Earl Manigault was a true legend in the spirit of Paul Bunyan and John Henry, with the slight distinction that he was a real person.

Legends are that which we cannot describe without exaggeration. And on the New York City playground basketball courts at Amsterdam Avenue and 98th street in the early 1960s, Earl "the Goat" Manigault's feats were legendary.

There was the time Manigualt — who stood 6-foot-1 — jumped to pluck a quarter off the top of the backboard, which is about 13 feet off the ground. Or his "double dunks" — in which he would dunk a ball, catch it under the hoop, and then dunk it again, all in one jump. He was the predecessor to Dr. J and Michael Jordan and everyone you see play basketball today.

But there's no video and few photographs. It's not like with Jordan's exploits, which were taped on high quality cameras that allow us to watch Jordan's ball fakes frame by frame. Manigault's feats are only known indirectly, through word of mouth.

Pete Axthelm, author of The City Game, reports that he saw Manigault perform his double dunks. I believe him, but I'll never see it with my own eyes. That makes it different, and in some ways better.

Manigault was certainly not the only legend of his era. James "Fly" Williams scored 63 points on NBA Hall of Famer Moses Malone. Herman "Helicopter" Knowings once flew in the air so long, a grounded defender got called for a three-second violation. Current playground legend Ed "Booger" Smith once, according to Sports Illustrated writer Rick Telander, wrapped the ball around a defender's head while in the air.

But "The Goat" was the king. When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retired, he was asked who the best player he ever played against was. His answer was Earl Manigault.

As amazing of a player "The Goat" was, he was also Earl Manigault, a real person with real problems.

He got his nickname from a teacher who couldn't pronounce his last name. As he excelled on the basketball court as a teenager, scouts from college teams came to recruit him, but Manigault shockingly chose to attend Johnson C. Smith University, a small predominantly black college in the South instead of a larger "big time" school.

It was a poor choice, as Manigault fought with his coach and quickly dropped out of school. Back home in NYC, he turned to what he called the white lady. By the end of the 1960s, he served 16 months of a 5-year drug sentence. He was offered a tryout with the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association upon his release, but his legs were shells of their former selves.

In the 1970s, Manigault began to get his life back together. He started a youth basketball tournament at his old playground, which by this time had been informally known as Goat Park. But just as that was about to begin, he was convicted of trying to steal $6 million, and he served two more years in prison.

After his second prison stint, he left New York and moved to Charleston, South Carolina. But the tournament in his name continues to this day, and in the 1990s, beset by heart trouble, Manigault returned to New York to work as a community activist. He died on May 19, 1998, at the age of 53 due to heart failure.

Manigault was the subject of two movies, most famously HBO's "The Legend of Earl 'The Goat' Manigault", starring Don Cheadle.

Manigault once told the New York Times, "for every Michael Jordan, there's an Earl Manigault. We all can't make it. Somebody has to fall. I was the one."

The basketball courts at Amsterdam and 98th are now officially named Goat Park, allowing younger generations to imagine what the legend did on the asphalt.


Submitted for the Athletes and Sports Figures Quest.

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