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