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Pearl of Baltimore

The Baltimore Sun

For 45 minutes Tuesday night, Earl Monroe and a roomful of wistful and inquisitive basketball observers brought the Baltimore Bullets back to life.

The resurrection of the beloved NBA representative of a proud city was long overdue, but when it comes to the NBA and Baltimore, what isn't overdue? The reason for Monroe's presence at Verizon Center in Washington - in a building and city in which he never played - was just one example.

A week from Saturday, The Pearl's No. 10 will be retired by the Wizards, the franchise that was once the Bullets. His orange jersey will be raised to the rafters to join those of two teammates, Gus Johnson and Wes Unseld, and the lone honoree whose career only briefly intersected the Baltimore era, Elvin Hayes.

Nobody in the packed room Tuesday to hear Monroe failed to notice how long it took for the franchise to correct the glaring absence of that jersey. The New York Knicks beat them to the punch by 21 years - although, he said Tuesday, "For a long time, I never felt as though people felt I was a real Knick. They identified with me as a Baltimore Bullet."

He identifies himself the same way. Baltimore was his NBA residence for just four of his 13 pro seasons, and it isn't where he won his lone championship. But it's how he remembers his happiest times in the NBA. Even though his departure early in the 1971-72 season was contentious, it's the place he has always regretted leaving, and when he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1990, he insisted on going in as a Bullet.

It is also the place from which the style every player since has tried to duplicate was unleashed on the league. Said Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld, who grew up in New York as a big fan and earnest mimic: "He says he practiced those things. Well, I practiced those things, but they didn't work for me."

Said Monroe, "I think that anything and everything I've done really starts with the Bullets organization, and now I've come full circle."

The circle took a long time to be closed - 36 years after he was traded, 34 years after the Bullets left town for Landover, 10 years after they became the Wizards and moved to downtown Washington. Thankfully, it wasn't too long for Monroe, who turned 63 yesterday, to be there to enjoy it.

Everybody in attendance enjoyed the trip back to the Bullets' glory days in Baltimore, which began the day they drafted Monroe in 1967. A certified genius from Day One of his Bullets career, he started winning when Unseld joined him and Johnson.

The subsequent rivalry with the Knicks became legend, and even those under 50 in Tuesday's audience, who had no memory of it, eagerly soaked in the recollections. "We were like a mirror image of each other," Monroe said.

Yet even though the Bullets won only the last of the three playoff faceoffs while he was there, he had a firm answer to the question of whether he thought they were the better team: "Yes."

So good, he added, that he was certain that had he stayed - had the contract dispute that severed the ties not taken place - he would have earned in Baltimore the ring he eventually got in New York. More than one, he said, thinking about how Hayes arrived a year after he had left.

On the other hand, he acknowledged, his arrival very likely kept the team from moving away from the metro area, as had been speculated at the time. It didn't keep the team in Baltimore, however, and Monroe pointed out, with a laugh that came frequently: "Guess what? [This is] a better facility than the Civic Center."

Baltimore, obviously, never replaced the Bullets' old home, so when one of its own is honored, it will be represented in name and spirit only.

Last week, it was revealed that seven developers have submitted proposals for the replacement of the former Civic Center - and contrary to the recommendation of the Maryland Stadium Authority, four went on the record as being at least open to making the arena NBA-sized. Also, a Baltimore station, WCAO-AM, was added to the Wizards' radio network for the first time since at least the year the team moved to D.C. and changed names.

It's all too late for Monroe and the town he still holds dear in his heart as his first, and favorite, NBA home. And for his orange No. 10 jersey, Baltimore fans can admire it, not from very far away, but still from afar.

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