On May 15, my hero died. He was a 6 foot 1 black man with deep, dark eyes and broad, striking facial features. For many years, he was a heroin addict, and he died at 53 of heart failure caused by that addiction.
He was also arguably the greatest basketball player who ever lived.
But you won't find him in the National Basketball Association Hall of Fame, nor his jersey hanging from the ceiling of any arena. You won't see highlight films or his card in any shoebox collection. Despite what some people might regard as a waste of talent, Earl "The Goat" Manigault left his mark on the streets and playgrounds of Harlem and the rest of New York City, and he gave to basketball what no other player, even the greats like Jordan, Magic, and Chamberlain, could ever give.
The Goat's story is a complicated one. He was born in Charleston, S.C., in 1945. He was the youngest of nine children. His parents were poor and didn't care much about him. A woman named Mary Manigault later took him as her own.
Together, he and Ms. Manigault lived in a one - room shack without electricity, heat or running water. Later, they moved to Manhattan's Upper West Side, where Ms. Manigault held jobs at a laundromat and a hotel.
The Goat didn't have many friends as a youngster because his social skills were so bad. He had a hard time adjusting to the big city. That's when he began to pour himself into basketball, a sport he started playing in the fifth grade.
In a junior high school game, he scored 52 points to set a city record. When he was 16, he played among the pros, such as Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), in citywide tournaments. During those games, he amazed crowds with his acrobatic moves and phenomenal jumping ability.
In their new book, "Pickup Artists," Lars Anderson and Chad Millman relate stories from witnesses who followed The Goat on the playgrounds. He could dunk two basketballs at once by the time he was 13. He could pluck quarters and dollar bills off the top of backboards. He could dunk a basketball backward, catch it and dunk it again. He could dunk and sit on the rim afterward.
But the craziest story came from Harlem player Dave Evans. He described a semipro game that Manigault played in during the summer of 1965 in a gym at East Harlem. A teammate grabbed the rebound and threw it to The Goat, who was running down court. As everyone in the gym rose to their feet, one player stood at the foul line to take a charge. Manigault jumped a few feet ahead of the player, stepped on his forehead and dunked the ball!
Evans said, "Maybe Dr. J could do something like that, but Earl is only 6-foot-1. I swear this is true. Ask anyone."
It seemed inevitable that this wonder kid from Harlem was destined to be the greatest player the NBA would ever see.
Manigault's turn for the worse began in high school. He was kicked out for smoking marijuana in the bathroom, and went back to North Carolina. After graduating from high school there, he went on to Johnson C. Smith University, an all - black school in Charlotte.
His basketball career there was short and unproductive.
His coach wanted a slowed - down, more methodical game style, which was outside Manigault's experience and interests. The two bickered. In one game during his freshman year, Manigault scored 27 points to lead his team to their first victory of the season. But the coach benched him for not conforming to his way and Manigault quit.
After that first semester, he returned to the streets of New York and descended into a heroin habit that he would not escape for 14 years. Back then, there weren't mentors, drug awareness programs or even a father around to save Manigault and lead him back on the right career track.
Eventually The Goat went to jail and got himself clean. When he got out in 1971, he approached a major Harlem drug dealer and asked for help to clean - up Morningside Park, which sits near Columbia University. Manigault's reputation as a city basketball legend outweighed his notoriety for drug addiction.
Who else would be able to persuade a local drug dealer to donate $10,000 to clean - up a park, where Manigault discouraged kids from using drugs?
"Earl was the only guy I've ever known who could walk through Harlem without a penny in his pocket and get whatever he wanted," said James Samuels in "Pickup Artists." "He was the king of Harlem, even when he was strung out on heroin. People would do anything for him because he was such a low - key guy whose personality never changed."
Basketball became the vehicle he used to steer hundreds, perhaps thousands, of New York children away from drugs.
Manigault spent the rest of his life on the city blacktop at 99th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. He held Walk Away From Drugs Tournaments each year and he showed kids a few moves when he could. But he did more talking than moving around. He inspired troubled kids to pursue their dreams.
"They listen to me," Manigault said in a Sports Illustrated interview last year. "I tell 'em everything. My whole life. Hold nothing back."
I first heard about Manigault when I was a 13. That's when I began playing street basketball in Trenton, N.J. Some of the "old - heads" would sit around and talk about Manigault and other legends like "Herman the Helicopter," "The Hawk," and "The Destroyer." On the playgrounds, if you had a game, then you had a name. Even at my young age, despite being a female, I had a game and my name was "Shorty," as it is when I play street basketball in Baltimore today.
The Goat would remain just a name and a bunch of legendary stories to me for awhile. It wasn't until I was 15 that HBO aired a movie about his life called "Rebound." Although I couldn't collect basketball cards on The Goat, or see him play on the streets or an arena, I plastered my walls with pictures and articles on him.
But what I admired most about him was that he played the game pure - fast - paced, aggressive, creative - and his downfalls didn't defeat him. I don't remember him just as the short guy who could dunk over anyone. I don't remember him as the strung - out heroin addict who blew his chances for ultimate success, which would have been measured in dollars and statistics.
My hero brought people to their knees and left them in awe. I'm just 20 years old. So I wasn't even an idea when he was plucking quarters off backboards and stepping on players' foreheads to dunk. But his emergence, downfall and rebound inspire me in my own play and in my life.
Stacey Patton, a features intern at the Sun, is a sophomore studying writing at the Johns Hopkins University. She will enter New York University in the fall.
! Pub date: 5/24/98