What the Current Supreme Court Could (But Won't) Learn From Earl "The Pearl" Monroe

 By Eric Segall

Last week, Mike wrote a sports column on this blog in which he (inexplicably) made public his fandom for both the New York Mets and the New York Yankees. I grew up just a few miles from Mike and I hated the Yankees with a passion and still do, and I'm indifferent to the Mets. 

In the late 1960's and early 70's I bled the orange and blue of the New York Knicks. Although the 1969-70 Championship team is the one people remember because of Willis Reed's epic return to the Court in Game 7 after a serious injury, it is the 1972-73 team that is much more interesting both in terms of sports history and for what the Supreme Court could learn (but likely won't) from both the team and one of its stars, Earl Monroe. Before I explain that seemingly odd connection, for the NBA fans out there, the second championship team had six Hall of Famers, including its entire starting line up. No team since has had six Hall of Famers at the same time.

Earl Monroe, known in college as both "The Pearl" and "Black Jesus," played for a division II team where he averaged 41 points a game in his final year and led the team to the Division II Championship. He was drafted by the Baltimore Bullets (the name of the team now known as the Washington Wizards) and became an immediate star and rookie of the year, averaging 24.3 points a game. He was flashy, exciting, and considered, and this is the important part, the best one-on-one player in the league. Passing and defense were left to others, which was how both his team and the fans wanted it. I strongly suggest you watch this highlight reel from his career, which demonstrates that he was and is one of the most exciting players in NBA history.

While Monroe was making his name in Baltimore, Walt "Clyde Frazier" was doing the same in New York. As the Bill Russell/Wilt Chamberlin rivalry was fading, the Pearl and Clyde started the most important rivalry in the league. They played against each other in numerous playoffs and covered each other on the Court. The Knicks won the Championship in 1969-70, and the Bullets got to the finals but lost to Kareem Abdul Jabbar's Milwaukee Bucks in 1970-71. 

For reasons that are somewhat unclear, Monroe wanted out of Baltimore after his finals loss. A bit injured, and maybe slightly damaged by his reputation for being a one-on-one player more than a team player, his trade value was less than expected. In one of the most surprising trades in NBA history, Monroe was traded to his arch rival the Knicks for one very good player and two role players. Most basketball writers and experts at the time thought this was a big mistake for the Knicks, famous for their team play and already quite successful. The experts thought that The Pearl and Clyde could never play together and that the team would need two balls to make it all work.

The experts were wrong. The Knicks made it to the finals in 1971-72, despite a somewhat hobbled Monroe, losing to a fantastic Laker team, and returned to the finals the very next year to win the championship. Monroe was the best player in that finals even though Willis Reed won the MVP for sentimental reasons.

The experts were wrong because what they didn't recognize was that Earl Monroe was all class and the Knicks knew how to win. Monroe understood this was Clyde's team. He knew he would not be its leading scorer, and he knew he had to play much better defense and pass the ball more. He had to change his entire game for the team to win. He had to tone it down.

And that is exactly what he did, except for those rare games when the rest of the Knicks were out of sorts and The Pearl had to return to his one-on-one game, which he did on a small number of occasions, including a game at Madison Square Garden in which the Knicks were down to the Bucks by 19 points with 5 minutes to go and The Pearl scored most of the rest of the Knicks points. They mounted one of the greatest comebacks in NBA history and won the game (and without the benefit of the three point shot).

Earl Monroe knew he had to change the way he played for the Knicks to be most successful, and sublimate his stardom to Walt Frazier and the team as a whole. His scoring average dropped substantially, as did the amount of time he handled the rock (what we NBA super fans call the ball).  Overall, however, he became the best version of himself.

What does any of this have to do with the Supreme Court of the United States? I understand the analogy is going to seem quite far-fetched but bear with me.

In 2016, after Justice Scalia passed, I wrote numerous op-eds, essays, and blog posts arguing that we should freeze the Court at 8 Justices, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives ( I still feel this is the best reform we could make). I had many reasons but one of the most important was that on an evenly balanced Court the Justices would have to compromise more, issue narrower decisions, and work harder at acting as a unit, not individual Justices. And all of that would be very good for the country, the real team at issue.

Because of Mitch McConnell's now infamous politicking, the Court remained at eight for an entire term (the original number, by the way, was six). Justice Kagan described that term by saying the Justices were “especially concerned” about finding ways to achieve consensus. She went on to say that "all of us are working hard to reach agreement. I give great credit to the Chief justice, who I think in general is a person who is concerned about consensus building, and I think all the more so now... He’s conveyed that in both his words and his deeds."

Of course, as we all know, McConnell's stonewalling led to a vacant seat for almost a year and the eventual confirmation of Neal Gorsuch, Bret Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. If you are reading this, you know that the Court now has five very conservative Justices and one just a bit less than "very" conservative Justice. Again, what does any of this have to do with Earl Monroe and the Knicks?

The Supreme Court's conservatives demonstrated this term that they had six votes to strengthen the Second Amendment, five votes to overturn Roe and Casey (and one vote to weaken them), six votes to dramatically lower the wall of separations between church and state, and six votes to reduce Congress' ability to delegate power to the President. They won.

If one defines success for the Supreme Court as simply being able to do what it wants, then of course the conservatives have won for the time being. But I would like to think what the Justices are really doing is what they sincerely think is best for the country (please don't tell me they are just trying to follow "the law"). 

A Court that cared about the best interests of the country (the real team) might well have decided all these cases the same way but they unequivocally could have done so with more neutral rhetoric and more respect for the other Justices on the Court, past and present. They could and should have toned it down. 

I'm not going to use this essay to prove this point in detail, but trust me the Court could have reached the same results with rhetoric and reasoning that showed respect for their fellow Justices and that portion of America greatly disturbed by the Court’s over-the-top rhetoric in the term’s most important cases. Instead, the majority opinions in these cases were written as if the dissenting Justices were terrible legal thinkers whose views were not worthy of respect. Even Justice Alito's critique of the Chief Justice's concurrence in Dobbs was biting and small.

Some NBA players view success through the prism of individual achievement while others view success through the lens of the team's success. Earl Monroe might be the greatest example of a player completely changing his game so his team could win. And the Knicks changed to take advantage of Monroe’s unique talents. Frazier did give a little, happily.

Today's conservatives on the Supreme Court already know that they have won the game of getting what they want. Is it really too much to ask that they take the entire country's interests at heart (again, the real team at issue) and maybe show some more respect for their fellow players--change their rhetorical style just a bit? 

 I understand that less inflammatory decisions wouldn't have provided much relief to those terribly disappointed by the important cases this term but is it really too much to ask the Justices not to reign down condescension at those who disagree with them. Alito saying a 7-2 Roe  decision was "egregiously wrong" over and over was not necessary and neither was the total absence of empathy for the plight of women losing control over their bodies and reproductive choices. The conservative Justices, now that they are in control, could take a slightly higher road instead of hammering the liberal (and prior GOP Justices) over the head with aggressive rhetoric. They could change their game just a little bit.

Once Amy Coney Barrett joined the Court, the conservatives could have controlled these decisions and made them less pointed and, well, less mean. They could have adjusted their behavior for the greater good. Earl Monroe and his teammates knew that and the result was a world Championship that can never be taken away from them. It's a lesson the Court's conservatives could learn as well especially as their victories, unlike the Knicks’ trophy, might some day be taken away.