Can you explain the origin of your two legendary nicknames, Earl the Pearl and Black Jesus?
Earl “The Pearl” came from when I was in college my senior year. My first ten games of the season, I was averaging close to 50 points per game. A guy wrote a column and listed the scores of each game and the caption of the column was, “These are Earl’s pearls.” And from that, Earl “The Pearl.”
“Black Jesus” came out of the fact that when I was in Baltimore playing, guys on the team would just call me “Jesus” because I was supposed to be leading them to the Promised Land, and it just kind of carried over from there.
How do you feel about the dynamics of the game today–no handchecking, players not being able to be as emotional as they used to be without getting a technical–as compared to when you played?
The game has changed to make it more exciting and more accessible to fans. When I played, we did have handchecking, which restricted [a player's] movement. They’ve taken that away. A lot of other things they call tighter to allow the offense to roam more and be freer along the perimeter.
What do you feel the Knicks need in order to win the championship, whether it is players or the style of play, to get to the Promised Land?
A presence underneath and a lot more rebounding. If they’d get that and with the role players they have to establish themselves, basically they’d be in a position to start contending. You can’t go [into an opponent's arena], get rebounded every night, and rely on your offense. You need to be able to stop people and rebound the ball.
Given the current Knicks roster, do you see any long-term issues with shot distribution between Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire being that both are pure scorers?
No, I don’t see any real issue. You look at [Landry] Fields for what he was doing the first part of the year; his production will probably go down. But the ball will get into the hands of the guys who can do it, especially when it comes down to end of game situations. It’ll be in Billups’, Stoudemire’s, and Anthony’s hands. Then you have some reliable guys who can shoot the ball from the perimeter. You’ve got Williams who’s a pretty good three-point shooter and Walker has come into his own in getting more playing time.
We forget about #23 (Toney Douglas), who has been out there playing really good basketball lately. He’s been a good asset to this team.
About five years ago, you said that no one in the game reminded you of you. With the increase in guard talent the league has seen recently, has your opinion changed at all?
Not one iota. (Laughs)
When I look out, I see all the stuff I used to do just done in different ways but never all together. In a nutshell, my game was kind of unique. When I came in, no one actually played that way. The things I did, people were like “Oh shucks, he did that!” But now, those things are done everyday, just not the same way… with style and grace. (Laughs)
Would the teams of your era be able to compete with the top-caliber teams in the League today?
As far as the Knicks teams are concerned, I believe we could have been competitive with any team today mainly because we played defense. We had great outside shooters. We didn’t shoot the three-pointer back then but we had great shooters in DeBusschere, Jerry Lucas, Bill Bradley, Clyde, even myself and Henry Bibby. So we would have been very competitive in that way.
The most intangible part was that we were a thinking group. Everybody was a veteran and understood the game. We could think the game through. Of all the young guys coming into the game today, I think that’s one of the glaring pieces missing – understanding the game of basketball.
Your thoughts on super teams: Dwyane, LeBron, Chris Bosh. Now Amar’e and Carmelo?
For the cities those guys are playing in, I think it’s a good thing. (Laughs)
Everything comes in phases. You can’t get everyone on a team. Pretty soon things will start to spread back out. At one time, everybody wanted to come to New York. Once you got ESPN and all the media coverage, guys realized it wasn’t that important to be in New York. Fans would still grow to know who you are.
It’s all about phases and I don’t think this is something that’s going to continue because if you’re only going to have five teams with all the players then you’re not going to have a league.
If you had your selection to pick up any of the free agents at the end of this year or the 2012 season to place on the Knicks roster, who would you pick and why do you think they’d fit?
First guy that comes to my mind is Dwight Howard.
Yeah, that’s a good one.
(Laughs) If you pick up Dwight Howard with who the Knicks have now, I think you’re well on your way.
Do you think a Knicks team that gives up 109 points per game and plays virtually no defense has any chance of winning an NBA championship right now?
No. No chance. That’s one of the things I alluded to earlier. You have to have some kind of inside presence. Rebounding and interior defense is what is going to propel the team to win the championship.
With big guys now stepping out of the paint and onto the perimeter ala a European style, how do you feel about the diminished role of the big man in today’s NBA and teams without a post player anchoring the block?
Basically, the game got quicker.
Guys are getting up and down the floor a lot more. The addition of the three-point shot has opened up the game. Reality is you really don’t have a lot of back-to-the-basket centers anymore. Now at the same time, if you’ve got agile players, long players, and whatnot, you can get away from it.
If you look back to the 90’s when Chicago was doing it, they had Bill Cartwright but he wasn’t a dominant center, so they got away with it. They had Grant and Pippen who played good defense and got the ball out and got running… and they had that other guy. What’s his name? Oh, Michael Jordan. (Laughs)
On this [Knicks] team, if you just had a good center who could rebound and block shots, that’s all he’d need to do because you’ve already got enough firepower to move ahead. When you start going to Europe and getting guys out of there, they weren’t back-to-the-basket players. They were out there [on the perimeter] shooting three-pointers. And if you go all the way back you’ll see that most of your big guys always did want to shoot three pointers and come out from in the lane. This is just a natural progression. Pretty soon, you’ll have teams with just starting forwards. They’re not even going to be talking about centers anymore.