“Every time I move I can feel another surgery coming on,” says Earl Monroe, the former Knick known to most as “Pearl.” He warms a cup of herbal tea, replete with hibiscus, rosehips and wild cherry bark, in the microwave before removing it and taking a sip. He then leans back in his office chair, relaxing in Studio 902, the workspace he keeps for his company, Reverse Spin Entertainment, nine floors above West 39th St. by the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Operations are on his mind, namely the 47 surgeries he has undergone since stepping away from the NBA. He traces scars from his feet to his knees to his hips to the six fused vertebrae in his neck. “What I try to do now is know what I don’t want. One thing I don’t want is a lot of anesthesia in my system. Anesthesia is what kind of kills. I prefer to go with local.”
Monroe is 72. Gray hairs fleck his face; a walking cane rests against his desk. To his right hangs an old image of him blowing past a defender. It captures him in a blur; the elusiveness he showed as a member of the last Knicks team to win the NBA title in 1973 is evident. He looks at it through eyeglasses with thick, black frames, and watches tennis on television, this hour’s Kremlin Cup match coming in live from Moscow. Each movement is deliberate; his range of motion is limited. He cannot fully crane his neck — the nexus of his discomfort — to see objects to his left or his right. He adjusts his seat, slides his eyes side to side and winces when he tries to look over his shoulder. By his diagnosis, the neck issues are related to past back operations, of which he has undergone seven. He says doctors have “gone through the front, gone through the back.” Last year, he went in for a back procedure. He notes he was informed on the operating table that the doctors would rather work on his neck. He agreed to it, but regrets doing so. He calls it “one of the worst decisions I have had to make” and adds, “If I was of sound mind then, I wouldn’t have done it.”
He gives a sharp sigh and considers another mishap that befell him.
“My lung collapsed during a surgery,” he says. “That was for the neck.”
A contortionist celebrated for being in complete control of his body on court, Monroe draws a quick breath. He is negotiating what he calls “a downward spiral.” At his career’s height, he stood 6-foot-3, but is hunched over when he walks today. He offers an inventory of the infirmities he has faced, ranging from infections to fractures, inflammations to fissures. They are largely the result of logging 29,696 minutes on hardwood over 13 seasons split between the Bullets and the Knicks. The devil-may-care drives he made in careening past counterparts exacted a lasting toll on him, bringing about bursitis and bone spurs. Some ailments go all the way back to a car crash as a teen; most relate to NBA days when he bodied up with bigger men like Oscar Robertson or backed down Tiny Archibald. Both knees, his left foot and left ankle required a surgeon’s repair during his career; he notes a paralysis he endured when an opponent jolted him in the back. He was rushed to a hospital.
“The doctors checked me out and feeling started to come back in my hands and everything,” he says. “I returned and played the second half of the game.”
Few could finish like Monroe, but the strains from corkscrewing his way between defenders in the lane accrued over time. Corrective procedures grew more common; surgeries ensued. His lifestyle evolved from halcyon nights in jazz clubs to being offered an orthopedic mattress by Miles Davis. He is better off now than before. For one, he has health insurance supplemented by Medicare, unlike in the ‘80s when he went sans coverage of any kind. He was unable to have hip operations until he paid back dues to the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists in 1990. Secondly, he is back in the game after ventures in music and food. His new job is to serve as general manager of the Gotham Ballers, a collection of former NBA players past their primes, in the Champions League, which will debut this summer.
“If you make a pretty good name for yourself, you want to keep that name up,” he says. “I thought this was a great thing to lend my name to.”
Monroe keeps an eye on the NBA, and applauds the players association’s recent decision to open insurance programs to retirees long ineligible for union coverage when undergoing post-career operations. In the era of Obamacare and biometrics, of stars sitting out games for no reason other than rest and the average player said to be banking $9 million per year, Monroe takes the measure of his lot. He knows players and owners are awash in money, in part, because of a foundation he helped lay. A new collective bargaining agreement is being finalized a few blocks away. He is also aware that he is better off than those who lack his means. He is alive, unlike Moses Malone and Daryl Dawkins, each felled by fatal heart ailments.
“Guys are dying out there because they can’t go to a doctor,” he says. “For some, it’s too late.”
There is no elixir, even for legends. Health issues linger, and the list only grows longer as Monroe gets older. Match point is reached on his television screen. He turns the fan on by remote control, and eyes the cane from across the darkened room. He continues to account for his surgeries, recalling knees and hips that were operated on in pairs. There were gallstones, too. One surgery lasted 13 hours.
“I can’t even remember all of them,” he says. “Sh–, that’s enough.”
The first time that Monroe can recall looking down through broken skin to a bone in his body, he was seven years old and fresh off a sled ride along Cowboy Hill. The crash scene was the bottom of a slope by his family’s crowded row house at 2524 Alter St. in South Philadelphia. A few older denizens were throwing snowballs at Monroe; one ball struck him in the eye. Monroe plunged into a wall, and a metal runner pierced the skin on his left leg. He did not feel immediate pain, but he made his way home as the severity of the injury started to set in. He informed his mother, Rose, of the damage. She stripped his pants, observed ripped flesh and hurried him to the closest hospital. He waited two hours to be called inside. An elderly patient had maggots crawling on the bottom of her feet. The image remains with Monroe.
“When they finally got to me, they were like, ‘Why didn’t somebody tell us?’” he says.
A doctor stitched him up, leaving Monroe with a V-shaped scar that remains visible to this day, but more cuts came in time. His first surgery involved his knees, the natural nemeses of jumpers. He was 25 by then, a professional in his third season with the Bullets and had experienced knee pain before. His initial discomfort came as a teen when his knees were wrenched in a motor vehicle wreck after he ran a red light in Harlem. He survived, as did his passenger, a friend named Winkie. Still, small bumps appeared, and soreness stayed with him. He thought nothing of the issue through his collegiate whirl at Winston-Salem State, spinning and pivoting, twisting and pumping as he pleased. It was only after playing a full 82-game NBA slate for the second time that Monroe approached Bullets trainer Skip Feldman and inquired about any alleviation methods that Feldman might have in mind. To manage the pain, Feldman fixed Monroe’s kneepads so that batteries were inserted in them to operate a heating mechanism. That provided relief for a while, but during the 1970 offseason Monroe noticed small bumps on his knees again. They were bursae, which are fluid-filled sacs that counter the friction of muscles and tendons sliding over bones. They became inflamed during the season, and an agreement was reached afterward. He checked into Kernan Hospital in Woodlawn, Md. to have the bursae removed. Monroe listened to his doctor describe the operation, and Monroe made one request. He wanted the incisions to be horizontal, not vertical, so that, in Monroe’s mind, they blended in with the natural skin lines. The surgeon attempted to dissuade Monroe, and have the traditional vertical cuts done. Monroe stood firm.
“I’m very vain,” he says. “The doctor called them ‘Earl’s vanity cuts.’”
Wardrobe adjustments followed. He wore plaster casts from his ankles to his hips for six weeks. Rehabilitation included whirlpool therapy and heat treatments. It took him a fortnight to squat comfortably, and many more to regain full trust in his hinges. He conditioned himself to compete on court, but played more conservatively when back in practice or game action. Full extensions of his limbs required better planning on his part. That ran counter to his staples: instinctive step backs and sudden drives. No matter how he twisted, the pain, after a moment of relief gained by movement, snuck back. Through it all, his inventiveness remained constant. He could always create separation from defenders when he regained strength; panache kept eyes trained on him, a gold chain bouncing around his neck as he squared up and squeezed off shots. Two years later, he landed in New York and won a title with the Knicks. More operations grew necessary as bone spurs hampered his moves. They brought on the last surgery of his playing days. He did not brace for more cuts.
“Everything is pretty much predestination,” he says. “It’s just what you do with it.”
The knees necessitate monitoring to this day. On July 10, 2013, Monroe underwent surgery on both knees at a city hospital. By the next week, pain festered and puss dropped on his foot. He went back, showed what was happening and the doctor applied a Band-Aid. That was a Tuesday. Monroe went out to the Hamptons for a party that Saturday. When he awoke the next morning, he couldn’t walk. He called the doctor’s office and Monroe was told to return immediately. A procedure was performed to clean it out. He was put on medication, and stayed on site for a few days. Once home, he received a phone call from the hospital. He was told to stop taking the medication because it was affecting his blood in a negative manner. He complied, and then returned to have more cleaned out from the problematic area. He checked into the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation and stayed between two and three weeks. He saw multiple doctors and sought a second opinion for clarity’s sake. Monroe maintains that one doctor informed him he would lose the knee. Another doctor said he was fine. Spacers were put in and eventually his knee was replaced with a new one in February. He used a walker to get around. His aches increased.
He lifts up both legs, flexing the left knee fully but not quite the right.
“Left one’s great,” he says. “It’s been holding me up all these years.”
A BETTER UNION
There are multiple subway lines that can lead one from the Melrose Houses in the Bronx to midtown Manhattan. The Nos. 4 and 5 trains run on one route. The No. 2 train rolls along another. Michele Roberts, the executive director of the NBA’s players union, knows the rails well, but she took an alternate path to her new office at 1133 Sixth Ave. Her first stop outside the Bronx was at the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry. She later earned a law degree from Cal-Berkeley. Past employers include the public defender’s office in Washington, D.C., as well as Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, a white-shoe firm, also in D.C. A fan of Monroe growing up in Melrose, she never made it to one of his games as her family lacked the funds to do so. She tuned in to see his displays. Memories of his soulful brilliance dribble in.
“I never pretended I understood the full complexities, but he made it look so, so easy,” she says. “He was my favorite because of his elegance, and there wasn’t a close second. When I heard about his surgeries, I almost fell out of my chair. He was so graceful. How could that happen? His natural abilities were so overwhelming.”
As Roberts speaks, union attorneys comb over the new collective bargaining agreement that the players recently ratified to ensure labor peace through the 2023-24 season. The deal comes on the heels of the union’s seismic announcement over the summer. On June 26, player representatives voted unanimously to establish a multi-tiered health program through UnitedHealthcare, a leading health benefits provider, for all former players who clocked three seasons in the league. Retired players with at least 10 years of service can have coverage for their entire families. It is the first plan of its sort in North American professional sports, and provides a striking contrast to the period when players fell off an insurance cliff, some into a post-basketball abyss, as teams watched many limp off the NBA’s conveyor belt. In 1990, Monroe was inducted to the Naismith Hall of Fame. He had no insurance then. As part of the new labor agreement, the league and the union will both contribute equal funds to the health insurance program.
“Most of the stuff that happens to you happens after you retire,” Monroe says. “It is 5, 10, 15 years out that stuff comes down on you. Old age compounds it all. The new coverage plan? Thank goodness. Right? I think Michele and the players have done a great job. I was fortunate to have done a few commercials with an actors’ guild. I never even thought of insurance until my hips started to go.”
Sudden deaths also helped to spur action early in Roberts’ tenure. When she first made her pitch to the players about why she should lead them in July 2014, she offered an example of her steely self-confidence. She informed them that her past is “littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on.” They voted her into office, and her mettle was tested almost immediately. A growing problem greeted her as several middle-aged NBA retirees were fitted for coffins. First, it was Anthony Mason, the former Knick, dead at 48 on February 28, 2015. Congestive heart failure was cited as the cause of death. Six months later it was Darryl Dawkins, a fierce dunker, dead at 58. A fatal heart attack leveled him. Finally, Moses Malone, once a force inside, died at 60 due to cardiovascular disease. Roberts recognized the heart issues as “the bogeyman at the door” and re-allocated resources. One of her first 10 hires was Joe Rogowski, who is now the NBPA’s director of sports medicine and research. Cardiac screenings and medical consultations were made available for retirees. Roberts notes that while strides are made, it is important to decipher advances from “junk science.”
“We had a lot of lawyers here when I came, but no one seemed to know about sports medicine or athletes’ bodies,” Roberts says. “It was a glaring omission or gap in our staff. We need to put our arms around new science to see what we have.”
Players and teams are coming to terms with the new era of health awareness on a nighty basis. Before one November game it is Doc Rivers sitting 27-year-old Blake Griffin, an All-Star who has undergone three surgeries since 2010, against the Nets because Rivers says the team’s training staff informed him “biometrically that this would be a good day for him to rest.” Another night it is Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr commenting on a podcast that he twice smoked marijuana for medicinal purposes in the last year as he seeks a better option to cope with his back pains after a career that lasted 15 seasons playing in the league. It all adds up to a public airing of perspectives from current and former professionals. Retirees weigh in willingly as Roberts encourages other leagues searching for answers to questions about health, like the NFL, to better assist aging players. Many eye the bottom line.
“When we got hurt, we didn’t sit down because someone might take our spot and we couldn’t afford it,” says Dave Bing, one of the co-founders of the NBA’s Retired Players Association and a contemporary of Monroe who recently served as mayor of Detroit. “We played in spite of injuries. I’m not suggesting the modern player is soft. Owners see a huge investment. The players are business entities and they don’t want to curtail earning potential.”
Chris Paul, 31, holds a unique place in the player health debate. He is a nine-time All-Star and moonlights as president of the NBPA. He hails from Winston-Salem and knows all about Monroe’s lore. On a recent visit to Brooklyn for a game, he calls Monroe’s condition “crazy, just crazy.” There is a mutual respect between the two. On the wall above Monroe’s desk hangs a framed photo of Paul and Monroe.
“Earl the Pearl, Earl the Pearl, man,” Paul says. “He is why it was so important for us to do what he did. It was a point of pride and meant a lot. It’s huge. Huge.”
One of the amenities at the union’s fifth-floor office is a new hardwood court. It is short of regulation size, but teams have started holding morning shoot-around inside. Roberts mentions that her old office, above Red Rooster in Harlem, limited her opportunities to interact with current players passing through town. Now there is a regular flow of foot traffic on site, a Grand Central Terminal of sorts for those at crossroads when playing in New York or rehabilitating from injuries as a free agent.
“We’re all traversing this frontier together,” she says.
CHECK MY PULSE
Uptown, by the corner of 120th St. and Lenox Avenue in Harlem, there is a brownstone where Monroe works out when healthy. He clocks in around 10 a.m. during most visits and partakes in various exercises. He is well muscled up top but his shoulders often look stiff. To strengthen his legs, he strides inside an AlterG machine, which is an anti-gravity treadmill that employs NASA’s differential air-pressure technology to “unweight” athletes. In Monroe’s case, it allows him to increase mileage and pace while a cushion of air lifts his body. He relishes his lightness and believes it reduces risk. He strives for a return to his regular gait.
“I just want to look natural, the neck to move more normally” he says. “I just want to be out of this pain, to walk properly. I don’t need to be able to run.”
Monroe rotates between a chiropractor, a masseuse and a physical therapist. He alternates visits among the three in addition to the workouts. Motivation comes in the person of his grandson, Monroe, who is 5 years old. The boy lives with his grandfather and grandmother, Marita Green. The couple has custody of him, and grandpa asserts that he wants to be as mobile as possible to set a healthy example.
“Otherwise he will know me as papa who laid in bed,” Monroe says. “I come home, put my briefcase down and he’s running. He runs all the time. Even when he walks, he walks fast. He’s a prankster, like a Kevin Hart.”
The Tennis Channel is Monroe’s go-to station when “Peppa Pig,” an animated British series, isn’t airing an episode. He took up tennis after he retired, and the game absorbed most of his time, giving him what he refers to as “the feeling of sweating like basketball.” Crossovers yielded to cross-court winners.
“That was always a good feeling to flush everything out of your system,” he says. “Singles was the only thing I felt did that for me. Golf certainly didn’t do it.”
It was on a tennis court that he also realized that he needed to have his hips fixed. Sometime in 1987, he could barely walk after tolerating pain. He was playing a match against former Houston Rockets guard Calvin Murphy, and Monroe says, “I was whipping him real good in the opening set. Second set, I could hardly move.”
Monroe alerted Murphy that his hips hurt. Murphy heard him, and insisted that they finish the second set out. Monroe returned the ball, and Murphy tied it up. They commenced a third set, but Monroe was forced to retire early. He couldn’t go.
The second incident that signaled a problem came in New York. It was a friendly match with former NFL wideout Ahmad Rashad. Again, his hips nagged.
“All he did was drop shot and lob me, drop shot and lob me,” Monroe says. “I decided no more tennis. I decided to go and get it done.”
Unable to get immediate insurance, Monroe made an arrangement with the acting guild to gain coverage. The operation was done at Lenox Hill Hospital. He has also had surgeries performed on him at Beth Israel and Columbia Presbyterian, Overlook Medical Center in Summit, N.J. and St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx.
“I must hold the Guinness Book of World Records for hours spent in a doctor’s waiting room,” Green says.
Monroe is far from hermetical. In the fall, he attends the RENS Gala Dinner in Manhattan, goes down to Winston-Salem, N.C., for a college reunion and treks west to the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Evansville, Ind. Early in the season, he steps on the Garden court as the Knicks honor past players as part of the team’s 70th anniversary celebration. His name is bandied about the city, particularly when former Knick Willis Reed is around. At the Waldorf-Astoria for the 31st annual Great Sports Legends Dinner that raises funds for the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, Reed holds a drink glass as Mariano Rivera and Cheryl Miller mingle around singer Wayne Newton. Reed reflects on sports injuries and Monroe’s plight.
“They done made him the bionic man!” Reed says. “I used to ask him, ‘All that twirling you used to do, would you have done it if you knew your knees would be as bad as they are? Would you have done it? He thought about it awhile and said, ‘Welllllll, yeah, but maybe not quite as much.’ He was way ahead of this time.”
Monroe asserts that there will be one sure sign that he is too hurt to go on.
“If you see me sitting up in my house, check my pulse,” he says.
EARL THE PEARL
“I think we saved the best for last,” says Clyde Frazier, the former Knicks guard and member of the Rolls Royce backcourt with Monroe. Frazier is tailored in a teal suit and wearing a pink shirt with a thick-knot yellow tie on a recent afternoon as the Champions League, a new venture, is unveiled before a quiet room lined with furs and leather. A gaggle of former NBA players is in the room with Frazier at his Wine N Dine restaurant on 10th Ave. between 37th and 38th Sts. Eddy Curry, Al Harrington and Daniel Gibson are among the group. Frazier looks to a retiree at his right. “A guy who used to be my nemesis. The only man I ever dreamt about. He kind of changed the game, shaking and baking, wheeling and dealing. We won a title together and (formed) I think unequivocally the best backcourt ever. Earl the Pearl.”
Monroe emotes with a wide smile and an easy laugh. He has been back in the city for a few hours now. The previous night he was in Paducah, Ky., for an event that honored his college basketball coach, the late Clarence (Big House) Gaines. Monroe stands up and steadies himself as players and coaches applaud him. He is in a reflective mood as he mentions his motivations for getting involved with players whose best days are behind them. He shares struggles that he had in transitioning.
“I remember one of the worst things that happened for me was that I had no place to put the knowledge that I had when I left the game,” he says. “That was very frustrating for a long, long time.”
There is much in the rearview for the star who has owned at least three Rolls Royces. He can talk all day about bouncing around to jazz clubs on the Upper West Side, from Mikell’s to Small’s Paradise. He has traveled the world, served as commissioner of the United States Basketball League and invested in ventures from restaurants to construction. To this day, Monroe likes to take chances in business.
“I’m a spur of the moment type,” he says. “It all makes sense in the long run.”
He is ready to return home to Harlem now. To his chagrin, the doorman at his building always knows when he is coming because of the sound his cane makes.
“I try to sneak past him, but then the gate slams and all I hear is, ‘Hey Earl!’” Monroe says. “Everyone knows when I am coming and going.”
He lifts the hospital-issued cane, and looks at it.
“One day I am going to be off of that,” he says. “I’m going to be off of this sometime in my life.”