Been Around The World
Even after 85 years, the Harlem Globetrotters are still able to make millions feel like kids again.
Originally Published in SLAM 136
The ball rests an arm’s length from my body, cradled anything but calmly in my sweating, shaking hands. At that moment, with Erving “Rocket” Rivers daring me to make a play, I’m not quite sure what to do. Shoot, and risk missing in front of 5,909 who showed up to the Prairie Capital Convention Center despite the temperature in Springfield, IL, hovering slightly below 10 degrees? Dribble, and risk losing the rock—and my dignity—in embarrassing fashion?
As the 24-second clock in my mind ticks toward zero, the pro-Harlem Globetrotters crowd and my Washington Generals teammates narrow their focus on me. Instinctively, I take the D’s bait, lower my head and rush the rim…
As I extend toward the rim, Kevin “Special K” Daley, the Trotters showman and center, smacks me across the arm, sending the ref to his whistle, me to the free-throw line—and the ball wildly off course. More Terrence Williams than Mo Williams from the stripe, I would have preferred almost any other result.
With a green and gold Generals jersey draped loosely over my shoulders, borrowed XXXL shorts sweeping the tongues of my kicks, I walk hesitantly toward the required spot 15 feet from the rim. Searching for some inner calm, I close my eyes and listen to the white noise. When I open them, Eric Weaver, a renowned streetball ref, isn’t staring back at me from under the hoop. Instead, the 6-5 Daley is standing directly in front of me. Speaking into the microphone that he wears as part of his Globetrotter uniform, Daley dares me to take the shot from a step or two behind the line. Much to the delight of the crowd, I move a few feet further back, pull up my sagging shorts and shoot from Nick Van Exel distance. The boldness of his request and my acceptance surprise few. After all, this isn’t happening at just any old game; it’s occurring at a Harlem Globetrotters game.
Founded in the late 1920s, the Globetrotters have never called Harlem their permanent home and currently have no Harlemites on their roster. Though the squad went almost 40 years before finally playing a game in Harlem in 1968, and though much has changed about the team in its 84 years of existence, the name “Harlem” took and stuck like Elmer’s.
The Trotters were first established in Chicago in 1926, before a black player had played in the NBA, and they were one of—if not the—best team around. Barnstorming across the globe since their inception, the team achieved World Basketball Champion status in 1940. A few years later, in both 1948 and 1949, a Trotters team led by Marques Hayne and Goose Tatum defeated George Mikan’s Minneapolis Lakers. Not coincidentally, two years later, Trotter star Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton became the first black player to sign an NBA contract.
As the NBA became the preferred location for the best players regardless of color, the Globies no longer had first and last dibs in the basketball talent pool; they had to sharpen their focus. Under the direction of founder Abe Saperstein, their identity shifted from that of a great team that occasionally performed stunts on the court to a team that wowed audiences with their tricks and comedic acts, and who also had some skilled players. Showmen (Meadowlark Lemon), supremely sharp ballhandlers (Curly Neal) and fantastic finishers (Theodis Lee) playing over a whistled “Sweet Georgia Brown” became their calling card. Beating Red Klotz’ Washington Generals night after night while performing in-game stunts and comedy routines became their primary goal. No longer basketball players first with some showmanship on the side, the Trotters became a form of entertainment that encompassed basketball as just a portion of their nightly proceedings.
And people lapped it up. By their 50th year of traveling the planet—having played in front of some 75 million people in close to 100 countries—the players could regularly be found on TV donning their blue and white uniforms while appearing in their own eponymous CBS cartoon, as well as making appearances on ABC’s Wide World of Sports and a few memorable episodes of Scooby Doo.
More Hollywood than Venice Beach, more Apollo Theatre than Rucker Park, everything ran smoothly for the Trotters for most of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Between defeating the Generals every night with a humorous mix of mockery, three man weaves and high flying dunks, and appearing regularly on TV, the Trotters were America’s favorite basketball team. In the late-’80s, though, things took a turn for the worse. By ’91, the owner of the team filed for bankruptcy protection. That was the end of the team as people knew it.
In ’93, former Globie Mannie Jackson put up $6 million and purchased the floundering team. In rescuing the Trotters, Jackson—the first black owner of a major sports organization—implemented numerous alterations to the Clown Princes’ tradition. Mainly, Jackson discontinued playing the Generals every night—their long-time foil, a team they hadn’t lost to since ’71, a span of 8,829 games—and otherwise caught the Globetrotter game experience up to current times. Jackson ran the team in a competitive form, one that was unrecognizable to those who had watched the Trotters earlier in the century, until ’07 when the new owner of the team, Shamrock Holdings, appointed former WWE exec Kurt Schneider as CEO of the traveling troupe.
“Kurt’s vision goes far beyond basketball,” says Klotz, founder of the Generals and scorer of the game-winner the last time his team defeated the Trotters 39 years ago. “There is so much more going on than basketball nowadays, and Kurt’s vision covers that.” Among the first of his many moves to bring the Trotters back to the tip of fans’ tongues, Schneider reconnected the team with its rich history, reinstalling the Generals as the nightly opposition.
“What we did was sort of pay homage to the past but also bring a lot of new things in,” says Schneider. “We used the past to build the future.” Off the court, he and his staff have worked hard to “bust out of the arena and interact with fans on different platforms,” beginning with appearances on TV’s The Amazing Race and Hell’s Kitchen. “People weren’t talking about the Trotters two years ago,” remembers Schneider enthusiastically, “and when they were, they talked about Curly Neal and the older Trotters. But now people say, ‘Hey, I see you guys everywhere. I saw you on the Today Show. I saw you on ESPN. I saw you at All-Star Weekend.’ And that’s a great sign for us!”
When speaking of the Globetrotters resurgence—ticket sales increased by 14 percent for last year’s tour in spite of the recession, and are up another 24 percent on this current tour—Schneider deflects much of the credit, deferring props to the players. “The players bought into the [new ideas] and they are the ones carrying this thing out, so I’m thrilled.”
Consisting of 29 players broken into two buses—internally called the red team and the blue team—the Globetrotters 2010 North American tour began in late December ’09 and continues through May, playing a total of 269 games in 216 cities in 44 states, plus Canada and Puerto Rico.
Rolling through Illinois with the red team for a few chilly days in January, the CEO’s praise of the players hits home. Walking into the Globies locker room in Springfield, my senses of sound and smell are immediately under assault. The sounds are Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane and whatever else Shane “Scooter” Christensen decides to blast over his Ipod SoundDock. The smells are an acrid mix of Icy Hot and Flexall, a testament to the nagging injuries accumulated over the course of the tour. Though the Trotters always have a trainer with them, between daily games and practices and then hopping on the bus following short autograph sessions, team members are constantly nursing sore joints and muscles. “To go from playing 30 college games in a season to 30 games in a month, it’s a big adjustment,” says Charley “Cobra” Coley III, the runner-up in last year’s NCAA Slam Dunk Contest. “It’s like a couple seasons in one, and it takes a little toll on your body. That’s why you got to be a special breed for this.”
The hours on the court and miles on the road wear on the players, but they never let it hinder the show. “It’s not easy; it’s physically and mentally tough,” says Special K, the team’s showman on the court and most vocal player off of it. “But it’s so rewarding because of the reactions we get, because of the impact we make on people. Being able to make people happy, that makes it all worthwhile.”
Kris “Hi-Lite” Bruton, a former second-round NBA Draft pick who’s been with the Trotters since 2001, puts a slightly different spin on it. “We get up, we play basketball. We go to bed, we’re thinking about basketball. We take pictures; we sign autographs; we do it all whenever and wherever because Globetrotters are never off duty.”
Though they‘re always on the road, they’re never not at home: Today, the squad receives a rousing ovation from the Springfield crowd. Watching the first few minutes of warm-ups, the Globies look the same as any other team before a game, running layup lines and shooting jumpers. Then, rather suddenly, they don’t, as Daley begins shooting halfcourt hookshots, Christensen and Anthony “Ant” Atkinson work on their slip-and-slide dribble, Bruton, Coley, Kevin “Turbo” Pearson and Demario “Bear” Butler sample exotic dunks and Rocket dances to the beat in a way that would put LeBron to shame.
About an hour before the show began, before the players performed countless gags, weaves, dunks, before the crowd was awash in laughs and smiles, before I’d make my Generals debut, Hi-Lite and I rapped for a few minutes about being a Trotter. “I’ve had offers to go play other places. But as long as we get smiles, I’ll be loyal to the team.”
Scooter, owner of numerous Guinness dribbling records, has his say, too: “There are a lot of teams around. But no one is like the Harlem Globetrotters. Being a Globetrotter, it’s like the highest of highs.”
Just being a small part of the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters show for a day is enough to know he’s not exaggerating.