This is the sixteenth in a series (of indefinite length and regularity) of examinations into different games, events and decisions that impacted Knicks history in some way, shape or form. Stories that are not as famous as, say, “The Dunk” or Willis Reed playing Game 7, but still have a place in Knicks history, especially for die-hard fans. Here is an archive of all the stories featured so far.
On November 10, 1971, the New York Knicks acquired All-Star shooting guard Earl “The Pearl” Monroe from the Baltimore Bullets in exchange for guard/forward Mike Riordan, center/forward Dave Stallworth and cash. The trade helped propel the Knicks (now with a Hall of Fame backcourt of Monroe and Walt “Clyde” Frazier) to a second NBA championship in the 1972-73 season. However, it is interesting to note that when the trade is discussed nowadays it is typically within the context of either
A. Discussing how Monroe and Frazier proved critics of the trade wrong (the criticism being that both Frazier and Monroe needed to have the ball to succeed – I must have read/heard Frazier say, “they said that we would need two balls!” dozens of times easy)
B. How great of a trade it was for the Knicks.
Rarely, though, do you ever see it discussed just exactly why the Bullets (who had eliminated the Knicks from the playoffs the previous season on their way to an improbable spot in the NBA Finals) would trade their star shooting guard to their hated rival for two back-ups and cash (Riordan would eventually start for the Wizards, but when he joined them in 1971 he was 26 years old and a back-up).
The answer involves the Indiana Pacers, who helped the Knicks’ playoff chances in 1971 decades before they became a constant threat to the Knicks playoff chances.
Whatever you might personally feel about free agency, you certainly would have to concede that it gives players leverage that they once could not even dream about. In the days before free agency, players basically had two ways of getting new contracts:
1. Rely on the owners to take care of them
2. Refuse to play until their contract is re-worked (“holding out”).
The former gives the player zero control and the latter does not do much better, as the player is risking his livelihood.
In 1971, Earl Monroe had just finished his fourth season as a member of the Baltimore Bullets. He had won the NBA Rookie of the Year Award in his first season and made the All-NBA first team in his second season, 1968-69 (he also made the All-Star team that year). He was the Bullets leading scorer in each of his first four seasons (averaging over 20 points a game each year) and, as mentioned before, they had just come off an improbable run to the NBA Finals, where they had been swept by the Milwaukee Bucks (still, for a team that went 42-40 in the regular season, that was a remarkable ride).
Going into the 1971-72 season, however, the Bullets were a team in turmoil. Star center Wes Unseld was dealing with injuries, as was star forward Gus Johnson. Monroe also had problems with his knees, but his absence from the Bullets roster following the first three games of the 1971-72 season was because of philosophical concerns, not physical ones. Monroe felt that he was not being treated well by the Bullets organization, and it also seemed to many as though he was hoping to play in a bigger media market. So he demanded a trade. To alleviate Monroe’s leverage, the Bullets traded their second-leading scorer, forward Kevin Loughery (along with Fred Carter) for All-Star guard Archie Clark. Amusingly, Clark promptly held out as soon as he was acquired! After two games, though, Clark was in uniform, the same could not be said for Monroe. He was also quoted as saying about the Bullets, “they expect loyalty to the organization, but the organization has no loyalty, to you.”
Interestingly, in a rare sighting of a player siding with management against another player, fellow Bullets guard Jeff Marin took Monroe to task at the time, “The club ought to tell him to get a job somewhere—sweeping streets or something. Management will only hurt itself in this predicament by patronizing him. If management doesn’t take a firm position to protect me and the rest of the players on the team, then it’s not showing any loyalty” (amusingly, Marin, who became the team’s leading scorer once Monroe left, was himself traded the next season).
Owner Abe Pollin also was angered by what he felt was unfair criticism from Monroe. After Monroe made his “loyalty” statement, Pollin noted that he had given him a bonus after his first year to help his mother buy a house and helped him with loans and other money issues in the past, stating, “If all this shows disloyalty to Earl Monroe then I’m guilty.”
The Bullets’ problem was that with Monroe’s knee issues, his high salary (he was making $100,000 at the time) and his seeming desire to only play for a big market, their trade options were limited. Therefore, their plan was to wait him out. And, again, in the days before free agency, that was a great strategy. Something was different, though, in 1971, and that something was the American Basketball Association (ABA)!
The ABA, which formed in 1967, had proved to be a lot more successful than the NBA had expected, and by the early 1970s, they had begun to really push the issue when it came to available talent. Besides their notable grab of Rick Barry early on (in 1968), the ABA also added Spencer Haywood, Mel Daniels, Dan Issel and Connie Hawkins from 1967-1970. In 1971, the ABA pulled off perhaps their greatest coup yet, getting young stars Julius Erving and Artist Gilmore to choose the ABA over the NBA. Looking back, it seems likely that the ABA was trying to force the NBA into merging with it (which ultimately it did, although perhaps with less favorable terms than the ABA was hoping back in 1971). The next season, the ABA had their biggest player grab since Barry when they got Billy Cunningham to switch leagues. So the ABA was really pushing the NBA at the time, offering up big money to get players to come to the ABA. And that’s where the Indiana Pacers got involved – seeing a star talent like Earl Monroe seemingly twisting in the wind, the Pacers swooped in and made the Pearl a significant offer to sign with the ABA.
Now, suddenly, the Bullets’ leverage was nearly non-existent – they couldn’t afford to just let Monroe leave and get nothing for him (besides maintaining his NBA rights, which was valuable), so they made the move with the Knicks. Monroe came off the bench at first and he said all the right things, including noting that the Knicks were Frazier’s team. After his first game, he told the Associated Press, “Man for man, the Knicks have the best starting five in the NBA. And just being an addition makes me feel good.”
Monroe helped the Knicks make the NBA Finals before falling to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games. They would avenge the loss the next season, though, defeating the Lakers in the Finals in five games. That 1973 title is still the most recent NBA title for the Knicks.
And had it not been for the Indiana Pacers getting involved, maybe it never would have happened!
Thanks to Peter Carry and Robert W. Creamer for their coverage of the events, which I relied on for this piece.
If you folks dig these stories, you’d probably also get a kick out of my Sports Legends Revealed site. There is an archive of the ones about basketball here. I also have one Sports Legend featured every Tuesday at the LA Times.
If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org! I’d prefer you share your suggestions via e-mail rather than in the comments section, so we can keep them a surprise! Thanks!