Jerry McLeese, who helped frame a small slice of history at Winston-Salem State, was as humble a person as you could find.
McLeese, a former sportswriter at the Winston-Salem Journal, died Sunday at the age of 79. A service to celebrate McLeese’s life is planned for April 22 at Green Street United Methodist Church.
McLeese and his wife lived downtown in a condominium, and I would see him from time to time.
He and I got to know each other back in 2007 after I wrote a story about how McLeese was responsible for two of the greatest nicknames in basketball history. He gave Earl “The Pearl” Monroe his nickname even if he didn’t really try. Earlier in his newspaper career in Anderson, S.C., he also gave “Pistol” Pete Maravich his nickname when Maravich was a high school star as a freshman at Daniel High School.
In his weekly column “Leese on Sports” on Dec. 3, 1961, in the Anderson Independent Mail, McLeese wrote: “Friday night Pistol Pete Maravich, brother of Ronnie and son of Clemson Coach Press, popped in 33 points against Pendleton.”
The nickname of “Pistol” obviously struck throughout Maravich’s high school, college and NBA career.
As for Monroe’s nickname, McLeese covered WSSU back in the mid-1960s and in an article about Monroe’s scoring, there was a graphic that said “Earl’s Pearls.” After that was published, folks started calling Monroe by the nickname “Pearl.”
In 2007, McLeese recalled that Monroe’s nickname before his senior season at WSSU was “Black Jesus.” Monroe acquired that nickname from his days as a playground and high school legend in Philadelphia.
In a Journal story written by McLeese on Jan. 15, 1967, a graphic showing Monroe’s prolific scoring was titled “Earl’s Pearls.”
“So the nickname came out of that,” McLeese said in 2007.
McLeese also said in 2007 one reason Monroe’s nickname became nationally known was his story later appeared in The Sporting News.
“I got a few dollars for that, but that was the first time Earl’s name and story was in a national magazine,” McLeese said in 2007. “After that story appeared, more and more people started to find out about how good Earl was.”
It’s a good bet that McLeese is the only person in the history of basketball who is credited with nicknames of two of the 50 greatest players in NBA history.
“I guess looking back it is kind of amazing,” he said in 2007. “I’ll tell you what, it was something else to see what both of them could do with a basketball.”
When McLeese wasn’t covering games in that famed 1966-67 season when the Rams won the Division II national championship, he took his 6-year-old son, Greg, to the games.
McLeese worked at the Journal from 1962 to 1969 and then took a job in public relations with Wachovia. While at Wachovia, he started the Wachovia Cup, a season-long competition among the state’s high schools that rewards overall excellence.
One question I asked McLeese in 2007 was who would he pick first when putting together a team for a pickup game, Monroe or Maravich.
“I would look at it two ways — I’d want Earl on my team because he was so good, but I’d want to be on the sidelines watching Pete because he was so much of a showman,” he said. “You couldn’t help but want to see what he was going to do next.”
Garrett Garms, who is the chief photographer for WSSU, got to know McLeese through their love of photography. Garms posted on Facebook that “the world lost a great person.”
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