Monroe looking to spread magic

November 23, 2008|By DAVID STEELE | DAVID STEELE,david.steele@baltsun.com

Earl Monroe can still grab a crowd's attention, nearly three decades after he last played a pro basketball game. He proved it last week at the Men's Health Center on North Avenue, where he promoted prostate health awareness. Just by walking into the room, before officials from the city's Total Health Care program could introduce him, he got a standing ovation.

Monroe - the former Baltimore Bullet who turned 64 on Friday - is glad to see his health topic get notice. He also hopes for widespread attention to his basketball-related mission: to get more of his fellow products of historically black colleges and universities into the Naismith Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

"Now we're looking at folks from all over the world, who we don't even know, in the Hall of Fame," Monroe said last week, "and there are guys right here who built the game itself, and they have to struggle to try to get into it or to get the recognition for what they've done."

The quest is an outgrowth of the wildly popular documentary Monroe helped produce last spring, Black Magic, about the history and culture of segregated college basketball that produced Monroe and numerous other pioneers. (It came out on DVD this month.) Among other reactions, the film reminded many that only a handful of those figures are honored at the game's most prestigious shrine.

"Myself, Earl Lloyd, Sam Jones, John Chaney," Monroe began checking off before coming to his legendary coach at Winston-Salem State. "Big House Gaines is in as a coach. John McLendon is in as a contributor, not as a coach. That's something that should be rectified."

All those names and many others - Cleo Hill, Dick Barnett, Travis Grant, Ben Jobe, to name a few - are familiar to a much larger audience now because of Black Magic. The enthusiastic response to the film spurred Monroe and Dan Klores, who produced it with him in addition to directing and writing it, to formally propose rectifying the oversights.

Recent moves by the Baseball Hall of Fame to bring long-forgotten Negro leaguers into the fold encouraged them. The basketball Hall, though, so far has welcomed the effort with only partly open arms, not surprising considering its bumpy history of honoring (or not) various segments of the game as well as its clandestine selection process.

Mannie Jackson, the new chairman of the Hall and owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, has been receptive and is forming a review committee. Hall president John Doleva, though, has touched nerves with his comments: In September, he told The Boston Globe, "The goal is for them to be enshrined and, if they are not worth enshrinement, perhaps giving them some recognition," and was quoted on ESPN.com, "There will be no rubber stamps, no lowering the bar, nothing upsetting to the Hall of Fame." This from an institution that inducted Dick Vitale this fall.

Monroe chafes at that mind-set: "I mean, if there weren't these guys who had these type of games and set the stage for the game these guys are playing, there wouldn't be any game like it is today. So I was kind of angry at that. But be that as it may, I won't get too mad because I see the bigger picture."

The movement is sure to keep gaining momentum, largely because Monroe's own appeal never seems to wane. Among his fans last week were plenty who were too young to remember his heyday as a Bullet.

"I guess the message has been passed down," Monroe said. "It's such a warm reception I get from the folks here in Baltimore, and I think it's pretty reciprocal."

His hope is for the Hall of Fame to receive the legends from schools like his just as warmly.

Listen to David Steele on Fridays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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