Robert Abrams had an effusive greeting for the sharp-dressed man he embraced outside the Men's Health Center on North Avenue yesterday.
"When are you going to come back," Abrams asked Earl Monroe, "and run for mayor?"
Monroe was here at the invitation of the Baltimore City Health Department, to encourage screening and treatment for an enlarged prostate, something that he has. It may be news to anyone under 40, but Monroe didn't have to remind a packed conference room that the NBA once played here.
"It's unfortunate," Monroe said of the lost legacy of the Bullets, "because the NBA in Baltimore was such a great thing."
Monroe came to Baltimore in 1967 and spent four memorable seasons here. One of the game's first great stylists, he was an innovator on and off the court who energized a troubled franchise but left on acrimonious terms.
At Winston-Salem State, Monroe's coach was Clarence "Big House" Gaines, who had played football at Morgan State. When Monroe left for the Bullets, Gaines told him to "keep your mouth shut and do what the man says," but Monroe and a low profile did not mix.
Monroe was the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1967-68. Wes Unseld then joined Monroe, Gus Johnson, Kevin Loughery and Jack Marin, and the Bullets had a contender. They went to the 1971 NBA Finals, but Monroe played just three games the next season before he demanded a trade, according to articles in The Sun.
"After some things were said in the papers," Monroe said, "it made it prohibitive to be here."
Monroe went to the New York Knicks, where he teamed with Walt Frazier in one of the best backcourts ever. In 1973, New York won its last title and owner Abe Pollin relocated the Baltimore franchise to Landover and then to Washington, where the Bullets became the Wizards.
Few saw Monroe play here. A weeknight crowd of 7,000 was cause for celebration, but the ones who came enjoyed a distinctive talent.
One of Monroe's nicknames in his hometown of Philadelphia was Black Jesus, the inspiration for the name of Ray Allen's lead character, Jesus Shuttleworth, in He Got Game, a Spike Lee film. At Winston-Salem, where he averaged 41.5 points as a senior, Monroe became known as Earl the Pearl. In Baltimore, he was the 6-foot-3 guard you did not take your eyes off.
As a rookie, Monroe scored 56 points on Jerry West. He had remarkable hang time, body control, double pumps and a spin move that had the NBA reviewing game film.
"I wasn't traveling," Monroe said. "Today, these guys are traveling."
When Monroe opened a music business, he named it Reverse Spin Records. He was so good at his signature move, he could spin past one man using his right hand, then another using his left.
How many others could roll the ball through a defender's legs, sidestep him, pick it up and start a dribble?
Who else donned a robe and top hat and performed his magic act at halftime of a game?
"I couldn't imagine doing that today," Monroe said. "We were just trying to get people in the stands. Dancing Harry coming out on the floor, mascots, all that kind of stuff started right here in Baltimore."
What Brooks Robinson and John Unitas were to baseball and football fans, Monroe was to basketball lovers.
"I idolized Earl the Pearl," said Bryan Nolley, a 48-year-old city employee.
Abrams, 57, recalled shooting pool with Monroe and being able to have a conversation with him at Lenny Moore's place on Gwynn Oak Avenue.
"Earl could walk on water," Abrams said, "so it was hard to believe someone with so much talent would not be full of himself."
Monroe spent his last nine seasons with the Knicks, where he certified himself as one of the 50 best players in league history when the NBA celebrated its golden anniversary.
He had bad knees and has had both hips replaced, but Monroe does not look like a man who has been operated on 23 times. He could pass for a decade younger than his 61 years, and apparently was applying his message of diet, exercise and prevention before he went to work as a spokesman for Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals.
Monroe lives in New York in Harlem, but he's in Baltimore four or five times a year, visiting his daughter Danielle and his granddaughter Daria, 12. One of the few things he hasn't seen change here was the stage he performed upon. To him, 1st Mariner Arena is still the Civic Center and the gentrified neighborhood below the Inner Harbor isn't Federal Hill.
"To see South Baltimore change like it has, it's a beautiful thing," Monroe said. "I'm waiting for East Baltimore to do the same thing."