Skip to main content
Original Issue

For now the answer is not in the Stars

Earl Manigault, once one of the basketball superheroes on Harlem's playgrounds, sat resting briefly during a scrimmage at the Utah Stars' training camp and pulled his red practice jersey up under his armpits to let air circulate around his sweating chest and belly. In the middle of his lean black torso a knot of scar tissue the color and breadth of a Ping-Pong ball emblazoned a grotesque reminder of his despair, a badge of the degeneration that made him an unlikely and, ultimately, unsuccessful pro rookie at the age of 25.

"It's a burn," he explained in the soft, matter-of-fact voice with which he discusses his past. "It happened one day after I shot up. I got high and was smoking a cigarette. Then I started noddin'. When I came down from the stuff my room was all smoked up and I was burning up. My sweat shirt had caught fire and my skin was burning."

The burn was the least of the pain Manigault has felt; the scar is the smallest of its lingering horrors.

Bill Daniels, who wired up a multimillion-dollar fortune in cable television, drove over the Rockies from his home in Denver to Salt Lake City the other day to watch Manigault try out for his ABA champion Utah Stars. It is logical that the Stars should be the first ABA team ever to turn a profit. Daniels is an inventive, self-made businessman's businessman, with tendencies toward gray suits, conservatism and flag waving. His Stars wear flags on their uniforms, as do the members of Daniels' Denver boxing team, and his red, white and blue Indianapolis car was informally christened "The Silent Majority Special" two years ago. "I'm the type of guy, if I go to a parade and they play Anchors Aweigh I'm ready to go sign up," he says. The new blue Cadillac Daniels drove to Utah has an American flag on each door but, significantly, neither is captioned, "Love it or leave it." For him, the flag he so unabashedly displays blankets a multitude of positions—his conservatism is something less than absolute. He is now married to his fourth wife, and says that it was not until he turned 35 that he realized, "I couldn't stay up all night partying and then do a decent job the next day. It was something that just dawned on me." More to the point, his compassion roams freely, saving him from turning into the stereotype he might be and allowing him to probe and understand the desperate world of an Earl Manigault.

Manigault and Daniels first met last winter at an Urban League storefront in Harlem. Earl arrived there via Charleston, S.C. and a fatherless tenement on West 133rd Street, but home had been the pitted black asphalt of Harlem's basketball courts. In Harlem he learned a lot about shooting and, in the end, even more about shooting up. He stole his way through Manhattan's garment district, picking off furs and dresses for the money he needed to support a heroin habit that was costing him $90 a day by 1968. He also traveled the dingy crypts of urban justice: 18 screaming, starving days of cold turkey withdrawal in Manhattan's aptly named Tombs and 16 only slightly better months at Green Haven Prison in Stormville, N.Y. In December 1970, Manigault came back to Harlem.

Several months later Daniels arrived there, too, riding in a black Cadillac limousine and trying to find Manigault to offer him a chance with the Stars. "I heard that he was looking for me," says Manigault, "but I didn't know where he was staying. That same night Daniels walks in and asks, 'I'm looking for Earl Manigault. Is he here?' When he said who he was, I didn't know whether to believe it. This is really for me? I didn't hardly dare to think about it. It was the biggest thing that ever happened to me that was good."

Daniels had first read of Manigault in The City Game, an account of pro and playground basketball in New York written by Pete Axthelm of Newsweek, He recognized the commercial value Earl would have if he made the Stars, a notion that apparently had eluded the home-town Knicks and Nets. But more than that, Manigault's prison record interested Daniels, and it brought about the unlikely meeting between the young ex-junkie thief from Harlem and the 51-year-old businessman who describes himself as a Taft Republican.

Over the past several years Daniels has placed about 25 former prison inmates in jobs in his own or other companies. His experience indicated that Manigault, despite the nearly 100% recidivism rate among hard-drug addicts, might be successfully redirected.

"I'd been acquainted with cons and I knew the difficulty of getting them jobs," Daniels says. "The first eight or 10 I placed are all back in prison, but then I met Ron Lyle." Lyle was a convicted second-degree murderer who is now pursuing a promising heavyweight boxing career under Daniels' sponsorship. "The reason Ron has adjusted is that he's got a talent, something he knows he's good at and can dedicate himself to."

Daniels feels that his interest in ex-convicts is all a part of thinking conservatively and living liberally. Manigault puts it somewhat differently. "He and I only seen each other about three times, but he's about the most beautiful man I've ever met," says Earl. "With him you'd never be lost."

Five or six years ago Manigault was never lost when it came to basketball. On the Harlem playgrounds, where one-on-one is usually more important than the team and where reputations are made or lost on the swoosh of a reverse, two-hand dunk or the volleyball block of a jump shot, Manigault ranked above such stars as Lew Alcindor and Connie Hawkins, who were also playing in the school yards and public courts of Harlem at that time. It was Earl who dazzled onlookers with his speed, his moves and his leaps, and he knocked them dead when, despite being only 6'2", he would jump, dunk, catch his own shot as it came through the net and then dunk again, all on the same hovering vault.

In those years he proved he could play on a team as well. Manigault made All-New York City—an honor tougher to gain than all-state in most other areas of the country—while playing at Benjamin Franklin High School, a massive chunk of scarred masonry located on the same block as a reputed Mafia headquarters for numbers and narcotics in East Harlem. Manigault did not graduate from Franklin, but he subsequently received a diploma, which he says he did not deserve, from Laurinburg (N.C.) Institute, which he attended on a basketball scholarship. He went no farther.

"I was aware that other guys got college scholarships, but I didn't have the education, I wasn't smart enough," he says. "I just looked at basketball as something to do. I didn't think about it as a job. Later, after high school, when I had already lost my chance, when I was already hooked on the stuff, I finally thought of it."

Within a year after he completed school Manigault tried drugs for the first time. He did not bother easing into the scene. He simply shot heroin into his arm. "I just didn't have things I wanted," he says. "I was bored and I didn't know how to figure things out for myself. I'd get high, and then I wouldn't have to think. I'd wake up in the morning and I'd have to have a fix. I had to get high before I washed my face or put on my clothes. I lost a job I had because you can't work with a habit."

Finding that he could no longer jump and that he tired quickly, Manigault stopped playing basketball, and the true extent of his local esteem became apparent with chilling abruptness. "I know a lot of kids got on drugs because I did," he says. "I realized it then, but it was too late."

Inevitably, Manigault was arrested while stealing to finance his habit. In prison he found that his reputation had preceded him. "When I got there, guys would come up to me and ask what I was doing there, why wasn't I playing ball," he says. "Even guys in the other section sent me notes and told me I didn't belong there, that I should get into shape and get out."

After a year and a half of group therapy, of steering clear of the lifers and other hardened criminals who lived in the same cellblocks with addicts and of playing basketball in the prison yard, Manigault was paroled. For nine months he worked in an Urban League program for addicts in Harlem and, he says, drugs never tempted him. "I'll stay off," he promises. "I've made up my mind. I've never done anything for myself. Now it's time for me to experience the good. I've given myself enough bad."

The most rigorous test of Manigault's cure came last week. When he arrived in Utah, he spoke optimistically of making the Stars, but it was clear immediately that he was going to fail. After five years without strong competition, to say nothing of two years of mainlining, much of what Earl once had was gone. Later he guessed that he had played at 75% of his best, but his estimate was probably high. His rebounding and defense were absent and, although there were brief glimpses of quickness on offense, his shot had lost its trajectory: even layups trickled around the rim and fell off. It was as if the old Earl Manigault had been only a fiction of playground idlers.

The Stars wanted to help. Though they had to cut him, they arranged a scholarship for Manigault at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, and initially Earl seemed eager to accept it. Then a visit home to the streets and the playgrounds put the edge of defeat back into his voice. "I'm interested in school, but I know I'm not ready, I've been out too long," he said. Instead, he will keep a job he has had with the Urban League and play this winter in Harlem's Bowman League, where his teammates will be other fallen idols who were not quite good enough or smart enough to make it up the ladder toward the pros. There he hopes he will regain what he needs to make the Stars. Neither Bill Daniels nor Utah Assistant Coach Larry Creger has given up. "Discipline is what I believe in," Daniels says. "The guy I don't like is the one who's lying in the park and figures the world owes him a living."

"If Earl had been picked up at 19 by a good basketball college," says Creger, "he would have been an exceptional pro player. He still has the quickness, speed and body control."

"During cold turkey a lot of cats hung themselves or tried to," says Manigault. "I thought about it a little, but not much because I guess I didn't really want to die. That's how I feel about basketball now. I still love it. I never want to give it up again."