Dribbling Around the World
The Harlem Globetrotters bring their basketball showmanship to Samford University.
After almost nine decades, the Harlem Globetrotters continue to mesmerize audiences with their fancy dribbling, surreal shooting skills, and rodeo clown antics—all performed to the melodic strains of a whistled “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Their win/loss record is untouchable. Victorious in 98.4% of their games, the Globetrotters have more than 22,000 wins against 345 losses, the most recent defeat coming in March of 2006, when they lost 87–83 to a team of college all-stars. Their most important victory, however, changed the face of basketball.
In 1948, the Globetrotters defeated the world champion Minneapolis Lakers in the Globetrotters’ hometown of Chicago. That’s where the all-black Harlem Globetrotters were organized and coached by a white, London-born Polish Jew named Abe Saperstein, a brilliant promoter who took over the team in 1928, eventually establishing them as the most famous athletes in the world. It was 1968 before the team finally played a game in Harlem. While Saperstein was viewed by some as breaking down racial barriers, others saw him as a P.T. Barnum type staging a minstrel show to entertain white audiences.
Originally “Saperstein’s New York Globetrotters,” the name was changed to “Harlem” because the Manhatttan neighborhood was the mecca of black culture during the first half of the 20th century. Initially, there were only five Globetrotters, forcing Saperstein to wear a uniform under his overcoat when coaching in case the team needed a substitute player. In 1934, most of his players quit after the owner stopped splitting game receipts among the team (often as much as $40 a player) and instead paid salaries that amounted to $7.50 a game. Originally a serious basketball team that performed their entertainment routine only when leading by large margins, the Globetrotters’ style evolved into their now-legendary showboating after Saperstein formed a new team.
The victory over the Minneapolis Lakers proved that a black team could compete with a white team at the highest level of professional basketball. The landmark win, however, ended the Globetrotters’ monopoly on signing the top black athletes available, as black players began to flock to the higher paying NBA. Nate “Sweetwater” Clifton was the first Globetrotter lured to the big leagues when he signed with the New York Knicks in 1950.
An international tour in 1952 captivated the world, transforming players such as Goose Tatum and Marques Haynes into superstars. (A favorite trick had Tatum hiking the ball through his legs, football-style, to Haynes, who then kicked it into the goal from half court.) The world tour featured every venue imaginable. A game in Italy was played in an empty swimming pool where basketball goals were set up in the pool’s deep end. Concrete tennis courts were the norm in Thailand. In Argentina, Eva Perón tossed the ball up for the opening tip-off, and the team sold out eight consecutive games at Wembley Stadium, a huge soccer venue in London. Rain was never a deterrent, as the Globetrotters donned rainhats and carried umbrellas during a thunderstorm in France. Though admired around the world, on their return to the United States the team was banned from the campus of Louisiana State University in 1953 when the school’s president said their presence would threaten “our way of life.”
In 1948, the Globetrotters signed their only one-armed player, Boid Buie, who averaged 18 points a game. Wilt Chamberlain joined the team in 1958 for one year because the NBA refused to sign players who left college early. Among the seven-foot-tall Chamberlain’s biggest fans was Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, who was in the audience when the Globetrotters played in Moscow at Lenin Central Stadium. The team signed its first female player in 1985. The first Asian player joined in 2002 and without a doubt must be the oddest named Globetrotter ever: Sharavjamts “Shark” Tserenjanhor, from Mongolia.
“We have all ethnic backgrounds playing for us,” says current Globetrotter Herb “Moo Moo” Evans during a recent phone call. “We currently have two Puerto Rican guys playing for us, we’ve had eight ladies play for us, we’ve had Caucasians, we’ve had Chinese. Predominantly, we’ve had African American guys but we don’t discriminate against anybody . . . as long as you can make the fans happy, and can go out there and play basketball.” &
The Harlem Globetrotters will play the Washington Generals on Thursday, March 11 at the Pete Hanna Center at Samford University. Ticket prices range from $23 to $65. For more information visit www.tinyurl.com/ylbeh67 or call 726-4343.