“Earl the Pearl” played on the Knicks last championship team—in 1973.
“Earl the Pearl” played on the Knicks’ last championship team—in 1973.

Basketball Hall of Famer reflects on his mom, the Knicks, Woody Allen.

March 2017 – Basketball Hall of Famer Earl Monroe has a lot of stories to tell.

That became apparent early on during his appearance at Drew University, where the former New York Times sports columnist Ira Berkow asked him about his days as a top college player at Winston-Salem State and as a flashy guard on the Baltimore Bullets and New York Knicks.

Monroe, the guest of Drew Forum’s In the Game speaker series, smiled and laughed about lighter memories and spoke earnestly about past slights and the unwavering support of his “ma.” Here are his five best stories.

Woody Allen loved Monroe's style of play.
Woody Allen loved Monroe’s style of play.

A letter from Woody Allen

Monroe was humbled by his first season on the Knicks. He went from being a star on the Baltimore Bullets to riding the bench for months in New York, with his scoring average sliding from 21 to 11 points per game. After year one, however, Knicks fan and movie director Woody Allen reassured him. In a letter to Monroe, Allen said, “It might take time, but we know how good you are and everything is going to be okay.” Monroe still has that letter today.

Ma and the blue notebook

Before he became “Earl the Pearl,” Monroe was a teenager in high school still learning the game. In fact, he didn’t start playing until he was 14. As such, he faltered at times, prompting other players to razz him. Knowing how painful that was, his mother handed Earl a blue notebook and told him to write down the names of those who disparaged him. “As you get better than them,” Ma instructed, “I want you to scratch those names out.” His success at that stage opened the door to college stardom.

A star in college, yet left off a U.S. team
A star in college, yet left off a U.S. team

“Too street, too playground, too black”

Despite being a star at Winston-Salem State, Monroe failed to make a team representing the U.S. at the Pan-Am Games, even though most of his peers did. Why? The coach said his flashy play was “too street, too playground, too black.” Five decades later, Monroe said, “It has always left a very, very bad taste in my mouth.”

Coach Holzman and ego

In the throes of his bumpy transition to the Knicks, Coach Red Holzman quietly took him aside and said something that helped reignite Monroe’s game: “It seems as though you’ve lost your ego.” In time, Monroe was starting again and displaying the ball control wizardry he had mastered as a Bullet.

His backcourt mate was Walt "Clyde" Frazier.
His backcourt mate was Walt “Clyde” Frazier.

A Rolls Royce backcourt

To befriend his backcourt partner on the Knicks, Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Monroe suggested that together they could own New York. One problem, though: Frazier was already a star. As he told Monroe, “Earl, I’ve already got New York.” Even back then, Frazier—who also has spoken at Drew—was never at a loss for words.

Drew Forum, established in 1994, is funded by the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation and the Thomas H. Kean Visiting Lectureship. Past speakers include comedian John Oliver, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, writer Calvin Trillin, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and ex-CIA Director Leon Panetta.