Earl “the Pearl” Monroe talks basketball and race

7 mins read

by Shaylyn MacKinnon

The latest guest speaker for the forum lecture series titled “In the Game” saw a noticeable lack of student attendees on Tuesday, March 28, when NBA Hall of Famer Earl “the Pearl” Monroe sat down for an interview with Pulitzer Prize winner and sports columnist for the New York Times Ira Berkow. Instead, the audience in Crawford Hall, a popular venue for guest speakers at Drew, was overwhelmingly middle-aged, made up of the grown fans that followed Monroe’s basketball career from the late 60s to the very end of the 70s.

Known as “the Pearl” for his dazzling, innovative and jazz-like style on the court, Earl Monroe is a basketball legend, having played for the Baltimore Bullets and then the New York Knicks during his 14 years of professional basketball.

The event began with an introduction of Monroe’s great achievements both on and off the court by Ken Alexo, the university’s Vice President for University Advancement. Alexo described Monroe as “so unpredictable that when he neared the hoop, even he didn’t know what he was going to do,” something that “made him both difficult to guard and a marvel to watch.”

The majority of the talk revolved around Monroe’s career and history with the game. Monroe explained to Berkow that it was his desire to make his mother proud and a chance meeting in the school hallway with the coach that influenced his decision to dedicate his time to basketball at the late age of 14. Other notable topics included how Monroe’s trade to the Knicks occurred and the challenging time period that followed in which he was benched until he could “understand and match the cadence” of his new team.

The topic that elicited the most engagement from the audience, especially the few student attendees, was Monroe’s experience as a young black athlete in the years of and immediately following the Civil Rights Movement. The subject was introduced when Monroe explained the process of his trade to the Knicks. Before Monroe was informed of any potential trade deal with the Knicks, he attended a locker room meet-and-greet with the Indiana Pacers in Indianapolis where, he explained, he witnessed Roger Brown and a few other players remove guns from a space above their lockers because “the Ku Klux Klan was there, and this was their protection.” This experience caused Monroe to find the nearest phone and call his agent with the decision that he could not play there, ultimately leading to his time with the Knicks and all of the glory that followed.

After giving Monroe the opportunity to discuss the technicalities behind his gameplay, Berkow reintroduced the topic of discrimination, asking, “Earl, race of course played a significant part in your life. When were you moved by discrimination or maybe unfairness or bias in this country?” Monroe responded by explaining that it wasn’t until he left Philadelphia and moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he was “in the midst of it all” that he felt directly affected by discrimination. Monroe explained that he helped with voter registration and how the poverty and enthusiasm he witnessed in the people he visited made him more determined to do something. “I would listen to Martin Luther King, and his speeches were like poetry to me, they filled me up, and it made me feel good and it made me feel like I was part of this,” Monroe noted.

Monroe detailed a time when he experienced direct racism at a diner in Winston-Salem when a man approached him and said, “We don’t serve your kind.” Monroe explained, “And this was the first time I was really confronted with this. I’m from Philadelphia, you know I’m used to race riots and all that, but nobody’s coming to me and telling me this kind of stuff. So they had to violently carry me out of this place.” This left an impression on Monroe, and it became something he often thinks about.

Berkow brought to attention how this racism played into Monroe’s basketball career, recalling when Monroe was not picked for an all-star team for a tournament in 1967, despite his clearly superior performance, because the coach, Jim Gudger, believed his style to be “too street, too playground, too black.”

When questions opened up to the audience, many of the older attendees asked about Monroe’s experiences with specific players or in certain games, but one student asked Monroe, in the context of his discussion on the Civil Rights Movement, “What’s your impression of race relations now, especially post the 2016 election cycle?” Monroe’s response focused on his desire for political parties to work together and for less discrepancy between the rich and the poor rather than how he sees race relations today, his last comment of social or political issues during the talk, choosing to focus once again on his time on the court. Monroe ended the event by shaking hands and taking photographs with attendees on stage.

Monroe’s appearance at Drew University makes him yet another high-profile figure in the sports world to join in on the “In the Game” lecture series. The series began with Monroe’s former teammate Walt “Clyde” Frazier. Other past speakers of this series include New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton and Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred. Berkow was described as the “maestro” of the series, having led the talks with each guest thus far.


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