The 1967 Winston-Salem State men’s basketball team was one of historic proportions. They became the first historically black college and university (HBCU) to win a College Division championship, defeating Missouri State 77-74 in the DII basketball title game.
This weekend, they honor the fiftieth anniversary of that team. They will also be honoring the greatest player to ever don a Rams' uniform, officially retiring Earl “The Pearl” Monroe’s jersey this Saturday when they take on St. Augustine’s.
“Most of the teammates and I come back for homecoming every year,” Monroe said. “It’s always great to get back and see each other. It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long, but on the other hand it seems like it was forever ago. Being able to see how the school has grown, it’s a great feeling.
“My number has always been retired,” Monroe said laughing. “No one has worn the number in 50 years. Now I guess it becomes officially retired.”
Monroe is remembered best as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. He followed up his DII championship with a NBA Rookie of the Year performance in 1967-68 for the Baltimore Bullets. He later became a key figure on the Knicks 1972-73 championship squad that featured fellow NBA Hall of Famers Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, Jerry Lucas and Phil Jackson.
But before any of that, Monroe was a DII superstar.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do after high school,” Monroe said of how WSSU became his choice. “I went to Temple Prep for a semester. A friend who was a recruiter asked if I was interested in Winston-Salem. At first I rejected it, but later on he asked me again. I told him I would come if my friend would come with me. That’s how I got down to Winston-Salem. I had never been South and it was the first time I was away from home, but at least I had a partner with me.”
Monroe averaged 23.3 and 29.8 points a game during his sophomore and junior seasons respectively. Saving the best for last, Monroe exploded for 41.5 points a game during that championship run.
He became the first player from the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association to win the national scoring title. Monroe bested DI’s AP Player of the Year Elvin Hayes (36.8 points a game) and the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (26.2 points a game) and totaled 1,329 points (finishing with 2,935 in his career), an NCAA record.
Much of that success was possible because of the man who recruited and coached them to greatness. His name dons both the Rams home arena as well as their Hall of Fame. Clarence “Big House” Gaines wasn’t simply a legend in Winston-Salem, but one of the winningest coaches in NCAA history.
Gaines had no problem running an offense that fed Monroe, often giving them the label as a one-man show. Monroe wasn’t alone, though. He had his big man in William English, who averaged a double-double that season. English went on to score 2,117 career points behind a WSSU-best .753 field goal percentage and still holds the CIAA record for most points in a single game when he dropped 77 on Fayetteville State. Fellow guard Eugene Smiley would score 14.7 points a game that season, and later join the 1,000-point club himself.
Gaines retired from his 47-year career with 828 wins and dozens upon dozens of accolades. While the numbers and awards are noteworthy, what he did for the HBCUs around the nation were his legacy.
Gaines was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1982 for his achievements.
“At first it was hard because [Gaines] didn’t play me,” Monroe said laughing. “He was very knowledgeable about the game. He was a disciplinarian. He loved his Xs and Os, and was a great philosopher and judge of his talent.
“He tried to see who we were and what we were about. We had this layup drill. The penalty for missing was climbing the ropes. I just happened to climb the ropes a lot. I think that he understood that I had a lot of heart and he could depend on me, because I never stopped shooting even if I missed.”
They were often overlooked despite their success. The Rams finished 31-1 and were never ranked higher than No. 11. They even surprised themselves at times.
“I don’t know if we felt at the beginning of the season we could win a national championship,” Monroe said. “We were hoping to win the conference championship and move on. We actually lost in that conference championship to A&T.
“That may have been an omen. Coach Gaines pulled us together and reminded us what our ultimate goal was. We came together at the right time. Having that loss — I think we were 30-0 — it didn’t put as much pressure on us once we were in the NCAA tournament. We didn’t have to think about going through an immaculate season.”
This weekend, WSSU celebrates their historic 1967 team. The Rams have yet to ever duplicate the feat of that season, but that doesn’t matter.
Ernest Brown, David Green, Vaughn Kimbrough, John Nathan, John Michaels, James Reid, Steven Smith, Johnny Watkins, Smiley, English and Monroe. While everybody will remember the electrifying moves to the basket and exciting play of The Pearl, the others are likely forgotten figures of NCAA lore.
That will never be the case in Winston-Salem.
“The Knicks championship was a great accomplishment,” Monroe said. “But they paid us to play, we were expected to do that. The college championship meant so much because it was with guys, like these guys that are still around me right now, that were part of this whole scenario for four years. We lived together, we studied together, we hung together, we were like one. It made a big difference because of the camaraderie that we had. It’s that camaraderie that has kept us together.”