jumped out after them but she pulled me back and we went on our way. I went looking for my gun.
You wanted to come back and shoot them?
I did. It’s interesting, I hate guns. But I’ve always had one somewhere around. So I drove around trying to find these guys, and my girlfriend was saying, “You have to get to the airport, they’re going to leave you.” So eventually I said okay and we got to the plane just in time. I was a little late but explained it to coach and he understood. We went on and won that championship in LA. I was fired up.
Because of the attack in New York?
Yeah. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Also, my mother had passed away in January. I had dedicated the rest of the season to her. Coming to New York, I had to suppress my game to fit into this team. But that night, I went back to being Earl the Pearl. I was playing as Earl Monroe before that. But I had to get back to being Earl the Pearl.
And it took your mom and some drunk racist douchebags to get you there.
It did. That’s a funny way to think about it, but yeah.
You’ve been attacked for reasons that aren’t racially motivated. Like the time you were beaten up by a ghost in a girlfriend’s Brooklyn apartment.
Yeah. I don’t think that was racially motivated anyway. Don’t know what the ghost’s skin color was.
What’s the story there? What happened exactly?
There was a lady I was trying to impress. She worked at a place called The Needle’s Eye down in the Village. She was a bartender. I saw her and was impressed and wanted to take her out. I came back a couple other times and finally got her to say yes. I got to take her home and it was late. We get to her apartment and she said, “You can stay but you have to sleep on the sofa.” So I said “Okay, that’s cool, I understand.”
And that’s where the ghost got you?
That was it. I’m laying there and I fall asleep and I feel like there’s something on top of me. I can’t move. I have my eyes wide open but I don’t see anything. I’m struggling, trying to get away. I cursed this thing out. Every curse word you can think of. But it wasn’t working.
Ghosts aren’t intimidated by swearing?
Apparently not. So then I started praying. I’m saying the Lord’s Prayer. Then I remembered my mother and the 23rd Psalm, which was her favorite passage. So I start saying that. And all of sudden I broke out of it. It let me go, whatever it was. I left the apartment and vowed that I would never come back there again.
Was it just that particular ghost, do you think, or can all supernatural entities be calmed down with a psalm?
I don’t know. I never tried it again.
Again? As in, the next time you were attacked by a ghost?
Wait, you were attacked by more than one ghost?
It’s happened to me a few times. It’s happened repeatedly over the course of 35, 40 years. It’s happened to me within the last year.
A ghost tried to beat you up in the last 12 months?
Yep. I learned to just lay there, stop fighting back. I just lay there and laugh and joke. Because I can’t move. I don’t know if I’m asleep or what. I deal with it in different ways nowadays.
Ghosts must really hate you.
I don’t understand!
How about a hug? Why do ghosts always have to punch you?
Why can’t they just bring me a cup of tea or something. That would be cool. Although, I gotta say, I’d really freak out if I saw some tea floating at me.
Besides fighting ghosts and writing memoirs, how else have you been keeping busy these days? You have have a candy company, right?
That’s right. We have a license with the NBA to distribute candy for every team in the NBA. So we have all kinds of candy. Gummi Bears, chocolate bars, jelly beans. Whatever you can think of. That’s a pretty exciting venture.
Don’t you have diabetes?
I do, yeah.
Is it weird, as a diabetic, to be selling food that could potentially kill another diabetic?
Two things on that. One is that we do have sugar-free candy as well. I wanted to make sure, because I want to be representative of these things. I don’t want to cut those folks out. But interestingly, when you have type 2 diabetes, you can get low blood sugar if you don’t take care. And what do you need to bring that low blood sugar up? Candy.
I’m not sure if a doctor would agree with that assessment.
Well, maybe not. But it’s an interesting dichotomy.
You know what food product you should put your name on? Spaghetti and meatballs.
[Laughs] Oh my gosh yes. Why didn’t I think of that.
It could be like Newman’s Own, but with your face on the bottle. Earl The Pearl’s Pre-Game Sauce.
I love it. I already have the commercial slogan. “It’ll make you do wonderful things!”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on MensHealth.com.)