In October 2019, I had a chance to talk with New York Knicks legend, 1973 NBA champion, 4-time NBA All-Star, 1968 NBA Rookie of the Year, Earl Monroe.
How important for your career was Clarence Gaines, a Winston-Salem trainer and Hall of Fame member?
Coach Gaines is the primary reason I was able to become the player I became. When I got to the Winston-Salem State College my game was a lot different from most players. Coach Gaines recognized that and made it possible for me to play “my game” in the context of the team game. He was a great coach who was very inventive and molded his teams around the players he had on the team. That’s why he won 832 games as a collegiate coach.
During the last year in NCAA, you averaged 41.5 points per game on 60% efficiency. What helped you to play at such an outstanding level?
I had some great teammates, a great coach and a lot of self-confidence. Although I scored a lot of points my teammates also scored well, as we averaged about 105 points per game. At times they were happier than me and they encourage me throughout the year to score. As a result, we won the 1967 NCAA College Division Tournament and becoming the first predominately Black College to win an NCAA title of any kind.
In the 1967 draft, you were selected with the second pick by the Baltimore Bullets, and you won the Rookie of the Year award. In 1968, Bullets drafted with the two again and chose Wes Unseld, who became MVP as a rookie. How do you remember playing with such a special player?
Wes was a truly special player. In the second half of my rookie season the team really started to jell. We had one of the best records for the rest to the season. When we drafted Wes, he was the missing piece that made the team into a legitimate contender. That year we went from the last place team in our division to the first-place team in our division. With Gus Johnson, our captain and another Hall of Famer, and Wes clearing the boards and getting us out into our signature fast break style, we were not only winning but we were a team everyone wanted to see.
In just the third season, you and Wes led the team to the Finals, in which you lost 0-4 with Kareem, Oscar Robertson and Milwaukee Bucks. Then you suddenly asked for a trade. Why?
Baltimore was a small market. My agent felt my game should be in a bigger market. Although I didn’t want to and I felt we were just making a statement to renegotiate a new contract, there were some things that were said during that time which made it hard for me to return to Baltimore. I gave them three teams I wanted to play for; Philadelphia 76ers, Chicago Bulls and the LA Lakers. When my agent came back a few days later with the New York Knicks I had to take a few days to make a decision because the Knicks were our mortal enemies and it didn’t make sense. They already had Walt Frazier.
You had Lakers, Bulls and Sixers on your trade wish list, but eventually you came to Knicks. Earlier, however, you were considering joining the Indiana Pacers who played in the ABA. Were you ready to abandon the NBA then, or was it just a form of pressure on Bullets?
Yes, I felt I would have left the NBA, however, after thinking about it, my old competitiveness came out and I decided I wanted to play against the best players in the world. That meant the NBA.
Bullets and Knicks have met in the playoffs for six consecutive seasons. How do you remember this competition from the position of the person who took part in it as a player of both teams?
The Bullets and the Knicks of those days were perfect mirror images of each other. The matchups were classic at every position. The centers were Wes Unseld vs Willis Reed. The forwards were Gus Johnson vs Dave DeBusschere and Jack Marin vs Bill Bradley. The guards were Kevin Loughery vs Dick Barnett and Me vs Walt Frazier. As I learned when I joined the Knicks, the matchups could have easily been reversed.
To me, these teams presented the best rivalry of any teams in the history of NBA basketball because of the composition of veterans and young players and the distinct style of play of the teams. Not only were the styles of the teams different, but the coaching contrasts of Gene Shue and Red Holzman made for exciting games between the two teams.
Trade to the Knicks
Your trade to New York was shocking not only because of the animosities between the clubs. Many doubted that you would find a duet with Walt Frazier. How was your relationship with Clyde?
My relationship with ‘Clyde’ was a little strange at first. We were two guys who were drafted in the same draft. I was No. 2 and Clyde was No.5. We both won titles in our senior years of college. I won the NCAA College Division title and ‘Clyde’ won the NIT. We were both guards so there was a natural competition between us.
When I came to the Knicks, I knew ‘Clyde’ must have been wondering why the Knicks had traded for me when they already had him. It took a while for us to warm up to each other, but we were teammates now, for better or worse. We had to get it together and start acting like teammates. The most important aspect of our relationship is that we respected each other.
You joined a team with six later members of the Hall of Fame. What did you have to change in your game to adapt to being with them on the court?
My game changed a lot. I had to learn the rhythm of the Knicks. In Baltimore we played to a different rhythm. So, I had to learn to fit in. It’s like jumping rope double dutch style. You figure out when you can jump in. The difference when you have your own team is that you know when to jump in to shoot or when to get the ball to certain players. You knew when to take over a game.
I had to sacrifice my game in order for this to work with the Knicks. Now I had to lay back and find my entry. It was a learning experience and as a result my scoring averaged went from 23 points per game to 11 points per game. Besides that, I had bone spurs in my feet that had to be operated on, but I had to wait until after the season to have that done because Willis was out most of the year.
There were many colorful characters in Knicks at the time. There was Frazier, but also Bill Bradley, Jerry Lucas, Phil Jackson, Dave DeBusschere, Willis Reed and of course you. What was it like sharing locker room and free time with them in the greatest city in the world?
As I look back on that team, I like to think it was the perfect team for NYC. The guys in that locker room represented the heart and makeup of NY. You take the intellectual, and Bill Bradley and Jerry Lucas were both Rhodes Scholars. Dick Barnett got his doctorate degree after his playing days. Dave DeBusschere and Willis Reed were like the everyday working class of the city that everyone identified with. Clyde and I represented the flamboyance of the city that never sleeps. Our conversations were not just about basketball, but about the things that were happening around us and the world. Everyone had an opinion. It was a great melting pot.
How do you remember coach Red Holzman?
Red Holzman was a great coach. He treated everyone pretty much the same. He was a no-nonsense type of coach who realized he had great players and gave the players a platfrom to work out the problems of winning. The Knicks were a veteran team and when we came to the huddle he’d ask: “What do you want to do?”. If it fit into what he was thinking, he’d say “Ok, let’s do it.”. He was a compassionate man and a great family man. Our relationship grew when I retired, and we were able to interact in a different manner.
After two defeats in the Finals, in 1973 you finally won the NBA Championship. What was it like to win in New York?
It was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. My first time in the finals with the Bullets was a whole new experience. We were new to the game and we had major guys injured and were never in the series. Losing four games to none. The next year with the Knicks, I was hurt and didn’t play well, and we lost that one. The third time was the charm. We were confident and we all hoped that we would be able to play against the Lakers again, to get our revenge. When the final buzzer of the series rang, I remember telling my roommate/teammate, Dean Meminger, as we ran off the court, that I was glad it was over and let’s go back to the hotel, relax and get some room service.
In interviews, you have repeatedly emphasized the greatness of Wilt Chamberlain. Which Wilt do you remember from the 1972 and 1973 Finals?
The Wilt Chamberlain we saw was just a facsimile of the Wilt I remember growing up in Philadelphia. He was a guy who scored 50 or more points 118 times in his career. He was such a dominate player with his scoring and rebounding, he played 14 years and one of those years he only played 12 games because of injury. His field goal attempts started to go dramatically after the 1966 season because the media said he shot too much. To prove he had an all-around game and could do it all, he said he was going to lead the league in assists. He was always bigger than life and did exactly what he had predicted. No, he was not the same player in 1972 and 1973, but he was still a very capable and serviceable center.
In 1977, Willis Reed became the Knicks coach. How do you work when your former teammate is the head coach?
It’s a very difficult thing to play for a coach that you used to play with. First, you want them to succeed. There are times when you want to disagree with what you feel is not a good approach, but you play through it because of the respect you have for him. I’m quite sure that it is difficult for him as well. The game progresses and there are changes in the scope of where the game is going and as a coach you have to get the best out of everyone on the team without playing favorites.
What are you most proud of as a former basketball player – the NBA championship, selection to the NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time Team, or maybe the jersey retirement by both Bullets and Knicks?
Achieving all of the above accolades is very near and dear to me. However, the thing I am most proud of is a group of young kids at Winston-Salem State College, who banded together through thick and thin, who knocked down all the obstacles, both opponent and racial to win the NCAA College Division Championship. There is a difference when you are a pro because you are playing for money. In college, you play for your school, your fans and your teammates, who you have lived with for four years. There is nothing like that feeling.
You played against many outstanding players, but which one caused you the most trouble on the court?
Oscar Robertson was one of the most fierce competitors I’ve played against. He was bigger than I was and really knew the game. Another one was Nate “Tiny” Archibald. He was smaller than I was, but he was fast and feared no one. He is the only player to lead the league in assists and points in the same year. One more was Bob Dandridge. Bob and I played against each other in college. He is a good friend and I enjoyed playing against him.
Which of today’s NBA players do you admire the most?
That’s a tough question because the league is so different in how the game is played today. However, I’ll throw a few names out because I feel they are outstanding players. We’ll start with LeBron James, for his leadership and high level of play for so many years. Next would be Kevin Durant. He’s probably the most unstoppable player in the league. Then you would have James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, “The Greek Freak”, Kyrie Irving and a slew of young talent around the league.