By Ivan Solotaroff
From No Success Like Failure, 1994
Stretched out on his bed in Room 517A in St. Luke’s Hospital, Earl “the Goat” Manigault is clutching the pole of the IV unit he’s hooked into as he gazes out the window at Morningside Park. Beside a half-eaten piece of carrot cake on his night table is a Federal Express Overnight mailer with the sum of his personal effects: clippings, a few photos of himself as a young man, a dog-eared 49-cent notebook he keeps phone numbers in, under $20 in bills and coins, and a Xerox of a six-figure option from a Hollywood production company for the rights to his life story—sent by his agent, Sterling Lord.
It’s a sports-filled Sunday afternoon, and Earl and a catatonic-looking man strapped to his bed across the room seem to be the only ones in the wing not watching. His 16-year-old, Earl Jr., wearing unlaced L.A. Gear high tops and a brightly colored parka with the hood up, chews absentmindedly at his gold neck chain as he glares at a Knicks-Bulls game from the foot of the bed. Darren, 24, watches a golf tournament from his perch on the windowsill.
“Reporter’s here, Daddy,” he says, raising an eyebrow in acknowledgment before turning his attention back to the TV. He doesn’t seem like the kind of kid who’d say Daddy.
The man Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once called “the best ballplayer his size in the history of New York” is still, at 45, a six-foot column of those flat, articulated muscles and rounded angles one seldom sees outside a Marvel comic. Wearing a canary yellow print hospital robe that fits him like a mini-dress, at first glance he looks as perfect as the 20-year-old ballplayer in the photographs in his clip file: self-possessed and utterly natural, his smallest movements full of quiet, languid grace. Then notice the uneven maze of brown, black, and thick white keloid on his forearms, the legacy of a 14-year heroin addiction that reduced him, two decades ago, to living-legend status, petty thief, and two-time penitentiary inmate. His face, hands, and neck are also dotted with blackened patches, scars, and tiny gouges, his chest is bifurcated and sunken at the sternum after a pair of double-bypass operations, and two wide triangles of discolored skin lead from his breast to his collarbone, remnants of a fire he set while nodding in bed one afternoon in the late ’60s. A pair of missing incisors make his otherwise haunted face seem boyish every time he speaks, which he does only when he has to—his sentences filled with a strange, apologetic morbidity, almost inaudible, and free of adjectives, adverbs, and most articles. Whenever possible, he answers questions with a shrug, smile, or two-sentence set-speech. Ask about heroin and his lost career, and he’ll say the same thing every time: “For every Michael Jordan, there’s an Earl Manigault. I didn’t hurt anyone but myself.”
As he sits up to greet me, I see that his “springs”—the “million-dollar legs” that vaulted him to a 28-point scoring average in high school, and the one area of his body he refused to put the needle in—are bloated from ongoing treatment for walking pneumonia. A recurrence sent him into St. Luke’s a week ago, days after relocating himself and his two sons from Charleston, South Carolina, where he retired a decade ago to go cold turkey for the last time. Other than a few sentimental journeys back, Earl hasn’t been in New York since 1981, when he was released from a two-year stretch in Sing Sing on robbery and weapons charges. Though he’s hoping for a new start on the strength of his movie deal, the project is still at the treatment stage half a year into the option, and the $2,500 he received on signing is long gone. His return, already chronicled in The New York Times and the Daily News, has a doomed feeling: Four months from now, he and Earl, Jr., will go back to Charleston on a borrowed $100 bill, leaving behind Darren, who’ll become a crack addict and thief a month after their arrival.
“Earl was already neither man nor boy but a cult, a neighborhood of one, a whole other trip than your average walkaday legends of the community.”
Copying phone numbers from his book, Earl tells me he doesn’t feel much like talking today. It’s an unusual melange of contacts: disc jockeys, journalists, a foundation trustee, directors of rehab programs, a Princeton Sovietologist. He also lists two out-of-print books devoted wholly or in part to his mythos, The City Game and Double Dunk. The spelling of the most rudimentary names and words, I can’t help but notice, is way off. “Fact,” he says, back on an elbow for his carrot cake, “I really don’t enjoy talking about myself at all.”
Earl takes a slow bite and chews it with that quiet revulsion ex-junkies never seem to lose for their food. “That’s what reporters are for.” He reaches forward with a roundhouse flourish and swats Earl, Jr., on the back of the head. “Laugh when your father makes a joke,” he says. “And take the hood down.” He directs my eye to his son’s unlaced sneakers, smiles, and then polishes off his cake. “How you ever going to be a legend like your father?”
Earl Manigault’s legend has grown large over the years: On a few dozen basketball courts in New York and North Carolina he accomplished all that he ever would by his ruination at 22. Those gyms and playgrounds and that fall have become the stuff that Nike ads, off-season sports columns, and park-bench cautionary tales are made of, but there wasn’t a word of contemporary coverage on him, and it’s been said, probably accurately, that there isn’t a box score in existence with Earl’s name on it, though he dominated a team of future NBA All-Stars for almost a decade.
At 13, recruited by every community center team in Harlem, he was already able to dunk two volleyballs at once, and he owned the city’s junior-high-school scoring record, a 52-point performance in a game his team lost. By his 15th birthday, his reputation was established: an inner-city Billy the Kid who roamed the boroughs, 12 to 15 hours a day, in search of the local aristocracy: Bedford-Stuyvesant, the Bronx’s Patterson Projects, the Rucker Tournament playground on 129th Street and Seventh Avenue. “At sixteen,” his former running mate Bobby Hunter remembers, “Earl was already neither man nor boy but a cult, a neighborhood of one, a whole other trip than your average walkaday legends of the community. Earl was the hero of a golden era that made nothing but heroes, greater and lesser. The only villains were villains unto themselves, because they could not dunk the basketball.”
As he grew to six feet, an increasing number of Earl’s points came from further and further above the rim. Among the youngest of that generation of 100 or so ballplayers who went on to elevate the NBA to its current altitude, he became known as the “master of tricking”—dunking on the big man, tipping it in over the big man, snatching the big man’s jumpshots out of the air, pinning layups to the backboard. During one unofficial citywide all-star game, held at Riis Beach on the Fourth of July Weekend, 1962, he stunned a crowd of hundreds by hovering above the rim for what seemed like minutes before dunking it on Lew Alcindor and Connie Hawkins.
By Earl’s senior year at Benjamin Franklin, a now-defunct high school in East Harlem, he was packing every house he played, from the Renaissance Ballroom on 138th Street and 7th Avenue (which became a regulation-size full court in off-hours) to the old Madison Square Garden during the City Championships. The Championship finals were covered by local writers and national college scouts, but the opportunity for discovery was lost every year by a point or two:
“My junior year,” he remembers, “we’re down by a point against Clinton, semi-finals. I get the rebound off Lucky Peterson’s jumper and break out of the pack real fast, ten seconds left. Our big man’s alone under the basket, Aubrey, and I get it to him. He just stays in the three-seconds, waiting for someone to come down so he can dunk on them. After five seconds, the ref finally calls him on it. End of game.”
A month after Earl’s eligibility to play high school ball ran out, he was expelled for smoking dope in the locker room, a false charge, he insists, brought by a track coach he’d refused to high jump for. After four years of grades arranged by Bill Spiegel, his “win-at-all-costs” coach (and the school’s dean of discipline), Earl was functionally illiterate and, at 18, suddenly unknown: He and his contemporaries had been recognized by the big schools and the national scouting combines, but scholarships went only to the stars of a few brand-name schools that delivered passably educated students: Power Memorial (Lew Alcindor), DeWitt Clinton (Nate Archibald), and Boys High (Connie Hawkins). Earl won’t criticize his years at Franklin, but there are many who will; you can hear the tales of a dozen or so every June, when the Franklin alumni come down to Morningside Park for the Rucker Stars of Yesteryear Games. Now a hardcore, mean-looking group of men in their mid-40s, they first regrouped for pick-up games in 1967, calling themselves the Franklin 11. By 1968, the number had dwindled to five. “Junkies,” Earl says with a sad smile, “every one of us.”
With a similar smile, he remembers accompanying his friend Alcindor out to UCLA that August, “hoping for miracles.” He managed to catch Coach John Wooden’s eye during a three-on-three—grabbing a jumper of one of his starting forwards out of the air—but when the term began there was nothing left for Earl but to go home. Recruited by St. John’s and lona, despite his lack of diploma, Earl decided against it. “I really wasn’t ready for college,” he says. “I still had high school to get through.”
But for the intervention of tournament director Holcomb Rucker, the Goat legend would probably end at this point. Rucker showcased Earl that summer in his Senior League Tournament, on a team that included Alcindor and Charlie Scott and lost every game. In September, he put him and a friend on a Greyhound to Fayetteville, North Carolina, armed with letters for Frank McDuffie, coach and principal of Laurinburg Institute, a highly regimented black prep school that specialized in reforming dropouts and kickouts like Dizzy Gillespie and future All-Pros Sam Jones and Jimmie Walker.
“Parks with that sweet smell of success: girls, fresh air, ball. Reputation, which is the only reliable currency up here.”
Enrolling as a 19-year-old senior, Earl spent the best two and a half years of his life there; while learning to read and write, he led a team hailing from two square miles of Harlem that sported an all-slam-dunk layup line and defeated every college within a hundred-mile radius. (Charlie Scott, two years shy of setting ACC scoring records that would stand until Michael Jordan, couldn’t make the starting five until Earl graduated.) McDuffie remembers taking a special interest in this “gloomy, quiet kid who defied the laws of gravity.” He kept the gym open at night, because Earl couldn’t sleep if a new shot occurred to him; he scheduled a board of teachers to hear Earl’s term-recitation from the American Standard Lesson Plan, because he was scared to deliver it to the morning audience; when Earl grew homesick for New York and complained of hunger, McDuffie seated him at his table. He also assigned two coaches to wake Earl at six each morning, take him to the football field, strap 20-pound weights to his hips, grab him by the ankles, and make him drag them the length of the field. “It was like being in prison,” Earl remembers. “I loved it. We wore our blue blazers with the gold crest everywhere we went, so they’d know we were McDuffie boys, and string up someone else. We were the only ones who could sit at the lunch counter in town.”
Word on Earl had spread by the spring of 1965, and letters of interest came in from 73 schools, including West Point, UCLA, and Michigan State. “I didn’t want to embarrass myself, though,” Earl says. “I was still pretty book-weak for those schools. I just wasn’t ready”—a recurring motif with Earl when discussing his past. He took a scholarship at Johnson C. Smith, the all-black school nearest Laurinberg, and became increasingly enraged while he sat on the bench and played garbage time for five months: His coach, Bill McCullough, didn’t take to his showtiming, though Earl’s only start produced 27 points and Smith’s first win of the season. In New York for the Christmas break, Earl decided he couldn’t face returning to Smith’s bench.
But for a year of 60-point performances at Green Haven State Prison in 1969-70, and an unsuccessful training camp in 1971 with the ABA-champion Utah Stars (club-owner Bill Daniels invited him after reading Pete Axthelm’s The City Game), Earl’s playing career ends at this point, January of 1966. Nine months of haunting the parks and gyms he’d dominated as a kid proved too much for him as an adult. He became a junkie a week after his twenty-second birthday. Though he never courted the press, his community’s idolatry, or the book, film, and job offers he received, a second career as living legend began with publication of The City Game: Half a year out of prison, he found himself spending weekdays with sportswriters, p.r. people, and what he calls “ballfreaks”—white men with an insatiate yearning for their unfulfilled potential on the basketball court. Every Friday he’d drive out with WABC deejay Murray the K to coke-filled weekends among an adulating crowd in Montauk. “Filmmakers, writers, this private eye, lots of cover girls,” he remembers. “Skinny-dipping. Riding horses on the beach. It was a little unreal. They were talking about the Olympics, making an art movie. Movie never happened, or the Olympics. Utah didn’t happen either. After three weeks of training camp, they went back with the same team as the year before.”
Back at home, Goat tales were growing tall: Playground historians told of a junior-high-school kid who could throw it in, backwards, from a flat-footed position anywhere inside the paint; of a 15-year-old who took quarters off the tops of backboards and “made change on the way down”; of a six-foot junkie NBA centers begged, in the half-court circle before Rucker Senior League games, not to slam on them while their wives were looking. One dunk, executed on a Friday evening in 1963 in the packed gym of P.S. 113 on 113th Street, has become truly mythic. Various incantations have Earl beginning his leap against six-five Vaughn Harper and six-nine Val Reed anywhere from the foul line to the top of the key, and executing one or two 360-degree rotations in midair before slamming it in—backwards, forwards, one-or two-handed, Around the World, depends who you ask.
“It’s true, Earl dunked a basketball on me and Val at Thirteen that night,” says Harper. “And it’s true that we were humiliated.” A two-time Syracuse All-American, Detroit Piston “for about a minute,” WBLS deejay since 1976, and a man who’s “been telling Earl’s untold story to reporters for two decades,” Harper hastens to add: “But that was one play, in one game, in one summer of tournaments with literally thousands of plays like that. Nothing but that one dunk lives from all of that.”
“Thirteen rocked for a solid ten minutes,” insists Bobby Hunter, a former Harlem Globetrotter, sometime savior of Earl, an assistant coach at Long Island University, and a true bard of the old school. Over a long liquid lunch in a booth in Goody’s, on 135th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, Hunter drinks vodka gimlets—“with very little gimlet”—and lays out a Goat chronology for me that’s equal parts detail, alliteration, and elegiac hexameter. Six-four, with a huge, vicious smile and fingers that seem a foot long when he waves them past my face to conjure the years going by, Hunter stresses the “need for interpretation” when chronicling Earl. Sitting next to him, swaddled in a grey trenchcoat, green scarf, and a black beret, Earl quietly nurses his health and a Grand Marnier on the rocks, his eyes bulging incredulously from time to time.
“They had regulation officials there,” says Hunter, “who could not believe what they’d seen. The scaffold above the gym was waving perilously through the air, with dozens of people screaming on it. Chairs were thrown on the court, chairs that people had had to fight for, because there were nine bodies to every space in that gym. Those who had not gotten in sensed the enormity of what had happened, and they began to riot on the streets. All West Harlem vibrated for a week.
“But there’s many, many stories to that slam. A thousand people were in that gym, and every one of them saw it their own way.” I point out to Hunter that there’s room for no more than 300 people in the gym and he gives me a “Now you’re catching on” alligator grin. “And I’ve spoken to 5000 who swear it happened their way. I, personally, have never seen its equal,” he avows, raising his glass to order another round, “and I was in Detroit at the time.”
Hunter saunters over to a party of four women eating smothered pork chops at a side table and comes back 15 minutes later. He’s even more eloquent when conveying Earl’s affect off the court. “A legend,” he says, “can only be a legend where he’s from.
“I recall that one day Earl put on a cheap silver bracelet; I believe it was the proceed of some less than moral transaction. By sundown, all Harlem wore cheap silver bracelets, except for Earl, who’d taken his off, the more precisely to shoot his trademark J—a linedrive that left his hands heading downwards, characterizing an era of power and rage, of speed and spin, and of the cheap tin backboard. Same with his Afro, which he was the first to be seen sporting, and his Afro pick. And his copy of Sketches of Spain, because Earl caught on to Miles when everyone was still dancing to Tito Fuentes. And the leaflets he started handing out, to Make the March. And we must never forget the era of the tan duffel. If you did not own a tan duffel coat you stayed at home and you could not go to the park.”
Earl’s was a “world of parks,” Hunter says, parks that from the age of 12 he didn’t play in so much as haunt. “Parks with that sweet smell of success: girls, fresh air, ball. Reputation, which is the only reliable currency up here.”
“A common delinquent without a ball in his hands and a park to play in,” as Raymond Diaz, a later, less eloquent associate puts it, Earl was rarely seen anywhere else. “And he was always alone,” says Hunter. “Earl brought thousands of people together, but he was alone. He came alone, he saw alone, he threw it in your face alone. He shot up his arms alone, he went to prison alone, kicked the drugs alone. He was never more alone than in the park, because Earl was not a team player. He was a team. He was an alone team that snatched everyone’s jumpers out of the air. Except for mine.
“But it wasn’t merely his renowned jumping ability, because a man named Jackie Jackson had already invented the art of the leap, up on 143rd Street. Earl imitated it, and added the rocketalization of the Goat.”
“Connie had real rockets,” Earl enthuses quietly.
“The Hawk educated the world at large, true,” says Hunter. “And the Doctor perfected it. What I’m saying is that all those men flying across the TV now are mere after-images of this distant concept that you, as the Goat, brought into existence.”
While Earl tries to tell me about how fast Connie Hawkins went up, Hunter executes a flowing glissando with his fingertips to show just how distant the concept is, then covers the entirety of Earl’s face with his left hand and points his right index finger at himself. “But I am talking about Earl. I am talking about his quiet, alone behavior that made him a cult. Because Earl was always the quiet man, with a soft voice and a gift for explosive movements that can only come from the heart, and from the slow, steady, solitary sipping of blue Concord wine. Even in ’67, when no one was seeing Earl, who was otherwise engaged on a rooftop or in some toilet somewhere, on every other park bench it was still ‘Remember when Goat…?’ ‘How ’bout the time Goat… ?’
“Like, one thing we did in 1969. Earl came down to Morningside Park, and so did everyone else when they heard the Goat was back. We dug a hole, stuck a pole in, and we had a tournament. It was a crisp afternoon. We had a heavenly hash made of horseshit and wine, and it was a good year. We had legends, we had junkies, we had powder-blue uniforms. Millbank [Earl’s community center team] came down, a team that made cults; [the 143rd Street playground players] came, and thirteen came too, because Earl had many cults. He was a weakened man, a step and a half gone, with tracks on his arms you could see from downcourt, but nothing had changed. Earl got the ball on the tip, went up, and that first dunk brought back all of Thirteen—in a whisper.”
A decaying 20-by-30-foot billboard reading, WHAT BECOMES A LEGEND MOST? shows Lena Horne in a three-quarter sable down the side of an abandoned tenement on the corner of 113th Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. A dozen young men are milling on the stairs outside; occasionally, one hurries inside through an open space where a front door once was, looking like he’s arrived at a party. Halfway up the block, next to a Jehovah’s Witnesses storefront with a Gothic-lettered marquee advising passersby to WAKE UP AND BE SAVED! another doorway has a similar congregation, bright and early this Saturday morning. By afternoon both of these crowds will have dispersed. A beautiful, abandoned brownstone with bricked-up windows on the corner of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard becomes the hub once night falls.
“Motherfuckin’ crackheads,” Earl explains as we head toward P.S. 113. It’s the first time I’ve heard Earl curse. His sons look over their shoulders, impressed—particularly Darren, who hasn’t been up north for years. The last time I’ll see him, he looks like Earl today: same peach-fuzz pencil mustache, slow gait, and long-suffering innocence about him. Sired during Earl’s first year at Laurinberg, he has an eight-year-old of his own, whom he shows me a picture of. I mention that the kid looks no more than five years old, and Darren admits he hasn’t seen him for years, then shows me a passport-sized photo of his estranged wife. The promise “I will love you forever” is written inside a heart on the back with the words GOAT CHILL chicken-scratched below.
“Used to be a nice block,” Earl says apologetically. “Great basement club, two streets down. Sneak in at 2 a.m., when everyone was wasted, see Miles, Monk, Mingus. Malcolm X spoke on that corner over there, the time I was handing out the leaflets for Bayard Rustin. At least people did their nodding on the corner then.”
“For overall ability, Earl had more potential than any of them. All you had to do was look at him and you’d see he was going to be worth millions, soon. The only way he could go was climb. That’s why they called him the Goat.”
Avenue blocks in West Harlem are long, two to three times the length of most Manhattan blocks, and constitute virtually separate neighborhoods, each with its own identity, income strata, regional hatreds, passions, and legends. Thirteen doesn’t have the cachet of Fourteen, the maple-lined block of Stephen Foster Homes that Bobby Kennedy made a showcase (and an anomaly) of in the mid-’60s, or the notoriety of Sixteen, where Robert Kennedy, Jr., was mugged while buying heroin in the mid-’70s, but it’s a very proud street, despite its abandoned buildings and its three shooting galleries.
“You could make a professional all-star team from the boys who happened to be on Thirteen any given day or night of the week,” Jim Edwards explains in his ill-equipped office in P.S. 113, where he’s been running a community center since 1954. “At least in Earl’s day you could. The days before decentralization”—a word he pronounces rather than says—“all the budget crunches.” A barrel-chested man in gray sweats, a whistle dangling from a cord on his neck, and the words “legend of the community” never far from his lips, Edwards gives me a partial list of the ones he knew as preteens. While he does, my eye wanders to two board games, Stratego and Chutes & Ladders, sitting on top of an empty “Recreation Cabinet” in the corner—games I haven’t seen since childhood, and that haven’t been replaced, I realize, since the era he’s describing:
“Lew Alcindor, Charlie Scott, Connie Hawkins, Satch Sanders, Cal Ramsay, Vaughn Harper, Helicopter Knowings, Zeke Clements, Willie Hall, Roger Brown, Ray Felix, Joe Hammond, Pee Wee Kirkland, Jackie Jackson—my God, but he could leap. For overall ability, Earl had more potential than any of them. All you had to do was look at him and you’d see he was going to be worth millions, soon. The only way he could go was climb. That’s why they called him the Goat.”
Edwards pauses to break a $10 bill for the lunch matron and to say hello to Harold, a painfully shy-looking man who lives across the street, wearing thick double-knit trousers and a red-and-blue flannel jacket as a shirt. Harold apologizes for interrupting the interview, then stands in the doorway, constantly changing his eye glasses for reading glasses and then back again. When the subject strays from basketball, Harold, “a good point guard” in his day, and a man who’s seen every game of importance at Thirteen, brings it back quickly. Until last year he owned the only surviving footage of Earl in action, a Super-8 film of a “double dunk” that was lost in a fire.
“I’ve always taken Earl’s fall,” Edwards says, “back to one day in his senior year. He was standing alone in the Indoor Gym downstairs”—he points down the hall to where Earl and Earl, Jr., are sitting, a 40-foot court broken at 10-foot intervals by supporting pillars. A dozen kids under 16 are trying or pretending to try to dunk volleyballs and punchballs while another dozen or so run a heated full-court. Darren, who was a high school star in his day, spins a ball between his legs before throwing it over his shoulder from 20 feet out. It almost goes in.
“Earl was holding a basketball, like always,” Edwards settles into his story, “but he looked terrible. ‘Why?’ I asked him. Suspended? A month before he was All-City, All-State? Non-attendance in class? But that was no secret, till he wasn’t eligible anymore. You don’t just chuck a boy out. Where’s he going to go?”
“The double dunk,” Harold nods his head, “was the ultimate humiliation.” He takes a step into the office to pantomime the shot: “Earl throws it in your face, once”—he lifts a tight right elbow, slams it down—“twice”—he does the same with his left arm, then repeats the whole chicken dance again: “Threw it in on the way up. Caught it in his gut out the net, and one more time coming down.”
“Everybody’s out there to get a name, stop you. It’s more like playing by myself sometimes. I never believed one man can stop another man.”
“And I have always seen Earl’s fall,” Edwards nods, as though he’s picking up where Harold left off, “as the fall of this community. Just look down Seventh Avenue: patches of concrete, and emptiness, empty housing complexes. Those houses were thriving in Earl’s day.”
Harold steps out of the office, nodding: “It’d take weeks to recover.”
“Thirteen has always been a neighborhood of fence straddlers,” Edwards says. “Boys who’re perched high, and who’re going to fall, either into this house or into that house outside.”
Harold steps in again, folding both hands inward. “Earl had to cup it,” he explains. “He never had the hands to take it off the dribble, like Connie or Joe Hammond or Pee Wee.”
The mention of Hammond’s name galvanizes Edwards. “Now Joe was a magician.” Standing at his desk to show Hammond’s great shot—going around the basket in midair and dunking it backward—Edwards looks up at the ceiling, joins his meaty hands over his head, like a ballerina in third position, and then slams them down behind his head.
“Never forget the time Earl did that to Joe,” Harold admonishes, demonstrating Earl’s one-handed method of the reverse dunk. He slams into the door of the Recreation Cabinet as he throws his hand backwards, and Edwards suddenly remembers himself. “But what am I saying?” he says, sitting back down. “You can’t describe this kind of artistry. It’s like a Charlie Parker solo from 1954. Lost. It was a situation that arose in a game played 30 years ago in the Upstairs Gym that brought Earl’s sense of movement out. It’s lost forever now.”
Three flights up, Earl’s face crinkles into something resembling a smile as we head up a short stairway to the Upstairs Gym. Only the bottoms of six pairs of sneakers in midair can be seen. “Nothing but treads,” he says, pretty much to himself. “Spalding and Converse only. All-star games every Friday. Us and the Bronx versus Brooklyn and Queens. College stars coming back for some real ball.”
“Did they talk about being away?”
“No. They just came to bust our young asses.”
He points to the low ceiling. Music is echoing from an enormous radio that a pair of 200-pound girls in red, black and green sweaters and L.A. Raiders caps are walking down the far side of the court, taunting everyone who misses a shot. There are over 100 kids in the gym, and half as many adults on the sidelines, wearing sweats and sneakers. “That ceiling’s why my game was so inside,” Earl says, “’cause you couldn’t shoot so easily. It was even worse when the scaffold was up for repairs, and that stayed up the whole time I was here. By that far wall, I played Climb the Wall, when I was in the Midgets: Three steps, push off, and I could dunk it, learned to cup. It was beautiful, you know, watching Connie pick it up off the floor, pass it, lay it up, whatever he wanted. He was the best of us. When you cupped it you had to invent.”
I ask if he remembers any particular shot, and Earl flashes me an amazingly arrogant look. “I remember lots of particular shots.” He juts his chin and hunches his shoulders, swaggering in place. “One time, this is the Rucker, I took it in the cup just inside the paint. Lost my man”—he raises an elbow and feints to one side, looking like a 1950s Ivy League fullback posing for the yearbook shot. “At the hoop, still two big men guarding it. Give them a fake, head, shoulders, hips, till I could feel them going with it. When I came out of it, everyone’s over… that way, and I just floated in.”
“So there were times you dunked it from the foul line?”
“I suppose so.”
“Did you ever surprise yourself?”
“All the time. According on the situation you’re in. Everybody’s out there to get a name, stop you. It’s more like playing by myself sometimes. Best of times. I never believed one man can stop another man. After I was cut from Utah, they offered me a job, assistant manager, advise how to stop a man like the Doctor. All I could tell them is just pray he’s off, stop himself. You can’t guard a man like that, ’cause you can’t understand him. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do, how’re you going to know?”
“Still, it sounds like a good job they were offering you.”
“Yeah, talking job, though. I never did much conversating with the group. Never hung with nobody. They used to say, in therapy in prison, whatever, I needed to talk more. I saved up my anger, held it in till it came out on the court. Or went up my arm, after ball was over. I couldn’t say about that.”
“You don’t think heroin had anything to do with anger?”
“Maybe so. Thing was, you know, I didn’t really know what heroin was till I was strung on it. Too late then.”
“How could you not have known?”
Earl shrugs his shoulders. “I was misled,” he says, looking around the gym with a self-conscious smile. I get the feeling he doesn’t want to talk about heroin here, and ask about his dunk on Vaughn and Val Reed. “Nah, that was just a regular dunk, nothing new,” he says. “Big moment for the crowd, though. Two big men get embarrassed by a future junkie. I bet half the crowd was strung that night.”
I ask about Joe Hammond and Earl gets excited, telling me how Joe “busted Jerry West’s ass for an entire Lakers’ training camp,” was offered $50,000, and asked to wait a year until West retired. Hammond, who Earl says is “always on the move—can’t ever catch up with Joe,” left word behind that he could make more on the street. “He’s kind of a traveling salesman,” Earl says with a wink. (Hammond’s currently serving a multi-year sentence for selling crack.) “Just wasn’t pro material,” Earl says. “Whatever that is.”
Vaughn Harper had told me that many of the “legends” of his generation, particularly Earl, were not “pro material.” “Earl had the ability,” he says. “He was a pure natural athlete, and one of the great leapers, but he was all street. There was no way he could have gears to the NBA’s team play, or even a good Division A college.” Though I find no one who shares the opinion, and dozens who strongly disagree, Harper’s words have a ring of truth. Earl’s greatest admirers talk about his lone-wolf presence on the court: Some say he was more dangerous to play with than against, because you never knew when a pass would come at you, hard and at face level; others talk about his game as though he played a vaguely different sport than everyone else on the court.
When I ask Earl about the pros, he talks about his tryout for the Utah Stars, which he feels was mostly a good-natured publicity gimmick. “I don’t think about my ‘lost pro career,’ ” he says, “because I never came close. Most of us didn’t. I mean, a guy like Jackie Jackson. There was no way he could’ve gone pro.”
“So he didn’t leap as high as everyone says?”
Earl gives me a quizzical look. “Jackie was a God,” he says. “I saw him in the Rucker one summer, and I couldn’t believe it. Nobody could. Six-five, and he just hung up there. He pinned Wilt Chamberlain’s hookshot to the boards, maybe 15 inches above the rim.”
“Did you ever play against Jackson?”
“Nah. I walked up to his park once, though, the summer before Laurinburg. I really wasn’t looking forward to leaving.”
I ask why he didn’t play against him, and Earl shakes his head and gives me that look again. “Because he was working there.”
“Yeah, working. Green uniform, black patent leathers. Standing in the little red house. I went over, though”—Earl nods imperceptibly, showing his greeting to Jackson, then shakes his head with even less animation to show Jackson’s denial. “I was just a kid, he was a man. He was the Park Man.”
“What did you do?”
“I played some and went home. There was no competition, ’cause everybody had already left for college. I walked past him, though, to the water fountain.” Earl nods his head once and raises an eyebrow, showing Jackson’s approval, ending the story.
“You didn’t try to see him again?”
“No need,” he says. “I was ready to go.”
It’s only after months of taking the measure of Earl’s solitude that I can understand how he could have remained oblivious of heroin until the mid-’60s. “I saw it, you know, from ’59 onwards,” he says, “heading to the Rucker court on Twenty-Nine. People nodding, two-, three-deep on Seventh Avenue. I knew something was wrong, but I never questioned it. All I ever thought about was ball, you know. I stayed pretty much to myself.”
That stretch of Seventh Avenue has been deserted for years now, and the Rucker Tournament was moved 20 blocks uptown a decade ago. All that’s left, when we walk these streets together late at night, is a sense of isolation, and of an almost unearthly disenfranchisement, feelings that never go away in Earl’s presence. Taking a gypsy cab from one abandoned building he lived or nodded in to another, walking along a teeming Lenox Avenue and 125th Street at 2 a.m., so he can show me a block-long gauntlet of 11-foot-high street signs he used to smack, the loneliness begins to gnaw, though he’s known by every third person we pass. Earl has a welcome gift for sidestepping sentimentality, but the abandoned, overpopulated Harlem he shows me begins to feel so disaffected and immaterial I find myself longing for something—however maudlin it might be—to connect what I’m seeing to his past. An endless series of gyms, shops, clubs, playgrounds, boarded windows, vacant lots, street corners, schools, community centers, and buildings, half of which no longer exist, it emerges from his shy half-sentences with an increasingly fleeting reality: the memory of one childhood-long rush to the basketball court that still leaves everything else a blur. I stop asking, “Who were you with when…” knowing the response: “I think I was by myself then, heading to the park.”
The ninth child of a family in Charleston, Earl was conceived, he tells me, when “Moms stepped out one night”; his father refused to keep him, and he was given to a retiring, childless country woman named Mary Manigault. He spent his first six years like a 20th-century Kaspar Hauser, essentially without connection or language: Mary’s house was a one-room tar-papered house with no electricity, heat, running water—or Mary, whose double shifts as a cleaning woman kept her in Charleston most of the day and night. “We were just out in the woods,” he says, “surrounded by tall blue grasses, high as the house. No other places in sight, big brown snakes crawling in through the windows.”
Earl didn’t go to school until Mary, through relatives, found a job in a laundromat on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the early ’50s. Six or seven years old, he was placed in second or third grade (he can’t remember), and transferred schools regularly while Mary tried to find a permanent apartment. He made no friends and remained silent and mystified until discovering basketball in the fourth grade. By then he lived alone in his room at the Hotel Pennington on 95th Street and Riverside Drive, an S.R.O. Mary managed for the next 35 years. From the few conversations I have with people who knew Earl before his high school days, I gather that Harlem recognized him for what he was—country—and left him pretty much alone. A phrase that comes up several times is “mother-wit.”
“By sixth grade,” Earl says, “I’d learned I had the springs in my legs. I’d go everywhere I could to find the big man. Watch all day. Dream about what he did at night, figure out how I could do it, then add one more thing to it, to make it mine.” Earl says he sometimes considers his life a failure because he was never able to sit on the rim after dunking it, a shot conceived while looking down through the rim during a double-dunk and seeing his gut level with the bottom of the backboard. “I could have pulled myself up, sat up there my whole life,” he says. “Never known a thing about it.”
Returning to New York in 1966, Earl still didn’t know; when he found a plastic bag full under a bench in St. Nicholas Park one October afternoon, a former Millbank teammate had to explain. They snorted it up and vomited it out at a dance at St. Aloysius Church that night, then the high came. “Some people look on the street and find a $100 bill,” Earl says remorselessly. “I looked down and my life was over.”
After eight months in New York getting “more and more frozen” from having warmed Johnson C. Smith’s bench for a term, Earl couldn’t resist the instant oblivion. “The white lady,” he calls it sometimes. “It’s like snow falling, Christmas every day. Big, heavy dreams. I never sat on the bench my whole life.” He still bristles when I ask about Smith’s coach. “You know how it is. He plays his seniors till there’s six minutes left,” he tells me in Goodbye Columbus, a bar on 95th Street and Amsterdam he favors for the jazz the day bartender plays. “Looks at the board, 22 points down. Looks down the bench: ‘Son, I want you to go in there and do this job for me.’ He wants a miracle. I can’t deliver that.”
Earl points to a squat, nasty-looking man standing outside a bodega across the street. “That’s Felix, the Coke Man,” he says. “Delivers every day. Used to be the Junk Man. Motherfucker.”
Earl is furious today. The owners of both apartments the Manigaults have been sleeping on the living room floors of for 14 weeks have sworn out complaints for Darren’s arrest for burglary. “Earl [Jr.] saw him in Columbus Circle last week,” Earl reports with a strange objectivity. “Said he weighed about 85 pounds. Either the drug’ll kill him, or someone on the streets will. A year or two in jail’s the only thing that can help him now. Penitentiary’s really what saved me.”
He peers out the window toward the Happy Warrior Playground, four blocks up. Site of the “Goat Tournament” that Earl ran from 1972-81, it’s the locus of the only period of steady employment of his life; almost every day finds him back there for eight hours, sitting on the bench with a Colt .45 while the locals gather round him and tell Goat tales. The summer tournament, funded in its early years by drug-dealers like Felix, helped Earl and many of the ballplayers to “Just say no to drugs”—he says this with a wicked smile—“at least once every summer.” From time to time, it provided him an opportunity to help a few young ballplayers: Ronnie Ryer and Ray Shirley, both now playing pro ball in Europe, are two names he mentions often. “I think all Earl really lived for, those 10 years of his tournament,” says Raymond Diaz, whom Earl made his 11-year-old “commissioner” in 1974, “was to find another Earl Manigault on the streets, and save him.” By 1979, Earl was directing it from the Bronx House of Detention, where a Sport reporter “discovered” him, carrying around his thumb-worn chapter from The City Game.
Earl’s first dozen or so brushes with the law—for possession, weapons, finally for stealing mink coats off the racks in the garment district—brought him an unusual clemency. “Nine times out of ten,” he says, “the cops, D.A.s, even the judges let me off. Ballfreaks.” One summer evening in 1967, a man approached Earl and two friends on a court on 143rd Street. “This millionaire from Clifton, New Jersey,” he remembers. “He wanted to do some good, and we listened to him. Pretty sad guy.” They went with the man to Atlantic City, in a vain effort to dry out. “Problem was,” Earl says “somebody brought a cigar box full of drugs. We walked the boardwalk for two weeks and went home when all the drugs were gone.”
I ask where “home” was at this time. “Any place I woke up,” he says. I never let the people see me high. And if anyone tells you, ‘I used to see Earl…’ you know he’s lying. I always did my nodding where I couldn’t be found. Hallways, basements, up on the roof.” He points to the 24th Precinct house, three blocks up. “I used to nod out in their bathroom. Had a lot of fans there.” Earl juts his chin angrily toward Felix. “I really don’t like that dude. It bothers me, man. People saying shit about Darren: ‘like father, like son’ stuff. Soon enough, word gets around: ‘The old man’s back on.’ ” I’m a little surprised Earl’s strongest reaction to Darren’s troubles is his own reputation, then remember Bobby Hunter’s “only reliable currency” comment. Earl’s been living on his reputation for close to 20 years.
The bartender puts on a Freddie Hubbard tape, and Earl mellows out. He lapses into a long silence when I ask why he stayed on heroin so long. “It really wasn’t how long,” he says finally, “but how much. It’s a little like this trumpet player. He’s looking for his note, and he won’t stop till he hits it. I had it every day of my life till ball ended, kept looking for it afterward, with dope. I’d be up in a hotel room with some females and four, five thousand dollars worth. More money than I’d seen in my whole life. Two days later, it’s back on the streets for more.”
“Didn’t you think about the pros?”
“Yeah, but as I got deeper involved all that just faded away. There was no hardship then, leaving school early, till Connie did it in ’69. I was the second, coming out of jail and going to Utah. But I didn’t make it.”
“How about schools that had recruited you from Franklin, like Iona or St. John’s?”
“Iona was a hundred million miles away, man. I was really lost. Just stopped thinking about it.”
“What did you think about?”
“I thought about money. And I thought about how to get money.”
Earl’s three-year crime spree ended early one afternoon in the spring of 1969. Running down 37th Street toward 8th Avenue with seven boxes of dresses under his arm, he looked up when he heard the word “Halt,” and saw a policeman pointing a gun at his head from six feet away. “I was really scared,” he says, then starts cackling. “I still can’t believe how ridiculous this is. I got a man pointing a gun at my head, and all I’m thinking is, I haven’t had my quota for the day. I didn’t care about getting busted, or pistol-whipped. I was busted dozens of times. Had my ass kicked, hard, more times than that. All I knew was the craving. I took the boxes, threw them in his face, got away.”
Earl was arrested in Penn Station ten minutes later, taken to the Midtown South Precinct’s basement and chained to a radiator. The cop he’d assaulted came down a half-hour later and put a hole in his head with a lead pipe. “Would’ve been okay if he’d left it at that,” Earl says, “but he wanted my ass.”
Twenty-four hours later, Earl found himself in the Tombs, facing the longest 19 days of his life. “Everyone in there was kicking. If they could. My third day in, the guys in both cells next to me hung themselves at the same time. I could hear them fighting for their last breath. You call out for help, but it doesn’t come. Two aspirin by the seventh day, maybe. Look at the pillow and see the worms crawling. The rats come out at night and get up on the bed with you, and you’re so doubled over with the cramps you can’t get them off. Once you pay that piper you never go back.”
“But you did. Several times in the ’70s.”
“Yeah. I just wasn’t ready to quit then. Wasn’t till I went back to prison.”
“So you have a 10th anniversary coming.”
“Man, every day’s my 10th anniversary.”
In September 1969, the month Lew Alcindor joined the Milwaukee Bucks for $1.4 million and Connie Hawkins arrived in Phoenix after winning his hardship suit in court, Earl got his first basketball contract. After his “Orientation Period” at Green Haven, three weeks alone in a cell, the assistant warden who ran the basketball league came in with a paper for him to sign. “If you want to play ball and get along up here,” he told Earl, “there’s only one team to play for.”
“Hell’s Kitchen,” Earl remembers. “Guys who scrubbed the pots and pans. Easy job. Terrible team. I’d just kicked, still sick, I really didn’t feel like playing. A few weeks passed and I figured, what the hell. So I got on the court next day, and a bunch of guys started talking shit. They were right. I could barely hold the ball. I slept on it, or tried to, but this guy named Stretch, big man, started yelling across the cell-block, ‘The Goat ain’t shit. I swear to God, the Goat ain’t shit.’ Next day, it was movie day, Tuesday, the yard was empty. At halftime, I had 54 points. People ran to the theater and told what was going on. That kept up the whole year I was in. Game time was four o’clock, when the guards changed shift. They didn’t even leave. And nobody went to the movies,” Earl says with hopeless pride. “It sounds ridiculous, I know, but this was kinda the high point of my career.”
With none of the self-abnegation, Bobby Hunter had made a similar point during our lunch.
“When Earl returned—forget about the Utah Stars, because that was not The Return. Basketball is a game of the streets. It is not a Mormon sport. The Return was that a man who had been almost parallel to those streets had stood up again. And this is the Return, because this is the greatest human ability. To come back, to never go back.”
Earl had looked mystified. “Come back from where?”
“From death’s door. And to leave from the other side.”
“Where does this ability come from?” I’d asked.
“It went right back up my arm,” Earl had said, though Hunter wouldn’t hear it. “Nothing’s as good as being as good as you are. I learned that from Holcomb Rucker, who saved bacon, Earl’s bacon, probably half the butts in this bar. He said, ‘Some will never be players, because they never played. Others will always be, because they did.’”
I meet Earl for the last time a week later, on the benches outside the Happy Warrior Playground. He’s brought a rose wrapped in plastic for the woman he and Earl, Jr., have been crashing on the past week. “A rose,” he says, “is a rose, was a place to sleep.”
Three men his age, wearing leather sneakers and sweats, are passing a quart of beer and discussing Michael Jordan’s 43 points against the Pistons last night. A 62-year-old mailman pulls his cart over, says, “Neither rain nor sleet” as he pulls a half-pint of Bacardi from his breast pocket, and begins a last round of Goat tales: How Earl dunked two balls, backwards, 36 times in a row one night to win a $60 bet, how he went over Big Al Williams, Felix, and the Helicopter during one 47-point game in the Police Athletic League Championships…
Some kids finish a three-on-three on the court in front of us, and I walk over with Earl to shoot baskets. His jump shot, flatfooted now, is a tight, self-taught, awkward-looking one-hander that brings powerful memories of Dick Barnett and Oscar Robertson, Earl’s two heroes as a kid. He takes a while warming up, but after ten minutes he’s got his shot back, and there isn’t a doubt in my mind this man was “pro material.” When he drives the lane, looking exhausted after a half-hour of popping nine, ten straight, some imp of the perverse overcomes me, and I jump in front to block his shot. The ball, cupped between his right hand and forearm, vanishes behind his back when my hand is an inch away, reappearing a half-second later on the side of the with an impossible-looking spin that sends it through. “Let that be a lesson to you,” he says, crashing to his seat against the playground fence. Though he’s smiling, he looks like he’s a million miles away. “I’m trying to figure it all out,” he says, still catching his breath a minute later.
Earl leans his whole body into me and looks me straight in the eye, as he’s wont to do in his rare moments of confidence. “All the time I was growing up, I didn’t think about nothing but making something new happen on the court. I slept, thought, talked, shit, fucked, drank, and ate, and it was ball. I never made it to the pros. College was a wash. Things just didn’t turn out like I was hoping, but…”
His voice trails off with a sense of insoluble paradox. During the minutes of silence that we sit there, I try to piece it together myself, for I’ve felt this subjunctive agony almost every time I’ve been with Earl: One coach who could’ve helped him rather than used him, one game he would’ve won and not lost by one point, one corner he should’ve turned instead of the one he did. I grew up a mile south of Earl, on many of the same courts, idolizing the local approximations of his talent and grace, that natural ability to make something beautiful out of the ugliness of city life. It just doesn’t seem possible that nothing could have come of all that but a life spent miles below the poverty line.
“But, you know, I gave the people what they wanted,” he says finally. “And I can’t walk more than a block in this city without someone stopping me, spend some time with me, buy me a beer, pack of cigarettes. I’m recognized for what I did and what I gave, and I don’t think they’ll ever forget.”
It still—even after months of watching Earl’s reputation in action—doesn’t begin to answer the feeling of loss. “But that isn’t enough, is it?” I ask.
“No, it isn’t enough,” he says with a gap-toothed smile. He seems happy I’ve finally asked him that one question. “It really isn’t.”