Willie Worsley and Earl Monroe reflect on 50 years of breaking barriers

By Rachel Rippetoe

Former New York Nets guard Willie Worsley is known as a crucial part of basketball history. Worsley played on college basketball’s first all-black starting lineup for Texas Western (University of Texas, El Paso), and the team went on to win an NCAA division national championship game in 1966.

But at 18, Worsley didn’t know his college experience would be depicted in the 2006 film Glory Road. He was more concerned with flying on an airplane for the first time.

On his way to El Paso, Worsley wandered down the aisles of unfamiliar territory, he said in an event at NYU on Tuesday. He found an “airplane mama.” She was a “tiny Jewish woman” who sat next to him in the window seat.  He helped her load her suitcase into the overhead, and she held his hand as the plane went up.

“I was scared as hell,” he said. “I think I broke her finger.”

Worsley, now 72, sat atop an intimate stage in a Clemson cap and red Nikes, next to former backcourt Knicks player Earl Monroe, nicknamed “Earl the Pearl” or “Black Jesus.” The pair were invited to speak to a group of 10 young journalists, training for a Dow Jones News Fund internship with American City Business Journals.

Neither have had a career in journalism, but both shared their experience with teamwork on and off the court and how their success stories could apply to life in general.

In business and in basketball, you work your way up, and no one starts at the same level, Worsley said.

“We’re not equal,” he said. “If I was equal, I’d be tall and lean like Earl. I’m short, bald and fat! What are you talking about ‘equal’?”

Standing at 5’9”, Worsley isn’t the shortest professional player in history. Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues, a point guard for the Charlotte Hornets (1988-1998) takes the record at 5’3”. But Worsley faced challenges for being small.

It was hard to be taken seriously on the court in the 1960’s, Worsley said, but he proved himself playing basketball for DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. Worsley lead the team to a New York City Championship victory in 1963, taking home the MVP title.

“The more they told me no, the better I became,” Worsley said.

In 1996, Monroe was dubbed one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history, signified by a ring he donned on his left hand Tuesday. The 73 year old brought no attention to the piece of jewelry.

When asked about it, all he said was “I’m able to wear this because of my teammates. Your teammates lift you up.”

After he graduated high school, Monroe was recruited to play for a predominantly black college in North Carolina called Winston-Salem State University. Monroe brought a close friend from his high school team along with him to Winston-Salem where they tried out for the team.

Monroe wasn’t an immediate star, he said. He kept getting pulled out of games, and at one point threatened to transfer to another school. His coach responded by calling his mother.

This was an effective enough tactic to keep Monroe on the team. And eventually, Winston-Salem was the first predominantly black school to win an NCAA title of any sport.

Yet, Monroe and Worsley both said they paid little notice to the racial barriers they were breaking. Monroe had to get up at 1 a.m. to play scrimmages with Wake Forest, an all-white college at the time, because the sport was not yet fully integrated.

“At the time, you were just playing,” Monroe said. “We were just playing for ourselves.”

But Monroe was also playing for the team, he said. Although he has scored over 17,000 points in his career, the top-shooter said he runs the numbers differently.

“It’s not ‘Earl scored 40 some points a game.’ We scored 40 points a game,” Monroe said. “If the team is winning, we’re all winning.”

Even on separate teams, Monroe and Worsley have known each other for over 50 years, they said. Ernest Browne, who was also in attendance Tuesday, became a common link for the two players. Browne played with Monroe at Winston-Salem and he grew up in The Bronx with Worsley.

Sitting in the front row with a microphone in hand, Browne described watching Worsley’s college team win the national championship on television. As he watched in black and white, he said, “That’s my man from New York!”

Worsley’s mother was watching on television that day too. It would be the last time she ever watched him play.

“All of us are momma’s boys,” Browne said. “Our mommas kind of dictated what we were going to do.These guys are givers. They give advice. And they get the advice from their mothers.”

Rachel Rippetoe is a senior from CUNY J-School and is a DJNF intern working at Nashville Business Journal this summer.

Rachel Rippetoe