This feature first appeared in Sport magazine and appears here with the author’s permission.
This was out at Riis Beach, y’know, Fourth of July or Labor Day—one of those—and all the bad ballplayers was there from all over New York. Sorta like a big reunion, y’know. Kareem, Connie Hawkins, Jackie Jackson, Tony Jackson, and everybody doin’ their thing—shootin’ jumpers, dunkin’ on people, pinnin’ shots on the backboard. And I think that’s when I got my biggest reputation, ’cause I was like the youngest and the smallest there. And on this particular play where we just needed two points to win, I got the ball and came down the middle and went up over everybody—just hung up there, y’know?—and threw it down. Damn! And they was really surprised, y’know, and a big cheer went up, and people was sayin’, “Who was that?”
That was Earl (The Goat) Manigault, and back then, in the ’60s, he was the Outlaw of Gravity—a dazzling schoolyard skywalker who seemed innocent of the knowledge that what goes up must come down. Or maybe he was just scared to obey. It was only on the ground that The Goat ever got in trouble, paying his dues to Isaac Newton, and last summer the ground got him again—caged him up in the Bronx House of Detention on weapons and drug charges that he denied but despaired of beating. He turned 32 there a while ago, suited up as usual all day in cutoffs and sneaks for the meager hour’s basketball time they allow you up on the roof. Otherwise, Gravity’s Outlaw lay earthbound on Tier Four-West, smiling his I’m-sorry smile, showing around his thumb-worn chapter in Pete Axthelm’s book The City Game, living like a Romanov prince-in-exile on his faded glories.
Manigault was nearly unknown to established basketball when Axthelm first bore his legend downtown from Harlem in 1970, and when the ABA’s Utah Stars finally gave him a shot at the pros, he was too wasted by time and heroin to cash in. But the legend endures in the streets even now. Earl himself offers mildly that to produce his clone, you would need cells from Earl Monroe and Julius Erving—“the Pearl’s ground game,” he says, “and the Doctor in the air.” This view is widely shared among eyewitnesses, who still count Manigault as the most creative basketball player of his day. “He played like a book illustration,” says a Harlem contemporary, Buck Blakley. “You don’t teach his sort of moves, but if you did teach ’em, you’d have to get Earl to do it.”
His game was moves and impossible to quantify, even if statistics had been kept on playgrounds; it was all written on the wind, like riffs in jazz, and it sometimes gets magnified in the retelling. It is said, for example, that The Goat in his prime could snatch a quarter off the top of a backboard and make change coming down. He couldn’t, as he cheerfully admits; the best he could manage was plucking a crumpled paper cup out of the highest hole in a tin schoolyard board—six inches below the top. That he may thus have been a hand’s-breadth away short of his folk reputation troubles Harlem not at all. It is remembered there that Earl, at 6-foot-2, jumped center against giants and always got the tap; that the twisting slamjammer known now as the “360” was then called “the goat” in his honor; that on those rare occasions when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s protective high-school coaches let him out on the asphalt, he liked to play on Earl’s side.
Those tales are told with sorrow now, and more and more often in the past tense. Earl dragged himself up out of the depths once—kicked heroin the hard way, cold-turkeying on a cell floor, and came back to the streets determined to get his game and his life back together. For a long time, he did. He discovered a vocation for working with ghetto kids and created his own Goat Tournament for them, on an uptown Manhattan playground that came inevitably to be known as Goat Park. But he spent most of its season last summer in the Bronx slammer, and the tournament barely survived his absence. The Goat, made for midair and helpless at sea level, had betrayed his kids without meaning to—had slipped dangerously far back into the life he had warned them against.
So there is a kind of disappointment around Harlem now, and a kind of antiquarian tone to the folktales about Manigault in his glory. How playgrounds would magically fill on the mere rumor that he was coming, and would go hand-slapping crazy at one of his backboard-rattling slamjams. How he could dunk two balls at once, one with each hand—or dunk one ball twice on a single leap. How he invented the wheel—a double-dip dunker on which he soared high over the rim, slammed the ball down past the basket, then pinwheeled it up, over, down and through the second time around. How once, on a dare, he loped up and down a street-lit schoolyard one night, basket to basket, seeing how many he could throw down blind without missing. Friends teased that he couldn’t make 10. He hit 36, backwards, in the dark.
You had guys that could go up higher than Earl [said Buck Blakley], but heart? And timin’? No. There was a guy named Brodie Bellinger, and he was one of those cat guys, y’know—the kind that had the ability to really fly. He’d show up for one these all-star games at 113—that was the gym on 113th Street—and guys would nearly panic ’cause Brodie could almost touch the top of the backboard. And Earl would dunk on this guy. Earl would go up, and Brodie would be up there with his waist on the rim, and Earl would do a 360-degree turn and throw him off. Brodie’d be followin’ Earl’s turn, and there he’d be on the left side of the basket, and when he looked around, Earl’d be over on the right, throwin’ it down.
He sits in a beige-tiled visitor’s cubicle in the House of Detention, slouched low in a plastic chair, his wide-set eyes occasionally glancing out the window and up River Avenue at Yankee Stadium. They say he held a shotgun on a cop, but sitting here, he looks no more more like the petty hard-case the law now considers him than like the artist he used to be. The cutoffs and the Goat Tournament T-shirt reveal an athlete’s body, still lean and flat muscled. But his manner is gentle, even shy, and his eyes and his smile are those of a small boy caught at mischief. They seek sympathy and expect punishment; they deny everything and ask forgiveness. They apologize. “With Earl,” says his friend Stephen Cohen, a young Princeton Sovietologist, “it’s all regret.”
The Goat’s regrets have usually been accepted, at least until lately, on the arguable presumption that he was born for hard times. He began life in Charleston, S.C., the seventh of nine children in what passed briefly for his family. He never met his father, or heard much about him except that he “just worked and—ah—messed around, y’know, with the ladies.” He did get to know his mother, though mostly, he reports, at a distance. “ ’Cause really, there was so many of us, my mother gave me away to her best friend. This lady couldn’t have any kids, y’know, so she wanted me, and I was—like adopted at the age of two months.”
“This lady” turned out to be a formidably competent woman named Mary Manigault, who brought Earl north to Harlem when he was five, worked in a laundry and later a small hotel to support him, and mothered him nearly to his 30th year. He grew up in tenements and projects, and bumped upward through school with no distinction until somebody put a basketball into his 10-year-old hands and invited him to see what he could do. “And it fit right in, y’know? Came very quickly, and when l was around 12, 13, 14, that’s when I realized I had some springs in my legs. I’d go out and study it, y’know—start dunkin’ in different ways with a volleyball ’cause I could grip it easier.”
He had the beginnings of a basketball jones, and it never let go, not even when he was sleeping; his dreams were filled with improbable leaps and impossible stuffs. By 14, he owned the city junior-high scoring record for a game—52 points, mostly on dunks—and the beginnings of a playground reputation. By 16, he outmatched most of his own contemporaries and was hunting up games with the older aristocracy of the parks—reigning heroes like the Hawk, Connie Hawkins; Freddie Crawford, later of the Knicks and Lakers; Pablo Robertson, Bobby Hunter and Jackie Jackson, all schoolyard dazzlers and all Harlem Globetrotters-to-be. “ ’Cause to play with guys my own age wouldn’t be excitin’, y’know, so I’d play against guys maybe six, eight, 10 years ahead of me. And bust ’em, y’know? That’s how I got the respect. How I got the name.”
The name by then was already Goat, an abbreviation of a misunderstanding; someone on some lost schoolyard heard him say “Manigault” and thought it was “nanny goat.” The respect was complete. Like a gunfighter in the westerns, he would prowl New York’s sprawling boroughs from first light to midnight, hitting up to 15 playgrounds a day, challenging the resident legends to go three-on-three or five-on-five “to see who was the baddest.” After a while, the baddest came to him, looking to make their own reputations on his home turf—“like the days of Jesse James, y’know, and I would send them back home.” He was, Bobby Hunter remembers, “like a young Doctor J… He just truly took over a whole period of time.”
I recall one particular game [said Hunter] when Earl was playing against Vaughn Harper and Val Reed—Vaughn was 6-foot-6 and Reed 6-foot-8. And things got quiet in the gymnasium all of a sudden. Earl had started from half court, but I think everybody there knew he was gonna dunk the ball. Vaughn went up in front of him, and Reed had the basket—seemed like they had the whole rim covered. And Earl dunked it anyway. And the feeling was so high that the people there began to throw chairs in the middle of the floor. I guess if benches had been there, they’d have threw benches. I guess if the gym had been equipped with volleyballs and blocks, they’d have threw those.
The dunk was Earl’s art form and his weapon. His defense consisted mainly of letting guys slip by him, then sticking their shots to the backboard or snatching them down from the sky; his jump shot was precision fine, but common currency in the parks. It was that anti-gravitational slamjam that gave him his real authority. Dudes would beg him not to use it—“My woman’s here, Goat, please don’t dunk on me today”—and Goat would grin, and wink at a teammate and murmur: He’s first. “ ’Cause my thang was trickin’, y’know—really just takin’ it right to ’em. Challenge that big man, ’cause if he get it, he’s s’posed to, and if he don’t—well, he’s in trouble.” He even took it to Kareem a few times, the ultimate kamikaze flight; Kareem, he says, “blocked some—and some he didn’t.”
The dunk was his flight from terrestrial life as well—a split-second’s freedom skying high over the mean streets and daring them to drag him back down. They always did. His high school, Benjamin Franklin, had a single play in pressure situations—Earl hang-gliding to the hoop off a T-weave and jamming it home—and it once took them to within a point of the city championship. But his academic average was a dismal .54, and when his basketball eligibility was exhausted, Franklin turned him out on the street—expelled him in his senior spring for cutting too many classes (which he admits) and smoking dope in school (which he denies). Dudes he had busted in the parks were sorting their college offers, and Earl, ashamed and scared, went home and lied to Mary Manigault—told her he was still in school with six months’ make-up work to do to graduate.
He blazed through that summer’s tournaments quite literally with a vengeance, then boarded a southbound bus with a buddy and talked his way into Laurinburg Institute, a black North Carolina boarding school with a strong sub-specialty in reclaiming wasted ghetto manchildren like him. Laurinburg’s style was instant Sparta, its life regimented from wake-up to lights-out; it was, Earl told me in jail one day, “sort of like here”—and he loved it. He cracked his books for the first time, trying—futilely, as it turned out—to make up a dozen lost years in two. He banged a drum in the band. He was named a student dormitory leader—a model for the younger boys.
And he dazzled the Carolinas with his hellified ghetto game. Basketball Laurinburg-style was serious business, a last ticket to tomorrow for kids with no other future; its alumni include Sam Jones, Jimmy Walker and Charlie Scott, and its ethos was pure playground basic—run, gun, jam, pin and take no prisoners. Earl was in fast company there, but he starred on a team on which Scott wasn’t even a starter. Laurinburg took on high schools, prep schools and college freshmen and rolled over them all, sometimes before the first buzzer. Opposition clubs commonly forgot their own warmups and sat on the bench gawking at the Laurinburg layup line, E. Manigault & Associates hammering down one baroque stuff after another.
The very name Goat took on a kind of black magic. Once, the Laurinburg squad climbed down off a bus in Columbia, S.C., and a braggart soul on the home team demanded, “Who’s The Goat?”
“You lookin’ at him,” Earl’s teammate Sonny Johnson answered.
“Naw, I’m The Goat,” the dude said.
“You not The Goat, man.”
“Yeah,” the dude said, “I’m The Goat.”
Earl watched this impudence in interested silence. That night, he had Sonny jump center, whispering: “Just tap it goin’ toward our goal.” Johnson did, and Earl, already sprinting downcourt, snapped up the ball, took flight somewhere around the foul line, and threw down a dunker sizzling enough to straighten the dude’s Afro.
“Who’s The Goat?” Johnson whooped, running back.
“Me—I’m The Goat,” the dude said less certainly.
The object lesson continued, Earl pinning shots, dragging down rebounds and throwing in 32 points. The game was a laugher, Laurinburg winning by 20 or 30, and afterward Johnson asked the pretender, “What’s your name now?”
“Me?” the dude replied sheepishly. “My name’s Carl.”
One time—this was at Laurinburg—I dunked on the whole five. Got a pass. Dribbled to the baseline. Looked around, y’know, and I saw eight men right inside the key—five of them and three of ours. Gave my man a head fake this way, and I went baseline and just took a step and rose up there. And everybody jumped to it, y’know, but I just eased out of that—just kept goin’ up and goin’ up and threw it in one-handed. Backwards. And the whole gym went wild, and the coach took me out. Didn’t want to play me no more ’cause the guys was all too shaken up.
The presumption—the certainty—back in Harlem was that Laurinburg would be Earl’s ticket to college and the pros. He did get inquiries from 72 or 73 colleges, among them UCLA, Michigan State and even West Point. “But my average wasn’t that high for schools like that,” he said, “so I just stayed where my average was at.”
That turned out to be Johnson C. Smith University, a black school in Charlotte, N.C., and Earl lasted less than one unhappy year there. His schoolwork went badly, his woman got pregnant and hungry, and his coach didn’t take to his solo show-timing, except when Smith was maybe seven points down with four minutes to play and needed some quick baskets; otherwise, Earl saw most of his freshman season from the bench. “And I just got like—tightened up, y’know? And left school. And never went back.”
His game flourished back in its natural habitat, for a while. But within the year, he had started down that nightmare alley called heroin. “Guys I had been runnin’ with was all ballplayers, y’know, and they was all gone—all in school—and I wasn’t. Seemed like I was the last one—didn’t have no one to talk to, y’know? And everybody left was sniffin’ and shootin’. Just to go to a dance or somethin’, you had to get sniffed up. It was ‘follow me,’ y’know, and I did it—and it brought me down.”
The Goat’s descent ran quickly from sniffing to skin-popping to mainlining—and to thieving from carts and trucks in Manhattan’s garment district to feed what became a $150-a-day jones. He thought of nothing else for three years. “I mean, you sick all the time. Wake up in the mornin’, and before you wash your face, you got to go get off—go right to the cooker before you eat or do anything. And when you’re not doin’ it, you’re talkin’ constantly about it. Layin’ around shootin’ galleries talkin’ about who you cop from, and how much it cost, or so-and-so have a mean bag, or how bad your ho is—how much money she’s bringin’ in.”
Earl tried to hide his shame from his friends for a while, but it showed in his drowsy eyes, his shuffly gait and his ravaged game. He was 14 months deep into H when he tripped over a defensive man’s foot on a simple shake move and went sprawling; he remembers lying face down on the concrete, unable to get up, and thinking, Well—that’s it. He mostly disappeared from the parks after that. People saw him nodding on the block, and told him point-blank, “Goat, you through. You a has-been.” Something told him through the haze to shoot up only in his arms and save his legs as long as he could. His new get-high buddies, savage in their own despair, teased him: “Awww, Goat, you can take off in your legs now—they ain’t million-dollar legs any more.” Earl never could shoot up his legs.
But he couldn’t kick his habit either. “My mind was sayin’, ‘You just can’t keep on doin’ this. Things are really like changin’ up for you now.’” Once, he went off with some downers and a couple of get-high buddies and checked into a Jersey motel to get clean. But all that came of it, for Earl, was a defeated little poem, beginning, “In a world that turns/ With hate and pain/ I sit and watch/But not in vain….” Otherwise, with his pals, he ate and slept and stared vacantly at a TV and stayed high.
He wasn’t ready yet—not until he had been busted twice for stealing and once in a shooting-gallery raid; not until a cop had gone upside his head with a friction-taped lead pipe; not until he had shot a couple of bags and nodded off with a lit cigarette going and woke up with the flesh of his chest on fire. It took one more arrest, this time for possession, to bring him to his private ninth circle. In the fall of 1969, Kareem, from the old crowd, came out of UCLA to Milwaukee for $1.4 million; the Hawk got his belated shot at the NBA with Phoenix; Charlie Scott was a senior All-America at North Carolina; Bobby and Jackie and Pablo were all on the road with the Trotters—and Earl Manigault lay sweat-soaked and jackknifed on a cell floor in Manhattan’s old city prison, The Tombs, going one-on-one against the monkey.
I mean, it was a monster of a piece, y’know? I spent maybe 15, 18 days kickin’ that heh-rawn habit. Cold turkey. On that cold floor, can’t eat, losin’ weight, crouched all up, always cold, tremblin’. Rats runnin’ over you, roaches on you, other guys that’s kickin’ it throwin’ up on you, guards like kickin’ you to stand up for a count—a real monster. And lots of guys was hangin’ up, y’know—hung theyselves, and bein’ in the next cell, you’d hear it, a guy startin’ to fight for that last breath, only too late. And the guards, they didn’t really care. I thought about hangin’ up there myself; but I said no, y’know, I couldn’t do that. And then one day I stood up and it was all over.
Standing up that day was The Goat’s toughest move ever. He went from The Tombs to a drug-rehabilitation program at Green Haven prison for 16 months of a five-year sentence, and then back to Harlem and the streets. There, like a moth fluttering toward a flame, he sought out his old brother junkies—“guys I used to shoot up with at the time, y’know, and they’d say, ‘Come on, Goat.’ I knew they was still gettin’ off, and I would go with ’em anyway. Let ’em cook up and everything, and when they offered it, I said, ‘You go ahead and do it.’ And just stood there and watched ’em, y’know, without even touchin’ it. Lettin’ ’em know I was back for somethin’ else.”
He was working at an Urban League street academy, helping out Buck Blakley, when that something else materialized in the indomitably breezy person of Bill Daniels, owner of the ABA Utah Stars. Fired by The City Game, Daniels swept Earl off by chauffeured limousine to a Stars-Nets game on Long Island, then inquired on the way back to Harlem if he would like a tryout. “Uh—yeah,” Earl remembers saying. All that summer, relays of friends tried to help him restore his ravaged body. He ran, bicycled, skipped rope, punched a bag and played ball endlessly, submitting his body to fierce punishment by dudes looking for instant reputations. When he left for Utah’s rookie camp, Blakley says, “Earl probably knew what most of us were thinkin’—that his game wasn’t on a par with his legend anymore. But we had a little goin’-away party for him, and his partin’ remark to me was, ‘I got a job to do.’”
The job, in Earl’s mind, was not just for himself but for people like him—“people from my neighborhood,” he told me. “People at the bottom.” The trouble was that Earl, spent at 25, was no longer up to it. He worked three weeks trying to crash the Stars’ championship backcourt and got nothing more than a few human-interest headlines—which may, as some cynics guessed, have been the point of his tryout. His game was rusty, his jumper tense and off-target, his D nonexistent. He looked lost at guard after a lifetime as a 6-foot-2 forward. He learned the hard way what he had missed in prison; once, he ran into a bone-bruising pick he never even saw, and played hurt for days thereafter. His pro career began and ended in training camp. Daniels sent him off with his regrets and a scholarship to Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, a tiny two-year school in Mormon country. It reminded Earl of prison. He lasted a week and went home.
But this time he came home to something—the summer tournament he organized for kids like he used to be. Earl had long been a kind of pied piper around Harlem, a street oracle on everything from jump shots to jobs. When he wore a duffle coat one winter, everyone else in his neighborhood got duffle coats, too; when a kid asked him how to jump higher, Earl off-handedly told him to eat an oatmeal cookie and a squirrel nut, and the kid did. Bobby Hunter, whom Earl called “God,” reminded him of that power once when he was still on heroin—told him that other brothers had followed him into drugs and might follow him out if he quit. Earl always remembered that, and once he got clean himself, the Goat Tournament became installment two on his dues.
He got it started the hard way, hustling dealers and pimps he had known in the life for money for t-shirts and trophies. “Told ’em, ‘You gotta put some of this money back in the community, man. You fuckin’ it up, so give up the money.’ And they saw I was serious and said, ‘What you needin’, Goat?’” Their conscience donations floated the tournament through its earliest years until one of Earl’s improbable company of friends, Bayard Rustin, the civil-rights theoretician, helped line up funding from the Ladies Garment Workers Union. The tournament stabilized and grew, The Goat presiding, mixing the day’s ration of basketball with some hard-knock lessons from the lower depths: Stay in school. Stay off dope. Don’t be no fallen star like me.
Goat himself stayed at that margin of ghetto life where too many fallen stars already reside. He helped steer Harlem kids to Laurinburg, among other schools, and to jobs, but seemed unable to hang onto anything steady for himself except at tournament time every summer. Out of season, he drifted from gig to gig—most recently serving drinks at a Harlem after-hours joint—and, in between, scuffled up money, room, board and miscellaneous kindnesses from friends and admirers. “Like displaced royalty,” says Stephen Cohen, the Princeton professor who found and befriended Earl one day in Goat Park. “Like a king or a prince who’d been thrown out by a revolution and had gone to another country. But because he had once been a king, people felt some distant historical loyalty and continued to serve him—paying tribute to something in the past.”
What they could not finally do was help Earl keep his fraying life together. Mary Manigault finally quit mothering him and moved back to South Carolina three years ago. His lady followed her south last year with Earl’s two children. A partnership in a Harlem sporting-goods store came unpleasantly unglued. A biography, produced in collaboration with novelist Barry Beckham, got dropped in a change of management at Times Books, then Quadrangle, and is still looking for a publisher. Earl himself started bouncing in and out of precinct stations on what one cop described as “little shit charges,” most on the fringe of the drug traffic, none substantial enough to stand up in court. He even relapsed briefly into heroin—“ ’cause things was gettin’ tight again,” he says, “and maybe it made me feel a little better dealin’ with those things. I did it for a week, and really—like broke down. Strung out all over again.”
So gravity’s outlaw did a year on Tier Four-West, waiting while his lawyers dickered with the district attorney for short time, wondering whether he would be out before the start of his tournament’s eighth season—whether, indeed, there would be an eighth season. The police spotted him this time at 4:00 a.m. one muggy summer morning, riding around the South Bronx slums with some Puerto Rican street buddies. They say Earl, in the back seat, leveled a shotgun at them; Earl says the gun stayed on the car floor in a bag until someone—not him—spotted the cops on their tail and chucked it out. The police, in any case, caught up just as Earl himself abandoned ship and swarmed, over him, one jabbing a .38 to his head. Starsky an’ Hutch, he thought. They ain’t real. He gave a wrong name at first, but a Puerto Rican cop grinned in his face and said, “Awww—you The Goat, man. I played ball wit’ you.”
His fate came down finally to his word against a policeman’s, a mismatch in which his rap sheet counted far more than his legend. When I last heard from him in early summer, he had negotiated pleas of guilty in exchange for sentences of two to four years in the gun case—and one year to life on a nickel-and-dime heroin-sale charge resurrected from 1974. The time was not quite so dire as it sounded; one of Earl’s lawyers guessed that with the year he had already served, he might be back on the street in another year or so. But this time he would be on parole for life, and a lawman I talked to was not sanguine about Earl’s chances; some day, he guessed, “we’re either gonna get him for something heavy, or he’s gonna get blown away.” There was neither threat nor sorrow in this prophecy—only the shared certainty of the ghetto and the law that what goes up must in fact come down.
Damn, y’know, I don’t want to stay in here, and if I do, I be thinkin’ about hangin’ up there. Or escapin’. Just the other day, a guy was makin’ a rope, and I said, “What you doin’?” And he said, “I’m leavin’ here, Goat, and you can come with me.” And here come another kid, they was together, and he said, “Goat, man, you goin’ with us, right? I’m not goin’ unless you go, ’cause if we get busted, we be in the papers.” And I said, “Man—you want me to go so you can make the paper?” He said, “Yeah, man, I never been in the paper, man—I want to be a celebrity.” And I said, “That ain’t that big, man, to be a celebrity.” I said, “Look where it got me, man—y’know?”