Earl the Pearl: My Story

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 6 of Earl the Pearl: My Story, by one of the greatest and most beloved players in basketball history.

Throughout my first year [at Winston-Salem State] I would often find myself sitting at the end of the bench with [my teammate] Smitty, waiting for my turn to go in and burning up with anger. When Coach [Clarence “Big House”] Gaines did put me in I would light up the scoreboard, hitting shots and dazzling the crowd with my passes, dribbling, and ball handling. I quickly became a crowd-pleaser, a fan favorite who people loved to watch play. I had a great following down there from the first time they saw what I could do. But, you know, Coach Gaines wouldn’t play me much. So when he would motion for me to go in the game, a buzz would run through the crowd like a bolt of electricity and, being a bit of a ham at the time, I just loved it, loved hearing my name called out as I walked slowly from the end of the bench to the scorers’ table before going in to play.

“Earlllllllllllll!” they would be yelling every time he called my name, and I’d get up and unzip the top of my warm-up jacket. “Earllllllllllllll!” the crowd would explode. Then I would enter the game and shoot and score and get us back up when we were behind. Then Coach would sit me back down and the crowd would moan. After I saw he wasn’t going to play me that much, I started messing with the crowd now and then. So, I’d be standing around in the team huddle during time-outs and then I’d just fake like I was unzipping my warm-up jacket and the crowd would scream, “Earlllllllllllllllllllllllllll!” Then I’d sit back down with the rest of the subs after the time-out was over and the crowd would just let out a loud moan. I’d do that now and then for fun because I was upset that I wasn’t playing, so I had to do something to settle my nerves down. I think, however, these antics of mine got on Coach Gaines’s nerves, though he never said anything to me about it. But when he did put me into the game it made me very happy.

There was only one problem: Coach Gaines used to always call me “Chocolate” whenever he wanted me to go in the game, because of my dark complexion. I hated that name and finally I thought of a way to get around it: I decided I would just ignore him whenever Coach Gaines called me by that name.

One game, I was sitting in my regular spot at the end of the bench with Smitty when I heard Coach call out, “Hey, Chocolate, get into the game!”

I didn’t move. I just looked like I didn’t hear him. I looked up into the crowd, turned my head from side to side.

“You know he calling you, don’t you?” Smitty said.

So I whispered back to Smitty, “Yeah, I hear him, but I ain’t going to do shit. I’m going to stay right here until he doesn’t call me by that name.”

“Hey, Chocolate!” Coach Gaines yelled again, looking down my way.

So I told Smitty, “I’m going to get this motherfucker out of the habit of calling me by that name, calling me “Chocolate.” That ain’t my name. I’m going to get him out of that shit right now!”

I was still looking around like I didn’t hear him calling out my name when he said, “Earl. Get down here!”

So I got up with a big smile on my face and went into the game. Now, I must admit that I let it go a couple of times because Coach was so big. He was also light skinned, with piercing brown eyes, and didn’t take shit from anyone. But he stopped calling me “Chocolate” before long. I was still angry at him for not playing me, though, and we didn’t really start to get along with each other until my sophomore year. My first year of basketball at Winston-Salem was filled with anger and disappointment, although I did learn a lot by watching the game from the bench. I just could never adjust to Coach Gaines’s philosophy of never playing freshmen because he didn’t think we were ready to play at the college level. He just felt our first year should be a learning experience and the best way to absorb the nuances of the game was to watch from the bench. But I didn’t care about that, you know, about his philosophy, because I was young and thought I was better than the guys starting over me. All I wanted to do was play.

Besides playing basketball and studying, one of the things that really affected me during my freshman year happened on the day after my 19th birthday, in November. I remember I was walking across campus and noticed that almost everyone I saw looked sad, and some were even crying. As I continued to walk I began thinking about what could have possibly happened that would make so many people so sad. When I got to the campus canteen, everyone was gathered around a radio.

“What’s happening?” I asked someone.

Looking very sad, he said, “President Kennedy was shot and killed today.”

“What?! Where?” I asked.

“In Dallas, Texas.”

“Damn,” I said, shocked beyond belief.

It was a bright blue, sun-filled day outside, but hearing that all of a sudden turned it into a very dark day. It was stunning for me to hear President Kennedy had been killed, because I remembered how excited all the black people had been in my neighborhood in South Philly the day he was elected, and I had followed him and his family after that day. For me, President Kennedy’s death was like the passing of someone in my family, even though I had never met the man. But for some reason I felt close to him because of my perception then of what he meant to black people, how he cared about us and was willing to fight for our rights to become first-class citizens. November 22, 1963: That’s a day I will never forget.

But, other than this day of sadness, I was starting to acclimate to college life, socializing a little bit, you know, going to parties. I dated a few girls during my freshman year at Winston-Salem. I can only remember a couple, though, including one named Louise, a senior from Philadelphia. Louise—I called her Lou—was a short, nice-looking girl with big bowlegs and a beautiful spirit. I remember after she graduated I went to visit her where she was teaching in Gretna, Virginia. Smitty loaned me his Buick and I drove. Lou had told me it would be about a three-hour drive, so I left in the late afternoon.

By the time I reached Danville, Virginia, just over the North Carolina border, the sky had grown dark. I looked in my rearview mirror and saw all these cars flashing their lights and a bunch of guys in white hoods. All of a sudden I realized I was in the middle of a Ku Klux Klan rally! I saw a street off to my left and I just turned the car down it to get out of that mess. A couple of cars followed me, though, but then they turned back around because I was pressing pedal to the metal, speeding to get away from there. Anyway, I drove around in the darkness for a little while until I finally found my way back to the highway, got back on it and drove until I saw the exit sign for Gretna. Fortunately, Lou’s house was right there by the exit and we got together for the night, which was nice. We talked about my little run-in with the KKK and I decided I would be more careful, considering where I was living now, when I was in areas with a lot of racist white people.

In the morning I had to plot my way back to Winston-Salem, because there was no way I was going to go back the way I had come. I left Lou’s house at first light because I didn’t want to be out on the road driving in the dark. I got on US Route 29 headed toward Greensboro, North Carolina, then hooked up with Interstate 40, which shot me into Winston-Salem. Boy, was that an adventure.