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The Cure for what ails you: CHD interviews Detroit legend Earl Cureton

All basketball fans are familiar with Hall of Famer Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, but only true fans know Earl “The Twirl” Cureton.  After attending two different colleges (Robert Morris and Detroit) he spent a majority of his pro career playing in some of the most notable playoff series in NBA history: the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals (Philly vs. Boston), the 1984 Eastern Conference first round (Detroit vs. New York), and the 1994 Finals (Houston vs. New York).  He played with such legends as Moses Malone, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and won a pair of rings over a decade apart.  After retiring from the NBA he coached in the WNBA, did some color commentary, and finally got his college degree.  As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of his final NBA title, CHD’s Jon Teitel got to chat with Earl about his signature spin move, teaming up with his idol, and keeping a promise that he made to his mother. 

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Your nickname was “The Twirl” due to your great spin move: who gave you the nickname, and how did you like it? I got it in college from Dick Vitale: he came up with nicknames for everyone.

You began your college career at Robert Morris (which was a JC program at the time) and then transferred to Detroit (where you were recruited by outgoing coach Vitale): why did you choose Robert Morris, and what was it like to get recruited by Dickie V? I was 6’4″ when I graduated from high school before growing 4” during my freshman year at Robert Morris. The program made the leap to D-1 during my second year, but I did not realize it would happen so soon. Everyone knows how animated Vitale can be, and I talked to him on the phone all the time because he knew I was looking to transfer. We played 17 away games as a sophomore in our 1st year at D-1: I played against superstars like Larry Bird and Fly Williams and averaged 17 points and 11rebounds per game, which was pretty good.

What are your memories of the 1979 NCAA tourney (you had 16 points and 11 rebounds in an eight point loss to Lamar)? It was a painful loss, but we were not quite prepared because we did not know a lot about them. Clarence Kea had a great double-double of his own (33 points, 19 rebounds).

In the summer of 1979 you were drafted in the third round by Philadelphia as a “junior-eligible” player (seven spots ahead of Bill Laimbeer), but returned to Detroit for your senior year: why did you decide to declare for the draft, and why did you decide to go back to school? I did not feel that I was completely ready for the NBA, but I was still flattered to be drafted: I just wanted to polish up my skills.

After growing up with Dr. J as one of your idols, what was it like to become his teammate in Philly? That whole team was star-studded: Billy Cunningham, Bobby Jones, Doug Collins, etc. We had to drop the “idol” label so that we would play hard and not be in awe.

You had a 1-PT loss to eventual champion Boston in Game 7 of the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals: how devastating was it to lose that classic playoff series (five of the games were decided by one or two points and Boston came all the way back from a 3-1 series deficit by winning each of the final three games)? We had a chance to go to the Finals so we had our eyes set on winning the title. We kept thinking we were going to clinch, but it was a heartbreaking Game 7.

With 26 seconds left in Game 7 of the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals and the Sixers up by double digits and ready to move on to face the Lakers in the Finals, the Boston Garden crowd began its now-famous “Beat LA” chant: how did it feel to have your opponent’s crowd cheering for you? It just showed how classy and knowledgeable the fans were. We had a rivalry with the Celtics but they immediately jumped on our ship because they wanted an East Coast team to win.

You lost to the Lakers in the Finals: did you view your playoff run as a success (you kept getting closer each year to winning it all) or a failure (you kept getting so close but could not win it all)? It was becoming frustrating to keep losing.  You start to doubt yourself and wonder if you can make it, but it was a positive because it made it so much more rewarding when we finally won a title.

In the magical 1983 playoffs Moses Malone made his famous “Fo’, fo’, fo’” prediction and you got revenge by sweeping the Lakers in the Finals: what did it mean to you to win the title, and what was the reaction like in Philly? It is the ultimate goal of every player to win a title. I was a young player who did not get a ton of minutes but I always produced when the coach called my #. The city went crazy!

What are your memories of Game 5 of the 1984 Eastern Conference 1st round with Detroit (Isiah Thomas scored 16 points in the final 93 seconds of regulation to send it to OT, but Bernard King scored 44 points despite having the flu and 2 dislocated middle fingers in a four point overtime series-clinching win by the Knicks)? I remember the one-on-one battle between Bernard and Isiah. Everyone took a turn trying to guard Bernard. We played that game at Joe Louis Arena, and it was a great contest.

In 1986 you spent about three months with the Bulls where one of your teammates was Michael Jordan (who scored 50 points in a season-opening win at MSG): did you think he was just a scoring machine, or could you tell that he was going to become the best all-around player in the NBA? There was no question that there was something really special about Michael. I grew up watching Doc as the ultimate player going to the basket, but Jordan got it done at both ends of the floor and was a better outside shooter.

In 1994 you were playing with Magic Johnson and his traveling team until joining Houston with only two games remaining in the regular season: how did you like playing with Magic, and was it weird to join an NBA team immediately before the playoffs? It was a blessing to play with Earvin because we traveled all over Europe for a year and a half to play against some really good teams: Germany, Israel, etc. We had a bunch of old veterans like Reggie Theus and Bob McAdoo and we had a lot of fun. Houston was a good fit for me: their scout Joe Ash saw me in the CBA, and the Rockets needed some depth on their bench with guys who had playoff experience. After Carl Herrera went down I had a chance to play some pretty valuable minutes.

You had a 10-point win over Phoenix in Game 7 of Western Conference Semifinals: how were you able to bounce back and become one of a handful of teams in NBA history to win a 7-game playoff series after losing the first two games at home? Everyone had us dead and was calling us “Choke City”, but we were able to turn it into “Clutch City”! Phoenix might have started to celebrate too early: I am proud of playing in that series.

Finals MVP Hakeem Olajuwon scored 30 points in Game 6 of the Finals and blocked a last-second FG attempt by John Starks to clinch a two point win over the Knicks and force a Game 7: was it surreal to be playing for a championship just two days after the infamous OJ Simpson car chase? We were focused on winning a championship so it was not too much of a distraction. We felt that if we won Game 6 that there was no way we would lose Game 7.

You played for several great coaches (Billy Cunningham, Chuck Daly, Rudy Tomjanovich): which one was your favorite, and what was the most important thing you ever learned from him? It is hard to compare these guys because they were all “players’ coaches”. I learned a lot from all of them: they were straight to the point and very fair about what they did. The ultimate compliment is that everyone enjoyed playing for them. I also played for a young Doug Collins (one of the best Xs and Os guys that I ever played for, which he has proven since leaving Chicago).

You also played professionally in Italy and France: what did you learn from these experiences, and how does pro ball overseas compare to the NBA? It was a little different style of play, and the talent level was also very different. We did not play as many games (only one or two times/week) so we spent a lot of time at practice. I played with Hall of Famer Dino Meneghin and former NBA coach Mike D’Antoni.

After retiring you spent some time as an assistant coach in the WNBA for Detroit and Charlotte: what is the biggest difference between the men’s game and the women’s game? Women are obviously not as athletic, but it was a pleasure to coach them because they ran plays to perfection and picked up on things a lot faster than guys did. I got to go the Eastern Conference Finals with Rich Mahorn in Detroit, which was a great experience.

You have also been a TV color commentator for Detroit college games: how do you like the job, and what do you hope to do in the future? I like broadcasting. I also coached the Long Beach Jam to an ABA title. We had Dennis Rodman, Yuta Tabuse, and many other guys who played in the NBA. I am looking to stay in the game if I can, maybe as a coach or broadcaster.

In 2011 you honored a promise to your mother by completing your college degree more than three decades after leaving Detroit to go pro: what importance does your family place on education, and what did your mom say after you got your diploma? She was thrilled that I did it. It took long enough (since my career kept me away from the classroom), but I always kept my eye on it. I felt cheated because I would always tell kids at basketball camps about staying in school, so I feel better about it after accomplishing that.

JonTeitel