On October 18, the day before the Celtics game, I was surprised to learn that the Bullets had traded Kevin Loughery and Fred Carter to Philadelphia in exchange for Archie Clark. So we were a bit shorthanded against Boston. Our next game was scheduled for October 22 in Baltimore against the Knicks. Larry Fleischer had opened up negotiations with the Bullets for my next contract back in the spring, after the finals. When the Bullets dug in, he let them know that I wanted to be traded and provided them with a list of teams I’d be willing to play for. But now it was several months later and it still didn’t seem like they were going to pull the trigger on anything just yet. Instead, management traded to get Archie Clark. The Bullets said they were going to have the best backcourt in the NBA, just like Archie and I had talked about up at Baker. But without a new contract or a trade imminent, Larry advised me to sit out the game with the Knicks and not to let anyone know where I was. He told me he would talk to me later and I decided to follow his instructions. So I sat out the Knicks game to see what was happening. Archie Clark didn’t show up either, and New York kicked the Bullets’ *** real good in that one, 110–87.
I just stayed in my apartment while the phone rang off the hook. I didn’t answer it. After a day of that it got too hot for me in Baltimore, so I drove up to Philly and stayed at my mother’s house. But I was talking with Larry constantly (our calls were prearranged) during this time and I remember him saying, “Well, Earl, there’s no trade on the table yet, but some other teams are interested in you.”
So I asked him, “Who?”
“The Indiana Pacers in the ABA have been calling. They definitely want to try and work out something with you. Why don’t you take a flight out there to Indianapolis and just talk to them? Don’t say anything definite. Just listen to what they have to say. See what it’s like, see if you like it.”
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 push comes 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.
By this point it had been almost two weeks since I’d spoken with anyone with the Bullets, and it was clear that I had played my last game there. Archie Clark, after working out a new contract, had reported to the team and was playing well for them in a starting role. But the team was losing and I was getting itchy because at the time I really didn’t want to leave Baltimore. I had grown to like the city and had great friends there, not to mention Cookie. So I was starting to think to myself, Hey, my future is at stake here. What’s going to happen to me? Where am I going to wind up? I had given Larry a short list of places I wanted to play in if I had to leave Baltimore. The list included only three cities: Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Chicago. But none of those teams, that I know of, had been in touch with Larry, so I was really antsy when Larry called me around November 7 and said, “I’ve got a deal on the table for you.”
“Really,” I said. “Where? What’s up?”
“New York,” he said.
“New York? ****! Are you kidding me?”
“No,” he said. “It’s legitimate. What do you think?”
After a few seconds of thinking about it, I said, “I don’t think I can go play there. We’ve been playing against those guys for so long and so hard, plus they’re our mortal enemies.”
Then I heard myself talking, saying, “They’re our mortal enemies,” not my mortal enemies. I was still thinking like a Bullet! When I realized that, it kind of stopped me in my tracks and allowed me to listen objectively to what Larry was saying.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” he said. “I’m prejudiced. I want to see you playing day in and day out. And I want to see you playing in New York City.”
“Well, ****,” I said. “I’m going to have to think about that, Larry.”
And we left it like that. I told him I’d get back to him in a day or so. He agreed with this and we hung up. I immediately had a talk with my mother and she said, “Whatever my baby wants is cool with me. Just be sure you know what you’re doing.”
Then I called up Sonny Hill to talk it over with him and he said, “Earl, all those individual things that you told me you wanted to accomplish in the NBA—all the goals you set for yourself—like scoring 20,000 points over your career, making so many All-NBA teams, All-Star teams—that’s not going to happen if you go to the Knicks. Because in Baltimore you are the man, you are the franchise player, everything revolves around you. With the Knicks it will be very different. They play a different style and their team will not revolve around you, or how you play. You will have to adapt yourself to their system and fit in with their more conservative, traditional approach to the game. Five guys moving the ball, moving without the ball. Setting screens for each other. It’s pick-and-roll basketball, not the kind of game you’ve been playing with the Bullets, running and gunning. Fast-breaking all the time. Now can you do that and still be ‘Earl the Pearl’?”
What Sonny said stunned me for a moment and I thought hard about it. Then I told him, “Sonny, I’m a basketball player. I’m from Philadelphia and I believe in the ‘science of the game’ approach.” When I said that it made Sonny happy, and he gave me his blessing to make whatever deal I thought was best for my future. Then we got together in person and Sonny told me he thought it would be difficult for me to fit in with the Knicks and that Baltimore was also a winning team. When we talked about changing my style I told him, “Sonny, I can do this, because in Philly we can play any style. I can adapt to their style. I’m willing to sacrifice and not score points. But I’m going to think it through and call Larry in an hour or so.”
As I left to get in my Rolls to drive around Philly for a while, I thought to myself, I’ve alienated Baltimore and I haven’t even thought about going back there for a while. I also knew that Bullets management was pissed at me because Abe Pollin, who I had grown to like very much, was telling people that he had given me money for the down payment on my house in Germantown. Now, they were underpaying me in the first place anyway, and as far as the “down payment” Abe was talking about goes, I looked at that as a bonus, something between him and me. Now he had gone public with that **** and I felt betrayed. So that’s when I made up my mind to go with the Knicks’ offer. I decided right then and there I wasn’t going back to Baltimore. It was the principle of it all. I was still young and rather naïve, but I knew I didn’t have to take that kind of ****. Then I thought about being arrested by the cops back there at Dunbar High School and being falsely accused. Thinking about that just pissed me off even more. So I went back home, made a quick call to Larry, and told him I would accept the offer from the Knicks. I knew I had to change myself completely and become a new person, so to speak, if I was going to be successful in New York City. So from that moment on, that’s what I set out to do, only I didn’t know what kind of person I would become. I’d find out through trial and error, a kind of instinctive shift.
Larry called me the next morning to tell me everything was cool and to come on up to New York. He told me I would be staying at the New Yorker Hotel and that he would come and pick me up from there. I think this was November 9, 1971. I woke up the next morning, ate breakfast, and kissed my mother. She wished me good luck and told me everything would be okay, which was reassuring coming from her. Then I got in my Rolls and went and saw Wilkie and Smitty. Later that day I hit the road for the drive up to the Big Apple. Even though I had decided to become a Knick, it still didn’t set well with me, you know, the prospect of becoming one of the enemy. But I had committed to it and just had to suck it up. I crossed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge to take the turnpike through New Jersey and just moved on north, thinking all the way. The reason I like to drive, especially when I’m driving alone, is that it allows me to think a lot of difficult things through. So that’s what I was doing while I was driving up the turnpike. I thought about all the recent things that had happened to me in Baltimore, like getting arrested trying to help blacks at Dunbar. I thought about the fact that I had just stopped playing like I did and forced the trade. Things like that. I knew I had to prove myself all over again as I had at Bartram, on the playgrounds of Philadelphia, at Winston-Salem, at the Pan American trials, and as a rookie in Baltimore. Up to that point I had been very confident in my decision, enjoying listening to my music, you know what I mean? But then doubts started to creep into my mind.
Although Sonny and I had talked about all the changes I had to make in my game—different sacrifices and whatnot—I was still adamant that those were things I could do. However, as I got closer to New York I started to have apprehensions about what I was actually getting myself into. A lot of times when I’m by myself my thoughts start to form themselves a little differently than they do when I’m around other people. Things began to enter my mind, like wondering how I would react to something or other, or if things went wrong. I really didn’t know what to expect from Coach Holzman, since he hadn’t played me as much as I had expected in the All-Star game the year before, even though I was a starter. All that stuff kept eating at me and as I approached New York City I suddenly pulled off the turnpike at the Jersey City exit and rode around there for quite a long time. After a while I calmed down and convinced myself that I had made the right decision. Then I said to myself, Well, I got to go. So I made my way into New York City through the Lincoln Tunnel, went to the hotel, and chilled. As I was making my way to the hotel, I got turned around and found myself on West Street. I made a right turn on 40th Street going east, back toward the tunnel, and then stopped for the light at the corner of 11th Avenue. There was a police car sitting on the corner with two policemen in the front seat. I just happened to look toward the backseat of the police car, and saw a pair of legs sticking straight up in the air. I was kind of puzzled but I played it off as if I didn’t see anything at all (later I was told that the area was where the hookers worked). I just drove on and said to myself, I think I’m gonna like it here. Earl, welcome to New York.