Four decades later, Baltimore has fond, bittersweet memories for Monroe

As an entertainment entrepreneur, Earl Monroe is engaged in putting together a reality television show with a woking title of "What If?" As a Hall of Famer who wears a ring he received for being one of the NBA's top-50 all-time players, Monroe asks the same question of himself.

What if he had not been traded from the Baltimore Bullets to the New York Knicks early in the 1971-72 season?

"I would have been revered as a different type of player, who would have accomplished all the things that I started out to accomplish," Monroe, 67, said this month, sitting at a table at Samos Restaurant in Greektown.

The league's Rookie of the Year in 1967-68 coming out of Winston-Salem, Monroe went from being one of the NBA's most prolific and creative scorers to someone who had to share the ball and the stage with Knicks guard Walt Frazier.

Monroe, who had forced his trade for Dave Stallworth, Mike Riordan and cash when a salary squabble with Bullets owner Abe Pollin went public, said longtime friend Sonny Hill, who ran the famed Baker League in Monroe's hometown of Philadelphia, had warned him about giving up what he had in Baltimore.

"He said, 'All this stuff you want to do as a player, you're not going to be able to do if you go to the Knicks,' " said Monroe, who had averaged better than 24 points a game as a Bullet. "I know he said that because we just talked about it the day before yesterday. I told him that 'I'm a ballplayer, I can be in any system.'"

In forming what was dubbed "The Rolls-Royce Backcourt," Monroe had to give up a lot more than his No. 10 jersey worn by Frazier for No. 15, which still hangs from the rafters of Madison Square Garden.

"It was hard giving up a lot, because when I went to New York, I gave up my team," said Monroe, who went into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1990 as a Bullet. "It was somebody else's team; it was Clyde's team. When you have your own team, you know when to take over games, you know when to feed people to keep them happy. Going to New York, I had to learn when to do that. Even more so, when not to do stuff."

Monroe recalled how when he returned home to Philadelphia after that first season in New York, after averaging what was then a career-low 11.4 points a game playing with bone spurs in his ankle — "I pretty much played on one foot," he said — his friends joked that they didn't recognize him "because you're not Earl." Certainly not the playground legend many called "Black Jesus."

Though he and Frazier combined to lead the Knicks to the NBA championship in 1972-73, Monroe's career was never the same. Only during a three-year stretch toward the middle of his nine-year stint in New York did Monroe average over 20 points and show glimpses of what fans saw in Baltimore.

By then, his knees were nearly shot and he was well on his way to 33 different surgeries, most recently a 12-hour back operation last month.

"I probably scored more points in four years in Baltimore than I did in New York," Monroe joked.

Monroe has lived in New York since he retired in 1980, and his music production company, Pretty Pearl Records, has evolved into Reverse Spin Entertainment, the name synonymous with the move Monroe flummoxed countless defenders with over the years.

"My whole game was being where they were not," Monroe said.

Having given up his role a few years ago as a radio analyst on Knicks broadcasts — "It got to the point where I couldn't take it anymore, they were [so] bad," he said — Monroe said the current group of NBA point guards does not hold much interest for him.

"I don't really see the cunningness, I don't see the knowledge of the game the way it used to be," he said. "I just attribute that to the fact that you have a lot of younger guys who come into the league early and it takes awhile for them to really find their way. When you talk about championships, you never see a young team win a championship. It says something for a guy staying in college for four years."

Monroe acknowledges that he recently found himself watching his former team again when Jeremy Lin took over running the point.

"He's been great for New York," Monroe said. "When you look at it, it's been like 21/2 weeks. He changed the whole culture about basketball and what people looking at basketball is about. People said it's not going to continue, but I don't see why not. It's a matter of being a leader, and that's what the Knicks have always lacked."

Monroe, who was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes in 1998, returned to Baltimore last week as part of a 20-city tour to help promote diabetes awareness in restaurants, still has a special affection for his first pro city. He is confident that the Bullets would have been even more successful had he stayed.

Like others, he thinks about what might have happened if Pollin's team had eventually become a box-office success instead of moving to Landover and eventually to Washington, where they became the now-woeful Wizards. It might have been Pollin's wish to bring pro basketball to his hometown, but Monroe knows what would have happened on the court had the team stayed.

"We would have won championships," Monroe said. "They did a great job of bringing in other people. Archie Clark came in that year. Phil Chenier was drafted that year and he was in the backcourt with Archie when I left. We would have had pretty good teams."

Monroe smiled broadly.

"You wonder," he said.

What if?