Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The "Magic" before Magic

Before Magic Johnson there was Earl Monroe. The white press later gave him the nickname “Earl the Pearl” or simply “The Pearl”, but to those with game he was Magic. Or Black Jesus. Or………He averaged over 40 points a game for Winston-Salem in his senior year and was a high draft pick in the NBA. Flashy, an artist, his game is still ahead of its time.

In fall of 1967 a high school friend told me we simply had to see a player whose team was going to play the Warriors in Oakland. After all, he had averaged over 40 points a game in college. So we were going to see the Baltimore Bullets. In those days the Warriors had a very serviceable team built around NateThurmond and a stable of strong rebounders, but their Magic(in the form of Rick Barry) had jumped to the fledgling American Basketball Association. With Rick gone, I was anxious to see some exciting basketball. I could tell immeditately that Monroe was different. He had an easy, mysterious tempo based on broken rhythm stops and starts, spins and counter spins. And oh those spins. His signature move was the spin move. For all his flash, the guy really understood the game of basketball and used his artistry to enhance, not take away from , the game.

One play stands out in particular. Monroe had the ball on the right side at the top of the key. He beat his defender with a spin from right to left. The Warriors had Thurmond and a power forward, Clyde Lee, waiting for him just under the basket. Both, especially Thurmond, were accomplished shot blockers. With both there, conventional wisdom would have had Earl pull up in the lane for an easy jumper. But Earl thrived at taking the ball into danger and went right to the hoop. For him to put the shot up directly, would have lead to it’s being blocked. He had begun the move with a right to left spin, but if he counter spun left to right it would take him right into the shot blockers. Without really stopping, about 3 feet from the hoop he fixed both defenders with another right to left spin and put up an easy looking shot that tantalizingly floated between 2 pairs of arms, one black(Thurmond) and the other white(Lee) until it was out of both their reaches, then softly settled into the basket net.

I have spent years replaying that sequence in my mind’s eye. Lee and Thurmond were both waiting for Monroe to jump and had fixed in their minds that his jump would set the timing for their block. So he didn’t jump. And obviously they were expecting him to have to shoot quickly, and, instead he shot slowly……..And, dribbling the ball with the left hand, the only way (I think) for him to spin right to left was to go between the legs to the right hand and then spin. As you can see, I have re-capitulated this sequence time and time again.

The response in the arena was fascinating. Absolute silence. I’m not even sure people realized what they had seen. There was no outwardly flashy or thunderous dunk. No exaggerated athleticism. In the terms of Castaneda’s Don Juan, Earl had “Stopped the World”! At the time there was nothing in any of our cognitive systems to describe his ““Magic”. Years later I heard Earl in an interview on radio with Bob Costas. When asked to explain his game, Earl admitted to the fact that he really was not a talented leaper or very fast. So he said he had to do it all with what he called “la la moves”.

Osensei described what he called Katsu Hayahi as being “That speed which transcends time and space’. Something in the way Earl moved leads me to believe he understood that concept on the basketball court. In my own teachers, Yanase sensei with his powerful spins, and Tojima sensei with his talent for going right into danger and making something miraculous happen are examples of this energy in aikido. Earl could do what most can’t, which is to transform sport into art. And the other two could take art into a different realm.

For those who would like to see Earl’s game, I am including a link to a 2 ½ minute highlight reel of his career:


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