The making a championship basketball team is a study of a special alchemy that practitioners of this magic toil and attempt to master every basketball season. But only a select few of them come up with the proper key to turn basketball lead into gold. Perfection in a sport where 45 percent shooting from the field is outstanding is an idea that borders on the impossible. However, every tournament season a collective of men band together in an attempt at perfection, even if it’s only for a month or so.
In 1967, legendary coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines and a Winston-Salem State University basketball team lead by future basketball hall of fame player Earl “The Pearl” Monroe would reach the zenith of their competition when they won the NCAA Men’s Division II Basketball Championship as they defeated SW Missouri State in Evansville, Indiana. That year, historically black WSSU was not getting any recognition or props for their stellar regular season.
But they would kill all that proverbial noise by defeating sixth-ranked Akron University, second-ranked Kentucky Wesleyan and the coup de grace was the defeat of SW Missouri State in the title game.
This was perhaps because some thought they were a one man team with The Pearl dazzling defenders on a night-after-night basis. The Rams had a record of 27-1 before entering the tournament and Monroe averaged a gaudy 41 points per game, a Division II record for scoring that still stands and isn’t likely to ever be broken. Like, serious, 41 points per game is just ridiculous. Gaines once said of his philosophy of letting Monroe do his thing: “When you need it, give it to the money man.”
And The Pearl was indeed money. He would score 16 of his team’s final 21 points in the last ten minutes of the championship game. He even sealed the deal with two free throws in the clutch with 25 seconds remaining. Though other players had instances of great games during that title run, with guard Eugene Smiley scoring 24 against Kentucky Wesleyan and center Bill English chipping in 22 while dominating the boards, the title game was all about Monroe. The rest of the Rams were largely shut out for most of the game because of a zone that was incorporated by SW Missouri State coach Bill Thomas.
“Just one basket or one rebound in the last minute and a half could have made the difference,” Thomas would later say. “I thought we played Monroe well. You’re just not going to shut him off.”
With all due respect to Thomas, the fact that The Pearl scored 40 points in a game in which the coach felt they defended him makes one wonder what a breakout game from Monroe would have looked like. Earl “The Pearl” Monroe was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and would score a record 1,329 points as a senior-another Division II record that still stands. The 1967 team would bring home the first and only NCAA Championship won by Big House and remains the only basketball championship for WSSU as well. They would finish the season with a record of 31-1 and is the first NCAA championship won by an HBCU.
Shadow League founder Keith Clinkscales, producer of ESPN's award winning documentary Black Magic, had this to say of the legendary prowess of The Pearl: “Earl Monroe shot 60 percent for the season, that tells you all you need to know…”