Summer is finally upon us and for ballers that means one thing and one thing only: Streetball will swing back into action. While there have been many Streetball legends in the past, there will never be anybody with a story quite like Earl “The Goat” Manigault. At the height of 6-1, the Goat took the little man’s game to heights that had never been on display before. He dunked ferociously and played the game with passion, but off the court the Goat had his fair share of problems. With summer upon us, take a few minutes to pay one of the most legendary streetball players ever homage by reading the story of his life as it was published in SLAM 7.–Ed.
by Vincent Mallozzi
On a late sunny Sunday afternoon in late February, the summer has cameoed briefly, and so have a group of young boys who are busy turning up their jams on the bent rims at the Happy Warrior Playground located in NYC’s Upper West Side.
“Nice dunk,” says one of the boys to his friends. “But can you Goat it?”
Thirty-five years after the legend of Earl “The Goat” Manigault was born in this very park, his basketball descendants are still emulating his style, still trying to soar higher than the man who soared higher than any player his size in the history of New York City.
“Here it goes, yo,” says another one of the boys, dribbling the ball hard with both hands as he eyes the rim and readies himself for takeoff. “Here goes the Goat Dunk.”
The youngster jets towards the hoop, rises from the blacktop, and in midair, cocks the rock behind his head. As he swoops in on the tin, he lets out a scream and throws down a monstrous two-handed, tomahawk dunk. Goat style.
“Not bad,” says an older man with a soft voice from the rear entrance of the park, smiling as he makes his way toward the action. “I couldn’t have done it better myself.”
Dressed in a navy blue winter coat with its collar raised high, his eyes glowing beneath the bill oof his matching baseball cap and above the lumpy folds of his white-knit scarf, the older man looks like a ghost joining in a seance.
But the man with the soft voice is no ghost at all. He is Earl Manigault in the flesh, the man who Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once called “the best basketball player in the history of New York City.”
He has arrived just in time to steal the limelight, just as he always did in the 1960s and 1970s before drugs forced a crash landing to a high-flying, promising career.
“This was one of my stages,” says Manigault, his dark eyes sweeping across the playground. “Back then, I had a gift that no one else had. I was a little man, but I could fly with the big men.”
In 1969, the same year Jabbar was made a rookie millionaire by the Milwaukee Bucks, Earl Manigault-New York’s other basketball jewel of that era-was arrested for possession of drugs, and spent 16 months out of a five-year sentence at Green Haven Prison in Stormville, N.Y.
“Growing up, Kareem and I were very close,” Manigault remembers. “We both had talent and we both ended up taking separate roads in life. He chose his road, and I chose mine–and I paid for it.”
While Jabbar was paving his road toward the Hall of Fame, Manigault was setting a course for self-destruction on the same mean streets where he would become a folk hero.
“At the time there weren’t a whole lot of people who could do things with the basketball that Earl Manigault could do,” says Jabbar. “He was so agile, so quick. He used to make so many innovative moves to the hoop. Basketball was his total means of expression.”
It is Jabbar’s last thought that perhaps explains why Manigault and so many other playground legends became drug addicts and thieves instead of NBA stars. Basketball was indeed Manigault’s only means of expression, and on most evenings when the Harlem sun faded behind the old tenements and into the Hudson River, there was nowhere left for the Goat to roam except for the dimly lit, troubled streets which surrounded his blacktop paradise.
“I could go anywhere and get anything I wanted, including drugs,” says Manigault. “I used to go over to the East Side and hang out with the Latin brothers or stay right here with the blacks. Remember, I was the Goat. Everybody knew me. Everybody loved me.” The love affair between Manigault and New York City began when the Goat was just a teenager, as word of his remarkable leaping ability and thunderous dunks over taller, older opponents spread through Harlem like wildfire.
“I had the fluid air game and the ground game to match,” says Manigault who was 6-1. 175 pounds in his prime. “At the time, no little man had both. There weren’t too many little guys soaring to the hoop and dunking on 6-9 and 6-10 guys.”
With an astonishing 50-inch vertical leap, Manigault wowed crowds with his dunking and shot-blocking performances on his home court, and in Harlem Rucker League games at 129th Street and Seventh Avenue and 155th Street and Eighth Avenue.
“I was probably the first player to lead guards from the ground to the air,” Manigault explains. “I took them from weak lay-ups to strong dunks.”
In his heyday, the Goat-who got that nickname from a junior-high school teacher who kept pronouncing his last name “Mani-Goat”- dunked over some of the NBA’s most famous domes, including the likes of Jabbar, Connie Hawkins and Willis Reed.
“We used to do all the things that Michael Jordan and the rest of those guys do today, except they were called different names,” says Manigault. “The 360, we used to call that the Around The World. The Tomahawk dunk, well, that was the Goat Dunk.”
In Harlem poolrooms and barber shops, in bars and social clubs, people still talk about the tie when the Goat dunked a ball 36 times in a row to win a $60 bet, and he would routinely hustle people who bet against his ability to pick quarters off the tops of backboards.
Harlem hoop junkies have also credited Manigault with yet another invention-the double dunk, where a player dunks the ball with one hand, catches it with his other hand as it falls through the cords, and slams it through the basket again.
“He reminded me a lot of David Thompson,” says Jabbar. He could really explode above the rim.”
While Jabbar was making a name for himself as an all-city hoopstr at the now-defunct Power Memorial High School in Manhattan, Manigault became a star at Benjamin Franklin High School, a basketball powerhouse in the Public School Athletic League where he averaged 24 ppg and 11 boards.
“Earl and I would get together on certain Saturday mornings and play a lot of 3-on-3 basketball in the park or wherever the real good games were being played, says Jabbar. “Earl was more of a street player than I was, so he never really got the same type of mainstream recognition that I got in high school. But people who really knew the game knew Earl could play.”
The undisciplined attitude that Manigault acquired on the streets directly affected his basketball career, as he was kicked out of Benjamin Franklin during his senior year for smoking marijuana, a charge which he still denies.
“Earl didn’t have a strong fondness for school, and some of the other guys that he was hanging around with were headed for a bad ending,” Jabbar recalls. “They were into drugs and alcohol and a lot of gangster-type things. I never saw Earl doing any of that stuff, because our relationship was built solely on basketball, but I did know that he hung around with them.
“I didn’t have any personal knowledge of what he was doing, but I didn’t think he would hang out with them and not understand what they were all about,” Jabbar continues. “Despite the crowd he was running around with, I still felt that he was too talented to not be a part of a college program.”
The Goat went to Laurinburg Institute, a North Carolina prep school, where he played for one year, while earning a high school diploma. (He averaged 31 points and 13 boards in that one season.
Soon after, recruitment letters from North Carolina, Duke, Indiana and hundreds of other major college basketball programs started arriving.