William McCormack (in-line photos by Marisa Peryer and McCormack)

Eric Monroe ’20 was playing a game of pickup soccer during recess in the second grade at St. James Academy when a freak injury tore the iris in his right eye.

The future Yale men’s basketball guard and captain pursued the ball, as an opposing defender attempted to boot it upfield — his classmate’s attempt at a clear drilled him in the face. The kick temporarily blurred Monroe’s vision, and the now-Yale team captain missed school for an entire week as he endured recovery in his bedroom, an eye patch fixed over his right eye.

The incident also encouraged Monroe and his family to buy a pair of sports goggles. Although the iris healed, his eye doctor warned that a future tear while playing soccer or basketball could potentially blind his right eye.

Fast forward 14 years, and Monroe’s court vision has become one of his greatest assets. Yale’s 6-foot-2 starting point guard leads the Elis with 4.7 assists a game — a mark that ranks third in the Ivy League as of Tuesday afternoon. His 2.3 assist to turnover ratio, meanwhile, leads the Ancient Eight. Monroe has emerged as the Bulldogs’ high-IQ facilitator, turning his 10.2 minutes a game off the bench last season into a crucial role at the vanguard of Yale’s offense this year. From San Diego to New Haven, the black Oakley sports goggles, of which Monroe currently owns two functional pairs, have come to define his on-court image.

“In high school, all the opposing student sections would make a big deal about [them],” Monroe said. “So I’ve heard all of the jokes and all the hating. But I embrace it because I think it’s unique to a certain extent. I don’t even think twice anymore. If I’m out there, I’m going to have my goggles on.”

The Bulldog captain is accustomed to surpassing the initial expectations of fans and opponents. Following Yale’s loss to Princeton in the Ivy Madness final to conclude the 2016–17 season — a rookie campaign in which Monroe shot 51.5 percent from the field in 25 appearances off the bench — sports and culture reporter at The Ringer, Rodger Sherman, poked fun at Monroe’s look by tweeting a photo of the bespectacled guard handling the ball. The tweet sarcastically declared he was “designed in a lab trying to create the Most Yale Basketball Player” and garnered almost 500 retweets and 1600 likes. A teammate sent Sherman’s tweet to their group chat, and Monroe remembers it offered a laugh in the immediate aftermath of the Elis’ season-ending loss.

 

But even in the infancy of his basketball career, anyone who saw him play could identify his skill as a passer and natural perception of open teammates on the floor. Mike Haupt — Monroe’s high school basketball coach at St. Augustine School, a Catholic all-boys school, and that Monroe said held a “big emphasis on sports and community” — first watched him in middle school.

“When he was [in] fifth and sixth grade, he had elbow pads, knee pads, these goggles on, and you go watch him play [and think] there’s no chance that this kid’s any good,” Haupt said. “And then you’d watch him make passes. Most of the time, when he was in fifth or sixth grade, he was making passes that were going off the wall because the kid that was receiving the pass didn’t even know he was open. Eric had this vision and feel for the game that was off the charts since the first time I saw him.”

Phil Monroe, Eric’s father, sparked his son’s interest in basketball. Eric said his father picked up basketball late, playing only during his junior and senior years of high school, but has remained a fan ever since. Phil set up a kiddie hoop in the house before Eric started playing recreationally in first grade and took him to his first March Madness game when he was four or five. Eric amassed a large collection of basketball trading cards, started attending San Diego State games and developed a “weird obsession” with North Carolina and its shade of light Carolina Blue during elementary school, Eric said. The Bulldogs visit the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill on Dec. 30.

By fourth grade, Monroe had started to play club basketball and envisioned a future playing in college. A few years later, the future Yale history major began to play for Gamepoint Elite, a San Diego AAU program that competes on the Adidas circuit. Charlie Mercado, director of Gamepoint Elite and Monroe’s club coach for four years, elected to play him up on the 15-and-under ninth-grade team as an eighth-grader.

 

Mercado remembers being impressed by Monroe’s high basketball IQ and an uncanny ability to make the right play. The coach watched him evolve, compete and “rise to the occasion” in games against opposing point guards like five-star recruit Kobi Simmons, who later committed to Arizona, of the Atlanta Celtics at the Adidas Gauntlet in Indianapolis.

“Eric didn’t look like he didn’t belong,” Mercado said. “[While] playing up his first year as an eighth-grader, the one thing I think he did a great job of [was] he always led by example, but he got better at being a vocal leader. He’s not a quiet kid, but he’s not a very outgoing, crazy, scream-and-yell [kid]. He did a good job of evolving into a leader and getting those guys, even though he was younger, to look at him as the point guard.”

Mercado said he watches most Yale basketball games and typically connects with Monroe and his father over text afterwards. He made the trek to Hanover, New Hampshire last year for Yale’s 89–68 win at Dartmouth when Monroe dished out a pair of assists and grabbed two rebounds in 16 minutes off the bench. Sophomore Big Green guard Taurus Samuels and rookie Princeton guard Ryan Langborg are also both Gamepoint alumni.

At St. Augustine, Monroe made the varsity team as a freshman, which Haupt, who is in his 25th year at the school, said was a rarity. Monroe did not start for the Saints that season, but Haupt said he contributed significant minutes off the bench and became a starter his sophomore year. Monroe earned recognition as a two-time first team All-CIF selection over the course of high school.

 

Division I Patriot League schools began expressing recruiting interest during Monroe’s sophomore year, and some Ivy League schools followed suit. Colgate made an offer to the St. Augustine guard, and Brown and head coach Mike Martin also caught on early to Monroe. But Monroe committed to Yale and head coach James Jones the August before his senior year. Monroe said he thought his ability to “think the game” as a pass-first point guard helped attract interest from coaches.

Through nine games this season, that instinct has been on full display.

“[After] not playing much [last year] and having to be behind [Alex] Copeland ’19, Trey [Phills ’19] and Miye [Oni], that was a big stepping point he had to take this year — just being the guy that was going to come and lead our team,” forward Paul Atkinson ’21 said. “As a captain, he’s been doing great. He’s leading us in assists right now because he’s just looking for guys, not being selfish and making shots when he needs to.”

Monroe started 12 games as a sophomore but made his first start since then when the Elis opened at Stony Brook last month. This year, he has controlled the tempo on the floor and improved his composure handling the ball late in the shot clock. In Yale’s 65–52 win over Vermont last Sunday, he found himself with the rock in his hands during the middle of the first half with the shot clock winding down and used a dribble move to drive to his right, drawing two defenders before slinging a pass to a cutting Atkinson for an open layup.

 

The captain is conservative with his shot — he has attempted the fewest field goals, 40, among players who average more than 25 minutes a game. But when he releases an attempt, it often falls. Monroe’s 10-for-21 mark from beyond the arc ranks second on the team, behind guard Jalen Gabbidon ’21, among players who have attempted at least 10 three-point shots this season. Coaches in high school and at Yale have encouraged him to more frequently look for his own shot, Monroe and Haupt said, but the point guard’s court vision often tempts him to dish the ball off instead.

“My coaches have always got on me to just let it fly a little more,” Monroe said. “This year we have so many talented scorers on our team, particularly Paul inside, that we should always be exploring stuff we can get on the inside before anything else … I’m never someone who feels like they need to get their own offense just to get their own offense.”

Monroe and Yale hit the hardwood on Wednesday night for a 7:30 p.m. game at Albany.

William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu