The gait is a tad unsteady, the result of recent back surgery, but the broad smile and easy laugh is still there. And although he still finds himself saying "Bullets" instead of "Wizards," it's with all due respect to the team he played for during his Hall of Fame NBA career, which spanned 1967 to 1980.
Earl "The Pearl" Monroe spent Wednesday afternoon visiting Washington as part of his Diabetes Restaurant Month tour with Merck and & Co. He talked about the disease he first denied, then accepted. Monroe now helps others with Type 2 diabetes learn how to control the disease, just as he had to do.
Monroe spent four seasons with the Baltimore Bullets before being traded to the New York Knicks, where he teamed up with Walt "Clyde" Frazier to form one of the most exciting backcourt tandems in NBA history. He now lives in New York but still spends much of his time on the road. Life on the road, he says, is where it all started.
"We got like $15 a day for meals back when I played. What can you get for $15?" Monroe asked.
He began eating an unhealthy diet that consisted mostly of fast food and fried food, which resulted in the type of poor eating habits he continued even after he retired. Then Monroe got the ultimate wake-up call.
Monroe was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 1998.
"I just wasn't feeling good," he said. "When I finally went to the doctor, he told me I had diabetes. All I could think was, 'I'm going to die.' But he explained that I could live a healthy and productive life by controlling my diabetes.
"I did change my lifestyle, but I was also in denial. I found myself slipping back to the same old things I used to do. Then my doctor said, 'You know Earl, people with diabetes are two-to-four times more likely to die of heart disease or stroke.' That got my attention. I started to take better care of myself."
Monroe partnered with Merck & Co. in 2009 and became a spokesman for Merck's for Journey for Control website.
"This is an educational program. I'm not here to sell pills or anything," said Monroe, who does not need insulin shots but takes medication daily to control his diabetes and sticks to an exercise routine.
"This program educates people on how to order the right things when they go out to eat. You have options besides what's on the menu, and you should always ask how something is prepared."
Monroe, 67, keeps his weight at around 225 pounds and says his blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol are all under control. But one of his favorite memories was the time as a player he let his weight get out of control and reach what he called his "bumping weight."
Monroe made the cover of Sports Illustrated in November 1968.
"My contract was coming to an end, and I thought about slipping over the [American Basketball Association]," Monroe recalled. "I was young. I don't think I felt appreciated. I wanted to be traded to the Lakers, the 76ers or the Bulls. Worrying about my contract, I let my weight balloon up to 210. When I posed for that picture, I held up my hand to try and hide my stomach."
Monroe watches basketball sparingly these days, carefully choosing how he spends his time.
"I only want to see games that are competitive," he said.
Monroe is a fan of John Wall, but he says the Wizards point guard still has much to learn.
"I think John Wall can run with anybody, but he needs a better jump shot," Monroe said. "You shouldn't come into the pros having to learn how to play. There are a lot of reasons to stay in college for more than one year and maturity is one of them. That's not a knock on Wall, it's just the way things have changed.
"In this league, we have so many young players now. When I played, teams had a structure. Guys had to earn their way and adhere to the structure of the team."
The Wizards retired Monroe's No. 10 jersey in 2007, 27 years after his retirement. During the ceremony, Monroe got a little choked up when told how many people played basketball as children and pretended to be him. Asked what took them so long to retire his number, Monroe simply shrugged before breaking into his famous wide grin and recalling his glory days on the court.
"If I haven't seen it or done it," he said with a hint of bittersweet pride, "it hasn't been done."
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