Harlem Globetrotters

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Harlem Globetrotters

The Harlem Globetrotters were founded in 1926. At that time Abe Saperstein (19021966), an English-born Jewish Chicagoan who had coached semipro basketball in the Chicago area, took over the coaching duties of an African-American team, the Savoy Big Five (formerly Giles Post American Legion). Saperstein decided the team would be more popular with better marketing. To emphasize its racial composition and its barnstorming, he renamed the team the Harlem Globetrotters, although they had no connection to the New York City neighborhood. The newly renamed team debuted on January 7, 1927, in Hinckley, Illinois, wearing read, white, and blue uniforms that Saperstein had sewn in his father's tailor shop. The first starting team consisted of Walter "Toots" Wright, Byron "Fat" Long, Willis "Kid" Oliver, Andy Washington, and Al "Runt" Pullins.

The Globetrotters played the itinerant schedule of barnstorming basketball teams, taking on black and white squads of greatly varying levels of ability, with many memorable games against their archrivals, the New York Rens. Players boosted the team's popularity by clowningdropkicking balls, spinning them on fingertips, and bouncing them off teammates' heads. In 1939 the Globetrotters finished third in the Chicago Herald American 's World Professional Tournament; in 1940, they became World Champions. In 1943 the team traveled to Mexico City (the first indication that the team would soon justify its "Globetrotter" name) and won the International Cup Tournament. During the mid-1940s, a white player, Bob Karstens, joined the Globetrotters (the team has briefly had two other white players).

After World War II, as professional all-white basketball leagues began slowly integrating, the Globetrotters, led by Marques Haynes, were so popular that rumors spread that Saperstein opposed integration in order to keep control of the market for black players. Meanwhile, they continued to hold their own against white teams in exhibition games. In February 1948 the Globetrotters, following a fifty-two-game winning streak, played George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers evenly in two exhibition games in Chicago. The team's skill and popularity belied black exclusion policies.

By 1950 NBA teams had three black players, including ex-Globetrotter Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton. After the integration of professional basketball, the Globetrotters' playing style changed dramatically. Clowning now became predominant. Players such as Reece "Goose" Tatum, Meadowlark Lemon, and Fred "Curly" Neal were hired not only for playing ability but for trick shooting, dribbling, and comedic talent. The Globetrotters, now billed as "The Clown Princes of Basketball," became best known for already familiar routines, such as the pregame "Magic Circle." In this act, players stand in a loose circle and diSplay their skill and deftness with the ball, accompanied by the team's theme song, "Sweet Georgia Brown."

In 1950 the Globetrotters began annual coast-to-coast trips with squads of college All-Americans, which lasted until 1962. The same year, the team began annual European summer tours, playing to enormous crowds. In 1951 they played before seventy-five thousand spectators in Berlin's Olympic Stadium, still one of the largest crowds ever to see a basketball game. During this period, they appeared in two movies, Go Man Go (1948) and The Harlem Globetrotters (1951). In the early 1950s, after the Globetrotters lost consecutive games to Red Klotz's Philadelphia Spas, Abe Saperstein decided to dispense with playing local teams and to barnstorm with the Spas (later renamed the Washington Generals), who play some 250 games with the Globetrotters each year and serve as straight men for their stunts. The Generals, following an agreement with the Globetrotters, allow several trick-shot baskets per game. The last time the Generals beat their rivals was in 1971. In the 1950s the Globetrotters split into two squads, one of which played on the East Coast while the other focused on the West. In 19581959, the same year that Wilt Chamberlain, after the end of his college career, spent playing with the team (often as a seven-foot one-inch guard!), the Globetrotters toured the Soviet Union as goodwill ambassadors. Other famous athletes who played with the team included Bob Gibson and Connie Hawkins. The team has retained its interracial popularity, although during the 1960s some blacks criticized team members for their clownish image, which reinforced racial stereotypes, and the team's silence on civil rights issues.

After Saperstein's death in 1966, the team was sold to three Chicago businessmen for $3.7 million. In 1975 Metromedia purchased the team for $11 million. The Globetrotters remained popular into the 1970s, when they starred in cartoon and live-action TV series, but their popularity declined some years later, especially after stars such as Meadowlark Lemon left the team after contract disputes. In 1985 the first female Globetrotter, Lynette Woodward, was hired. In December 1986 Metromedia sold the team (as part of a package that included the Ice Capades) to International Broadcasting Corp. (IBC) for $30 million. In 1993 IBC entered bankruptcy and Mannie Johnson, a former Globetrotter, bought the team. It was another Globetrotter, Curly Neal, who best captured the team's appeal: "How do I know when we played a good 'game'?" he said. "When I look up at the crowd and I see all those people laughing their heads off. It's a hard world and if we can lighten it up a little, we've done our job."

In 1998 the Globetrotters played their 20,000th game. Globetrotters great Meadowlark Lemon was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame in 2003.

See also Basketball; Renaissance Big Five (Harlem Rens)


Gutman, Bill. The Harlem Globetrotters. Champaign, Ill.: Garrard, 1977.

Lemon, Meadowlark. Meadowlark. Nashville, Tenn.: Nelson, 1987.

Weiner, Jay. "Meadowlark Lemon Comes Home to Roost with Globetrotters." Chicago Star Tribune, March 1, 1993.

greg robinson (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005