CHARLOTTE – I could hear it in Earl “The Pearl” Monroe’s voice over the phone.
What I heard was his pride coming through in a big way as Winston-Salem State was gearing up to play in the CIAA championship game later today against Fayetteville State.
Monroe, 75, was talking from a New York City hospital. He had planned to come to the CIAA Tournament yesterday but wasn’t feeling very good and ended up in the hospital with an undisclosed illness.
As I made my drive from Winston-Salem to Charlotte I had some time to talk to Monroe, the former WSSU star and arguably the most well-known alum in the history of the school.
“I wish I could be there and I was supposed to go (on Friday) but I just can’t make it,” said Monroe, a 1967 graduate who starred for Big House Gaines before he went on to become one of the 50 greatest players in the NBA. “It’s so neat to see them playing well and Cleo has done a great job in bringing back the spirit and the excitement.”
Coach Cleo Hill Jr., who is in his second season with the Rams, knows all about the legacy of Monroe as well as Hill’s father, Cleo Sr.
Monroe, who won a CIAA title in his playing days and also won a national championship in his senior season at WSSU, is aware of what Cleo Sr. did for the Rams as a player. Monroe is the all-time leading scorer in CIAA history with 2,935 points and he did that without the benefit of the three-point line.
“It’s kind of come full circle with the son coaching at Winston-Salem State where his father, more or less, started all of this great tradition,” Monroe said. "Cleo was a big star for Coach Gaines a few years before I arrived."
In 1960 and ’61 Hill Sr. led the Rams to consecutive CIAA titles.
Now, his son will try to bring home the school’s 12th CIAA title later this afternoon at the Spectrum Center. The game will start at 4:30 p.m. and be televised live on Aspire Network as well as on the radio on WSNC (90.5) in Winston-Salem.
Monroe said he didn’t know if his hospital room had the cable station so he could watch the game live. He was pretty sure that a few of his teammates who are in Charlotte will keep him posted.
“I know a few of my teammates are there in Charlotte and they’ve been calling me and texted me,” Monroe said. “If I can watch the game live, I’ll be cheering for them to bring home the title.”
Monroe, who is an active alum and gets to Winston-Salem three or four times a year, says there’s no doubt he’s proud of Hill and the Rams.
“From what I’ve seen Cleo has just done a tremendous job and I know folks from all over who have ties to Winston-Salem State are excited,” Monroe. “Just tell them to bring that title back to Winston-Salem. I hope they play a great game.”
Two hours before the game Hill reached out to Monroe by phone, and Monore and Hill had a short conversation. Monore also talked to the team via speaker before they went out to pre-game warmups before the championship game.