On a sticky morning last August, I stood on the flight deck of the USS Intrepid, an aircraft carrier turned air, sea and space museum docked in New York Harbor, and watched my humility disappear into the Hudson River. After all, I had just scored on Earl Monroe. Never mind that Monroe was 46, a full 20 years older than I was. Or that he was wearing braces to protect his tender knees. Or even that six months earlier he had undergone surgery to replace both his hips. None of those things altered one fact: I had scored on the Pearl.
The day before, I received a call from Jim Drucker, who runs a TV sports marketing company. He asked if I would like to play in an exhibition basketball game to kick off local competition in the Hoop-It-Up three-on-three tournament, an annual competition staged over six months in 32 cities. Drucker said I would be teamed with two other members of the New York media. We would be pitted against Monroe and two other former New York Knicks, Dick McGuire and Dick Barnett. Drucker also said that the game would be short and relaxed. Finally, because Hoop-It-Up's New York City division would benefit the USO, the game would take place on the flight deck of the Intrepid.
When I phoned my uncle to tell him I was going to play against the Pearl, he said, "Watch out for the la-la." The what-what? "You'll see."
Aboard the Intrepid, the Hoop-It-Up folks had set up a makeshift court on the port side of the ship, and it was flanked by ferocious fighter jets. A few fans had shown up for the game. "This is great," said Marty Torrey, the commanding officer of the frigate USS Clifton Sprague, which was berthed nearby. "When I was in college, I was crazy about Earl Monroe. I even accused him of preventing me from studying, because I would spend so much time watching him play."
February 10, 1992
The rules of the game were simple: No tripping, and the first team to sink three baskets wins. The two sides paired off, and I was given the task of covering Pearl.
Quite a task. As a senior at Winston-Salem (N.C.) State, Monroe had averaged 41.5 points a game. He was called Doctor well before the moniker was bestowed upon Julius Erving, and Magic when Earvin Johnson was still in grade school. As the Pearl, he was the 1967-68 NBA Rookie of the Year, with the Baltimore Bullets, and five seasons later he was a cornerstone of the Knicks' second title team of the '70s. He was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 1989.
In high school, I was the eighth man on our basketball team—on a very good day.
"He was a nightmare to guard," Walt Frazier once said of Monroe. "Earl didn't know what he was going to do next, so how could I?"
How could he? How could I?
My team received the ball first, and it was inbounded to me. As I stood on the left wing, Monroe casually waved his hand in my face, as if to see whether I was awake. I decided to pass. I pumped, and Monroe stepped back, leaving me open. My shot, a sort of baby jump hook, wobbled skyward, seemingly on its way over the basket, off the flight deck and into the water. Then, mercifully, miraculously, the ball collided with the uppermost part of the backboard and fell through the net. "Ooohh," said Monroe.
Freeze this moment in time. I had just scored on Earl the Pearl. In front of witnesses, no less! And he had responded with a soft, throaty "Ooohh." Might it be possible to create a video loop of the shot that could play endlessly on my VCR?
My team made another bucket, and then the former Knicks scored twice to tie the game. Feeling a good deal more confident, I played aggressively—jabbing at the ball as Pearl held it above his chest. Then in a burst he was by me, executing his famous twist-and-twirl move before the ball left his hands and sailed through the hoop for the winning basket.
"The la-la?" I asked.
He just smiled.
The next morning, The New York Times-ran a two-column photograph of the Pearl doubling down on one of my teammates, leaving me unguarded near the baseline some eight feet away. "Clearly," noted a friend of mine, "Earl did not fear another baby jump hook." Ooohh.