This current generation of NBA stars has taken unprecedented control over deciding which teams they play for. In recent years, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and others have all taken their impending free agency as an opportunity to force a move to a desirable franchise in a major market and build their brands. At its core, the development is about the best players in the world using their position to ensure they end up in the most comfortable situation possible.
Truth be told, the game's stars have been trying to do the same thing for many decades. Yet, while contemporary players essentially choose between several good options, the issues facing the best players in the '70s were a little more immediate and pressing. Like, say, worrying about the Ku Klux Klan.
That's not an exaggeration. As Earl Monroe explains in his new book "Earl the Pearl: My Story," the Indiana Pacers, then an ABA franchise, had expressed interest in acquiring him from the NBA's Washington Baltimore Bullets in October 1971. Looking for a new team as the Bullets waffled on trading him, Monroe was intrigued by the offer and visited Indianapolis to get a sense of the franchise and the environment. That's when he learned it might not be a great fit.
So I agreed to do that and the next day I flew out to Indianapolis. Bobby “Slick” Leonard, who was the coach out there, met me at the airport, took me to the hotel, and dropped me off. Then someone from the team came back a while later and picked me up and took me to the game. The Pacers had some very good players on their team, like George McGinnis, Roger Brown, Freddie Lewis, and a few others. So I surmised that this was a team I could play on. The only negative thing about the situation was that I didn’t want to play in the ABA, because I thought the competition was better in the NBA. But I thought to myself, If pushcomes to shove I can do this. But I don’t think it’s going to happen. The most significant thing was that I didn’t like the arena where the Pacers played their games in Indianapolis. It wasn’t like the Baltimore Civic Center or Madison Square Garden. But I did like the team and the fact that they were a winning franchise.
So I went to the game and the Pacers won. Then, after the game, I went back to meet the Pacers’ players in the locker room. I liked them, too. But then, after they had showered and dressed, all the black players reached up over their lockers and starting bringing guns down. I was shocked to see this and asked, “Why do you guys have guns?”
“They got Ku Klux Klan everywhere around here outside Indianapolis and in the city, too,” one of the players said. “So we got guns to protect ourselves.”
That did it, just took me and that situation to another level. That’s when I knew for certain that Indianapolis wasn’t the place for me. Obviously I hadn’t thought about the KKK being such a presence out in Indianapolis, and now that I knew they were, it was a deal breaker. I had already been through that scenario down in Virginia and in North Carolina when I was at Winston-Salem, and I wasn’t about to put myself in that situation again. The next day I thanked everybody. Slick said management was trying to work out a deal with Larry because they wanted to sign me, and I said I would speak to Larry and he would get back to them. Then they took me to the airport and I flew back to Philadelphia and went home.
The early '70s were a very different time, despite the passage of the Voting Rights Act and rescinding of all Jim Crow laws, but Monroe did have to deal with racial discrimination as a young basketball player. He played his college ball at the historically black Winston-Salem State for legendary coach Clarence "Big House" Gaines, who spent much of his coaching career barred from playing certain teams due to laws in the South. Playing in Baltimore provided a reprieve from that lifestyle, and it's likely that Monroe did not want to return to it in any fashion.
However, it's possible that he got an improper sense of Indianapolis from the Pacers' locker room culture. Although there's no reason to doubt that players were worried about the KKK, the Pacers did not have a normal relationship with guns. As detailed in Terry Pluto's essential ABA book "Loose Balls" (and helpfully described in this TrueHoop post from 2010), the Pacers considered the ownership and carrying of guns to be a status symbol and even dressed up as cowboys, complete with holsters. This was true of white players, too, so it wasn't purely a racial issue. That gun fetishism isn't necessarily a sign of a normal or healthy culture, either, but it clearly wasn't only a reaction to a KKK presence.
We can't assume that Monroe didn't know about this aspect of Pacers culture, but it's interesting to speculate about how the basketball world could have changed if he'd considered the guns to be more of a franchise quirk and not only a sign of clear and present danger. Perhaps the New York Knicks never would have won their second championship in 1973, forever lessening the afterglow of their glory days. The Pacers could have gained a franchise-defining star, a generationally exciting player who could have changed their image forever.
At the very least, Monroe's fear is a sign of how much times have changed. When LeBron James chose Miami over all other teams in 2010, he didn't do so because he feared for his safety in other cities. Monroe's story makes the arguments about weather and market size seem a little more tolerable.