Earl Monroe made the point-guard journey from Winston Salem, N.C., to Madison Square Garden in the middle of his NBA life and won a championship with the Knicks to highlight a Hall-of-Fame career.
“Earl The Pearl” would love for the Suns’ Chris Paul to take the same path in the late stages of his career.
Paul, two wins away from his first NBA title, never forgets his roots. After Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the 36-year-old Paul wore a gray sweatshirt from Winston-Salem State — Monroe’s alma-mater.
Paul, who attended Wake Forest (also in Winston-Salem), has enrolled at Winston-Salem State as he tries to complete a communications degree online. His parents and brother attended the predominately black university.
Monroe, who has lived on 117th Street in Harlem for the past 20 years, knew Paul’s grandfather who used to run a gas station and candy store in Winston-Salem. Paul helped Monroe promote his documentary, “Black Magic” that centered on civil rights through the prism of basketball at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
“I would love to see him at the Garden,” Monroe told The Post in a phone interview. “His game is made for 33rd Street. I would love to see it, but I don’t know if it will happen. You get to a point he’s going to teams — except for OKC — that can compete for the championship. I don’t know if the Knicks can compete unless they get another piece.
“If they get [Paul] and one more piece I’d love to see him direct that. They have a nucleus of guys. They need a little bit more. They were very competitive all year and didn’t have [center] Mitchell Robinson most of the year.”
Paul reportedly plans to opt out of the final year of his contract worth $44 million. The way he has orchestrated the Suns to within two games of a title at age 36, Paul could stand to receive a new contract in the three-year, $100 million range, according to league sources. The Suns have the edge because they can offer a fourth year if need be as a sweetener for winning the franchise’s first title.
Monroe was a magician with the ball, first with Baltimore, then with the Knicks for nine seasons, when he shared the point guard duties with Walt Frazier. Frazier and Monroe lifted the Knicks to their most recent title, in 1973.
“Paul is like the old-school point guard who understands the game and is playing in the new school,” the 76-year-old Monroe said. “If you think about it, he’s a lot like Mark Jackson but a better shooter.”
The 3-point shot didn’t exist until Monroe’s final season — 1979-80. And Monroe didn’t take a single one. Hence, he sees a work of art while watching Paul dissect defenses and float in shots from mid-range.
“The fact he’s shooting all these mid-range jumpers — the big thing is how well he handles he ball well to get there to shoot wherever he wants on the floor,” Monroe said. “He understands the closer you get to the basket, the better percentage you’ll be. He knows his spots and can get to those spots. Maybe he’ll bring the mid-range back to prevalence just like Steph Curry brought the 3-pointer into prevalence.”
Paul followed up a 32-point, nine-assist gem from Game 1 with 23 points and eight assists in Game 2 on Thursday, despite being hounded all night by arguably the NBA’s best point guard defender, Jrue Holiday. The series heads to Milwaukee for Game 3 Sunday.
Monroe said he can’t imagine the Suns not winning this title.
“And I hope he does,” said Monroe, who retired in 1980 at age 35. “They have enough talent and they’re bench is deeper than the Bucks. Monty Williams and Chris have been together before [in New Orleans], so you got that voice on the bench and voice on the court. And Chris is that stabilizing force.”
That Paul has lasted to 36 is unsurprising to the Knicks legend, but playing at an MVP level is.
“Guys are playing a lot longer than back in the day,” Monroe said. “You got guys eating right, personal trainers, chefs. It’s not a surprise to me. But I’m very impressed he kept himself in a position to be able to still run a team. I applaud him, especially representing Winston Salem.
When Paul was asked about his “WSS” sweatshirt, he replied, “Just championing the HBCUs. Just trying to make sure that they get that spotlight, champion them the best way I can.’’
It’s not lost on Monroe, who also credits Paul for his work as Players Association president in helping retired players more than anyone else in his position.
“He’s bringing more notice to HBCUs,’’ Monroe said. “And he’s taken care of issues for retired players that’s been talked about since the 1990s. It’s a really good thing.’’