NBA great Earl Monroe raising diabetes awareness

Earl "The Pearl" Monroe has Type 2 diabetes. The Philadelphia native and basketball great is promoting healthful eating.
Earl "The Pearl" Monroe has Type 2 diabetes. The Philadelphia native and basketball great is promoting healthful eating.
Posted: June 10, 2012

Earl Monroe will never forget that day in 1998.

The NBA Hall of Famer and South Philadelphia native hadn't been feeling well for a few months. He was sweating while sitting on the couch in his air-conditioned house. He was hungry even after eating big meals.

So after urging from friends and family, Monroe met with his doctor, who gave Monroe what he took to be a death sentence - 18 years after dazzling crowds with his ballhandling, Monroe was told he had Type 2 diabetes.

Monroe broke down. Years before, his father had died from complications of diabetes.

"I didn't understand," Monroe said. "I thought it meant I was going to die."

Fourteen years later, the 67-year-old Monroe is visiting restaurants across the nation as part of Diabetes Restaurant Month. The tour is a reward to area specialists who have been working to raise awareness of the dangers of diabetes. On Friday, Monroe was at A Full Plate Cafe in Northern Liberties to have lunch with six select officials.

"I've been doing this since 2009," Monroe said. "It's so important to show people the alternatives they have when the go out to a restaurant."

"The Pearl" eagerly recounted growing up in South Philadelphia and learning the game on playgrounds that attracted the neighborhood standouts. He mentioned the courts at 30th and Wharton Streets in particular.

With a group of friends, he said, he formed a team he called the Trotters. The members devoted themselves to practicing the through-the-legs, behind-the-back spin dribbles that became the hallmarks of Monroe's style with the Baltimore Bullets and New York Knicks.

He returned to South Philly shortly after his diabetes was diagnosed and was confronted with what he said has been the hardest food to give up: cheesesteaks. But that's one of the reasons Monroe makes national tours to raise awareness about diabetes.

"It's not easy," he said. "Once you start eating better, it becomes automatic. It's easier. That's why we have to get people to start eating better."

Helen Rayon, who was a teacher in the area for 33 years, was invited to the lunch because of the work she has done the last six years as the health-and-wellness coordinator at the West Philadelphia Senior Community Center. She was joined by Delores Merrick, a dietitian who has joined Rayon at the senior center for several presentations on the importance of fitness and healthy eating.

"The biggest problem is portions," Merrick said. "It's not about starvation, it's about moderation. People need to put the fork down in between bites."

Monroe lives in New York but has a house in Germantown that he still visits occasionally.

The former guard, who won a championship with the Knicks in 1973, keeps an eye on the NBA but is not absorbed by it. "I was impressed by the job Dougie did with the Sixers, though," Monroe said, speaking of coach Doug Collins.

Monroe then joined Merrick, Rayon, and three others for a healthful lunch. Diabetes sufferers might not appreciate the unique skills Monroe displayed on the hardwood. But they can understand everything Monroe has gone through since 1998 - when the basketball great thought he was dying.

Contact Chad Graff

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