Earl Cureton, a pro basketball player for 17 seasons, started out with the Sixers in 1980 and played for six other NBA teams, as well as in five foreign countries. Spent some time in the USBL and CBA as well.
Did any of that matter when he went back home to Detroit every summer?
No. No, it did not.
In fact, he said in a phone interview that the assessment of opponents when he took part in pickup games – whether in St. Cecilia’s Gym, a legendary Motor City proving ground, or elsewhere – could best be summed up in three words: You ain’t shit.
Certainly his career numbers would invite such a harsh appraisal: Cureton, a hustling 6-foot-9 forward, spent his NBA days as a role player. Averaged just 5.4 points and 4.7 rebounds. Spent some time in rotations at his various stops, but just as much out of them.
Still, playing 17 years is not an insignificant accomplishment. You last that long, you’ve gotta have some ability, yes, but also the intangibles (work ethic, attitude, etc.) that make you appealing to a team looking to fill out a roster.
Cureton, now 65 and in his 10th year as a community ambassador for his hometown Pistons, seemed to possess all of those qualities. Kept him around and kept him going. Also allowed him to become an answer to a trivia question: Who is the only member of the Sixers’ 1982-83 championship team to earn a second ring? He picked up his other one as a Houston Rockets reserve in 1993-94.
All that ain’t shit? He would argue otherwise, while acknowledging the long-ago critiques of his playground brethren – trusting himself while making allowances for others’ doubts, as Rudyard Kipling once observed. Cureton said the working title for his forthcoming book, written with journalist Jake Uitti and scheduled for a January release, was in fact You Ain’t Shit.
“I said we should name the book that and have (the detractors) read it and then at the end say, ‘Do you still feel that way?’” Cureton said.
He settled on a more benign title: Earl the Twirl: My Life in Basketball. Said he felt compelled to write it after realizing how much his stories resonated with various acquaintances over the years.
“A lot of guys like me don’t write books,” he said. “It’s usually superstars. I wanted the public to understand what a guy like me had to go through, and how hard it was to survive, and what the odds were against even having a job like I had for a number of years.”
So he and Uitti discuss, among other things, what it was like for Cureton to land at Robert Morris College in Western Pennsylvania in 1975, when it was just a junior college and Cureton stood just 6-4. He grew four inches that season and averaged a double-double when RMC made the jump the following year to Division I, then was wooed to Detroit Mercy by a rather spirited coach named Dick Vitale.
Turned out that Cureton never actually played for Vitale, who left to coach the Pistons in ‘78, while Cureton redshirted. But he was productive his last two seasons, under coaches Dave “Smokey” Gaines and Willie McCarter – the fourth and fifth coaches to oversee teams in his five collegiate seasons – and he signed with the Sixers in 1980, a year after they had drafted him in the third round. (Such a maneuver was kosher in those days.)
Landing in Philadelphia was a godsend to Cureton, who like many others idolized Julius Erving. Had Dr. J posters on his walls and everything. He doesn’t remember his first meeting with Erving, only that there were casual conversations here and there. What he does remember is that he was forever watching Doc, that the older man taught him valuable lessons about comportment and professionalism.
“He always carried himself with just that little extra,” Cureton said. “He just took the air out of a room, walking into a room. … It’s all calm, it’s all patience and he always pays attention to his surroundings. He’s always got something personal to say to a person to make them feel good. He was just like the perfect role model.”
He found others, not the least of which was Caldwell Jones, an easygoing soul who conserved energy to the point of wearing track shoes to shootarounds – no way was the veteran big man going all out then – while dispensing wisdom in his soft Arkansas drawl. Once the game started, it was different. C-Well, as he was known to his teammates, would defend the toughest frontcourt guy on the other team and rebound like a fiend. Then he would repair to the cramped Spectrum locker room, seat himself on the floor in front of his spot – there weren’t really lockers, just hooks on the wall – and nurse a beer or five while media types stepped over his spindly legs. Such a lovely, quirky man, who was admired by everyone else in the room.
“My locker was right next to Caldwell,” Cureton said. “I learned a lot from C-Well. He was a wise man.”
And, again, not one to overextend himself. One night Jones had a big scoring game, and Cureton expressed surprise.
“He said, ‘Yeah, I could do that every night, but I’m not. If I start doing that, my career’s going to be cut short, because I won’t be able to do it. I want to play 17 years,’” Cureton recalled.
Between the ABA and the NBA, Jones – who died in 2014 at age 64 – wound up playing exactly 17, ending in 1990.
Cureton aspired to such longevity, and to that end adopted a scrambling, hustling style. That led to a practice confrontation his rookie year with no less a figure than Darryl Dawkins. One problem for Cureton: He carried 210 pounds on his 6-9 frame, while Dawkins was a chiseled 6-11, 251.
“I was looking for what I was going to pick up,” Cureton said with a laugh. “I’m looking for a chair. I’m looking for something. But I didn’t back down from him. I think that’s what he respected, more than anything. We became great friends.”
Attracting the attention of coach Billy Cunningham was another matter. Cureton swears Cunningham barely spoke to him his rookie year, but he kept working hard, kept making the most of the scant minutes he was afforded.
He also made himself King of the Layup Line, to borrow his appellation.
“I said I’m going out here, and I’m gonna put a show on in the layup line,” he said. “So I made it a point, I would go out and I would dunk every way I could. And I didn’t do it just once. I did it every single game.”
Early on, teammates – especially those who played a lot – wondered what the hell he was doing. And he recalled telling them, “This is my playing time. I’m getting my minutes in right now.”
He did see a little more action as his three seasons in Philadelphia passed, notably in Game 2 of the ‘83 Finals, when he came off the bench in the fourth quarter, in place of a foul-plagued Moses Malone. Cureton held his own against no less a player than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, even knocking down a skyhook over that shot’s foremost practitioner. The Sixers won, en route to the sweep that nearly fulfilled Moses’ fo’, fo’, fo’ prophecy.
“It was just a feeling that it was our year, especially when we picked up Moses that summer,” Cureton said, recalling the deal that brought Malone from Houston, for Jones and a first-round draft pick. “I remember I called Andrew (Toney) the minute we got him and told Andrew, ‘We’re going to win it all.’”
Cureton departed after that season in search of guaranteed money. Wound up in Italy, then back in Detroit. In subsequent years he played for the Bulls, Clippers and Hornets, while also making another stop in Italy, as well as in leagues in France, Venezuela and Mexico.
He was playing on Magic Johnson’s barnstorming team early in the ‘93-94 season when a CBA club, the Sioux Falls SkyForce, picked him up. And it was while he was part of that team that he caught the attention of veteran scout Joe Ash. The Rockets had a need for another big, and Cureton fit the bill. He appeared in nine games down the stretch for them, then 10 more in the playoffs, and wound up with another ring.
He might have had a third, had he not blown out his right knee in a workout the following summer. As it was, he missed ‘95-96 and played in Argentina the following season. A nine-game cameo with Toronto in ‘97-98 represented his swan song.
Since then he has done some coaching and broadcasting. And now he’s left to contemplate everything – his longevity, his rings, his selection to the Halls of Fame of both colleges he attended, all of it.
“You would never imagine that a kid from the East Side of Detroit, the ghettos of Detroit, to have an opportunity like I had,” he said. “Like Vitale used to say, you wheel it, you deal it. You use it, and don’t let it use you. And I think it took me a lot of places.”
Others can debate, in the harshest possible terms, whether his was a significant career or not. There is no debate in Earl Cureton’s mind. He’s satisfied with what he’s done, satisfied with where he’s been and who he is. That would appear to be the bottom line, and that would appear to be a story unto itself.