Originally created 05/17/98

Earl Manigault, 50, basketball player



NEW YORK -- He was the greatest player never to make the National Basketball Association, an incredible leaper who made dunking an art form back when Michael Jordan was in diapers and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still Lew Alcindor.

Earl "The Goat" Manigault, the New York City playground legend whose descent into heroin addiction cost him a professional career, died Friday of heart failure at Bellevue Hospital. Mr. Manigault, whose life was made into a 1996 HBO movie, was 53.

The 6-foot-1-inch Mr. Manigault was "the best player his size in the history of New York City," according to Mr. Abdul-Jabbar, who often squared off against "The Goat" in city parks during the 1960s.

Mr. Manigault's domination of the players at the 98th Street courts was so total that it became known as "Goat Park."

And his high-flying antics were credited with changing the game, paving the way for Julius Erving and Jordan.

"All this stuff you call NBA basketball and `Showtime'?" Mr. Manigault said earlier this year. "Well, we were the ones who brought in the noise and brought in the funk."

But while city contemporaries like Mr. Abdul-Jabbar and Connie Hawkins went on to professional careers, Mr. Manigault battled a drug problem and twice landed behind bars. The dope sapped his abilities, and a 1971 tryout with the old American Basketball Association's Utah Stars ended with his release.

"For every Michael Jordan," he once said, "there's an Earl Manigault. We can't all make it."

Mr. Manigault's stunts were legendary: leaping to place a quarter on the top of a backboard; reverse-dunking a basketball 36 straight times to win a $60 bet.

Author Pete Axthelm, in his book The City Game, said Mr. Manigault would typically leave other players slack-jawed.

"Occasionally he would drive past a few defenders, dunk the ball with one hand, catch it with the other -- and raise it and stuff it through the hoop a second time before returning to earth," Mr. Axthelm wrote.

Mr. Manigault never made the transition from the playgrounds to organized ball.

After starring at Harlem's Benjamin Franklin High School, he went to a North Carolina prep school and attracted recruiters from college powerhouses Duke, Indiana and North Carolina.

Mr. Manigault opted for the smaller Johnson C. Smith University, a predominantly black school where his grades plunged and he fought with the coach over playing time.

He returned to Harlem's playgrounds, where both his legend and addiction grew.

Mr. Manigault did 16 months in jail for drug possession in 1969-70, and did another prison term from 1977-79 in a failed robbery plot.

He eventually kicked his habit and came back to Harlem as a community activist. He began working in a neighborhood recreation and counseling center for teens.

He became an unofficial coach at Wadleigh High School, culminating in the school's city championship this year.

Mr. Manigault is survived by his wife, Yvonne, and two sons.