The rookie, Earl the Pearl, stirred from his afternoon nap and squinted out the window of his room in the Lord Baltimore Hotel toward the Civic Center, where he would begin his professional basketball career with the Bullets in another three hours. It was an eerie, Cimmerian dark outside, for this was one of those Baltimore evenings when the weather, always mischievous, misplaces whole months.
There are, normally, only two seasons in Baltimore, anyway—spring and fall being acknowledged by the populace only in deference to the calendar. Spring is celebrated on the few days the flowers in Sherwood Gardens are in full bloom. Fall is observed on the Sundays when the Colts perform. The rest is sweaty summer and raw winter, and it was summer last Wednesday, in the 70s and sticky, when the rookie, Earl the Pearl, put on his white-on-white shirt, his Paisley tie, his biscuit-colored blazer and started off for the Civic Center. Then the heavens opened all over Maryland. There were tornado warnings and snow and hail, and in downtown Baltimore there was a cloudburst as winds reached 55 mph. Such mad convulsions sent the thermometer plunging and the rookie back inside the hotel. He waited a few minutes till the storm subsided. Then, in winter, he started again for the Civic Center.
Baltimore, despite being flanked by Washington and Philadelphia, where the sport flowers, has never been a basketball town. The rookie, Earl the Pearl Monroe, is, for instance, from Philly. The only player ever to come out of Baltimore is Gene Shue—the man who took over as coach of the Bullets in the middle of their last, horrendous (20-61) season. But then, the team's performance has been on a level with local interest in the sport. Animated basketball conversation in Baltimore is still restricted to sketchy reminiscences of Shue's play at Towson Catholic High or of the World Champion Bullets of 1947. In those days the Bullets played in an erstwhile roller rink, where players shared the meager shower facilities with the stray cats who domiciled there. The place was called, in delusion, the Coliseum.
Now, the rookie Monroe entered the Civic Center, the clean, modern home of the Bullets of the '60s. It was 90 minutes before the tip-off, and he was frightened. It was not, however, the game that concerned him; he was thinking about a testimonial dinner for himself that he first had to endure. His friends smirk at the suggestion that Monroe is shy, but his celebrity status has come so quickly that he is still withdrawn in public. Only five years ago he was a stock boy, scratching out a buck and a half an hour. "That's kind of a dark spot in my life," he says. He does not like to think of it. He was recruited the next year for a small, predominantly Negro college, Winston-Salem State, and, by the time he was graduated last June, he and the school were famous. "Earl, Earl, Earl the Pearl. Earl, Earl, best in the world," they chanted, and he averaged 41.5 points and led his team to the NCAA small-college title. Now the Winston-Salem alumni of Baltimore were gathered to honor their famous colleague, and about 200 of them packed a banquet room. Earl was escorted to the head table, where he joined the mayor himself. They all sang the national anthem.
October 30, 1967
The mayor, Theodore R. McKeldin, one of the last of the great orators, limited himself to a few warm words of welcome for Earl, and presented him with an autographed copy of his own book about Baltimore, No Mean City. At last, after more kind words, the rookie realized he had to speak, and he made a nice little talk of thanks, excusing his brevity since he had to leave Winston-Salem now to go play basketball with the pros. There were less than 30 minutes left before he was to move out onto the court.
He stood there before the game during his second national anthem, languidly, his eyes nowhere, but from the moment he began to play there was neon about him that no one could miss. The Bullets put on a fantastic team show and easily beat the New York Knicks, 121-98. Monroe was not even the leading scorer—Forward Jack Marin, one of the most improved players in the league, had that distinction—but the rookie was the show as, apparently, he is destined to be everywhere. He does not have to pop the jumper, or use a turnaround switch dribble, lead the break, fire the pass or block the shot to win attention. Somehow, a crowd just flashes into rapport with him and murmurs at even his simple moves. The Pearl doesn't know why himself. "I guess I'm a showman," he says, "but what's that? I'm not any Harlem Globetrotter. That's not my style."
"Back home we've always known Earl had it," said Ray Scott, the big forward, after the opener. Scott grew up in the same neighborhood as Monroe. "I've only seen one other rookie come into the league like Earl—where you can just tell." he said. "That was Dave Bing, when I was at Detroit last year. Earl's got it up here. He didn't score a lot in the exhibitions because he was trying to work with us up front, get us accustomed to his moves. That's a smart rookie. The game can't all be as smooth as tonight, but he'll be a great one. Listen—Dave, now Dave is my heart, but Earl is just beautiful. He is the Pearl."
Even the Baltimore fans sensed that here was something special, the instant Monroe took the ball. He missed his first two shots, but then, with three minutes gone, he dribbled between his legs, cut down the left side and came off the dribble with a jumper that went home from the corner. The place exploded. Monroe had not been shooting well in the exhibitions. That one play, he said, revived everything. He had never seen the Knicks before and did not even know who the players guarding him were, but it hardly mattered. Baltimore led by as much as 39. Monroe made 22 and five assists. In the end, the excited crowd was just screaming "Earl, Earl" over and over at Shue, imploring him to send Monroe back into the game. "Ahh no," the coach said later with a catnip twinkle. "Let them pay to see him the next time."
They were waving money at the ticket windows when the Civic Center opened the next morning. For Saturday's second game, against Boston, the Pearl attracted the largest advance and the biggest cash gate in Bullet history as 9,164 showed up to scream. "I don't know how much he's making," Bill Russell said afterwards, "but he's worth every penny." Monroe made five more assists, got eight rebounds and 16 points—but he and the rest of the team had a bad shooting night, and Boston broke open a close game in the third quarter. Still, the fans would not leave, and when the Pearl put on some razzle-dazzle in the closing minutes the Civic Center rocked—though the home team was hopelessly out of the game. No one could remember a Baltimore crowd, their heroes in defeat, reacting so enthusiastically to a single player's performance.
Even with the loss to Boston, however, Shue's Bullets showed that they can be the finest Baltimore team ever. Shue has them in shape and running. Primarily, he has made them a team. They look for each other on offense; they help each other on defense and on the boards, where they must, for they lack power at center. Their first games were all the more impressive since they received minimal help from the incumbent star, Gus Johnson, who had an injured foot and tended to get into foul trouble.
In the locker room after the opening game, the reporters had at last left the rookie, and he dressed. Then, tentatively, he headed downstairs toward the crowd that was waiting just for him. A new, small anxiety creased his face. "This is what I really hate," he said. "The autographs and everything." But politely, self-consciously, he waded through them, the mayor's book under his arm, signing his own name now, nodding thanks. "The Pearl, the Pearl," they cried, and more of them started drifting away from the bandstand, where Lionel Hampton was leading a post-game concert. Steve Smith, a schoolteacher in Camden, N.J., who had co-captained Winston-Salem with Monroe and had come down to see his friend's debut, stood to the side of the throng and watched, shaking his head gently at the scene. Hampton, the sweat pouring from his face, was still holding a coterie of handclappers—will the big bands ever come back?—and launched into the finale, the boffo finish, old Flyin' Home, just as the rookie signed his way through the last of the fans. "Hi, Home," Monroe said to Smith, exuberantly slapping his outstretched hands. "Hi, Home," Smith said to the Pearl.
They started out into a slight, cold drizzle. At the last, a little boy rushed up to the rookie and presented him with a huge red sign, YES, EARL IS THE REAL PEARL, it read. Monroe thanked him, tucked the sign under his arm with the mayor's book and moved off into the cold. The temperature had crashed all the way down into the 40s, and for the moment, anyway—between Colt Sunday afternoons—there was winter and basketball in the damp Baltimore air.