Before there was Dr. J, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and all the baby Jordans, there was Earl “The Pearl” Monroe — the man with moves so amazing that sportswriter Mike Wise exaggerates only slightly in claiming (with the support of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) that he “changed the culture of the game.” Tonight, the Washington Wizards honored Monroe by raising his number to the rafters of the Verizon Center, where it will hang alongside those of Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, and Gus Johnson. The only question was, what took them so long.
Monroe played for the franchise, then the Baltimore Bullets, for only four seasons. But it was with this club that he extended his legend beyond the playgrounds of Philadelphia and New York, perfecting all those spin moves, feints, and fade-aways that created the slight separation needed to launch his shot over taller defenders and double teams. Monroe had many nicknames — The Pearl, Magic, Black Jesus — but the one he liked best was “Thomas Edison,” a tribute to the fact that he seemed to invent a new move every time down the floor. Bill Bradley, that most analytical of basketball players, said that the one player whose game he couldn’t analyze was Earl Monroe.
When Monroe joined Bradley on the Knicks in 1971, the conventional wisdom was that he wouldn’t fit in with fellow guard Walt Frazier on a pass oriented team. But Monroe “curtailed the magic” (his words), blended in, and won a championship. When he went into the NBA Hall of Fame in 1990, however, he elected to enter as a Bullet.
Tonight, the organization finally repaid the favor.
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