The first time I saw Monroe, an actor friend said, “Come with me to the Garden tonight. I want you to see this guy. You’ll like his style. It’s real herky-jerky.” That was in 1968. By then I was more interested in basketball and had begun following the Knicks a little. They had made the playoffs and had captured the imagination of New York. I went and saw Monroe score 32 points against Walt Frazier. This is Walt Frazier, mind you, who played the guard position as perfectly as it has ever been played and who was to be voted on the all-defensive team seven years running. Thirty-two points and Frazier said, “I had my hand in his face all night. He shoots without looking.”
I went the next night too and while the Knicks double-teamed Monroe at every turn, he tore the place up with a buzzer beater that he flipped in as he ran across the midcourt line at halftime, and he kept running right into the locker room.
My impressions of Monroe then? I immediately ranked him with Willie Mays and Sugar Ray Robinson as athletes who went beyond the level of sports and sport to the realm of sports as art. Seemingly awkward and yet breathtakingly graceful, with an unimpressive physique, knobby knees, and the tiny ankles of a thoroughbred racehourse, Monroe in seasons would put on exhibiton after exhibition of simply magical shot-making. One sportswriter wrote that his misses are more exciting than more guys’ baskets. It’s pointless to describe Monroe on the court. It’s been done a thousand times by good writers who try vainly to communicate in print the excitement with which he plays. They refer to his head fakes, shoulder fakes, spins, double pumps, stutter steps, hip shots, arms and legs flying in different directions at once, but these things in themselves do not sum up the ferocious rush he gives the audience. After all, there are players like Nate Archibald, Dave Bing, Walt Frazier, Julius Erving, Connie Hawkins, who have unusual grace, beauty, and excitement, and who also dip and twist and toss their bodies one way while their arms move another way as they hang in space.
What makes Monroe different is the indescribable heat of genius that burns deep inside him. Some kind of diabolical intensity comes across his face when he has the ball. One is suddenly transported to a more primitive place. It’s roots time. The eyes are big and white, the teeth flash, the nostrils flare. He dribbles the ball too high, but with a controlled violence. The audience gets high with anticipation of some new type of thrill about to occur. Seconds later he is moving in aggressively, one on one, against a defender and you sense the man is in trouble. Monroe is suddenly double-teamed and now there are two men hanging all over him. Then it happens. A quick twist, a sudden move, and he’s by both men. Either that or a series of flashing arm moves cease with a lightning pass to a teammate he has never even bothered to look at.
Monroe has a new book out. Check it out, here.