The Harlem Globetrotters

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The Harlem Globetrotters

Since 1927, the Harlem Globetrotters have toured continually showcasing the skills of African American basketball players and developing an entertaining blend of athletics and comedy. In the process they have helped to introduce basketball throughout the world, inspired athletes of all races, and laid the ground work for the freewheeling "showtime" style of basketball that has contributed to the growth of basketball's popularity since the early 1970s. The Globetrotters' style of basketball, and particularly their style of comedy, were products of American racial segregation and discrimination. Their fancy dribbling, flamboyant passing, and spectacular leaping, which they pioneered, were seminal expressions of an African American athletic style. Their comedic routines (called "reems" by the Globetrotters), drew upon older minstrel show traditions and Sambo stereotypes of African Americans as childish clowns. Both of these dimensions of the Globetrotter—one forward looking and celebratory of African American creativity and excellence; the other looking backward and reinforcing racist images—have contributed to their success.

On their early tours, the Globetrotters and owner/booking agent/coach Abe Saperstein (a Jewish immigrant of Polish parentage), crammed into a small coupe and drove throughout the upper Midwest, taking on town teams for a percentage of the gate. They rarely had money for hotels, and when they did, they often found themselves barred because of their race. The same was true for restaurants. In some locales, the Globetrotters were treated as an anthropological exhibit by people who had never met anyone of African ancestry. Unlike other African Americans who had to endure these indignities, the Globetrotters could also enjoy the subversive pleasure of getting paid to consistently beat white teams on the court. Although the origins of the Globetrotters' move into comedy have been shrouded by Saperstein's myth-making, it is clear that the primary motivation was to increase the likelihood of a return engagement by not running up the score against inferior competition, and providing extra entertainment for fans who were bored by lopsided contests. By the late 1930s, basketball tricks and comedy were an integral part of most performances by the Globetrotters.

The lead clowns—such as Reece "Goose" Tatum and Meadow "Meadowlark" Lemon—enjoyed the laughter, attention, and extra money that their comedic talents brought them. Rather then complaining about assaults to their dignity, they seized opportunities to expand upon the traditional reems. Despite the fact that their humor could easily be interpreted as reinforcing negative racial stereotypes, few Globetrotters have publicly expressed misgivings. One notable exception is Connie Hawkins, a basketball hall-of-famer who spent four years in the 1960s with the Globetrotters. In a 1972 biography, Foul, by David Wolf, Hawkins complained that the Globetrotters were "acting like Uncle Toms. Grinnin and smilin and dancin around—that's the way they told us to act, and that's the way a lot of white people like to think we really are." Hawkins' observations help explain how the Globetrotter's humor contributed to the team's success by undercutting the racial implications of their superiority as basketball players.

The formula has been very successful. First, in the 1930s and 1940s their tours expanded to encompass the entire North American Continent. In 1950, they undertook their first European visit, and the following year embarked on an around-the-world tour. The State Department found that the Globetrotters' happy-go-lucky style was an effective counter to communist propaganda about American race relations, and, along with the armed forces, provided logistical support for their overseas trips during the Cold War. The demand for the Globetrotters was so great in the 1950s, that the team fielded three separate units in the United States, and an all star international squad. Since 1954, the Globetrotters have made numerous television appearances and have starred in their own cartoon series (1970-1973), and a variety show (1974). Although their cultural import has diminished, the Globetrotters continue to tour, make appearances on television and in advertisements, and recently have secured lucrative corporate sponsorships.

As straight basketball players, the Globetrotters were once formidable and influential. Prior to the integration of the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1950 (a move that Saperstein resisted), playing for the Globetrotters was nearly the only way that an African American could make a living from basketball. Their victory in the 1940 World Tournament of Basketball, demonstrated that they were among the best professional teams in the United States. Wins over the National Basketball League champion Minneapolis Lakers in 1948 and 1949 further enhanced their reputation, and struck a blow for racial equality. Even after the integration of the NBA, the Globetrotters had to be taken seriously as a straight basketball team. From 1950 to 1962 they played an annual series against teams of college all-stars, winning 162 games, and losing only 44. Since the conclusion of this series, the Globetrotters have all but abandoned straight basketball in favor of comedy and entertainment.

More important than their ability to beat top teams was the Globetrotters' style of play. Against real competition, they generally dropped the reems, but retained the rest of their repertoire. Where most of the white teams in the first half of the century played a stilted, regimented game, the Globetrotters freelanced and had fun. In recent years, the no-look and behind the back passes, thrilling dunks, flashy dribbling, and gambling help-out defense that they developed and displayed during years of barnstorming, have entered mainstream basketball as key elements of an African American athletic aesthetic. Perhaps their greatest impact has been in demonstrating how basketball skills could be a form of entertainment. NBA stars like Ervin "Magic" Johnson often cite the Globetrotters, particularly master dribbler Marques Haynes, as an inspiration. Much of basketball's growth in popularity since the 1970s has been due to casual fans who savor those moments that most resemble the Globetrotters at their best. Players who induce smiles and laughter, not with comedic set pieces, but with a surprising pass, a crossover dribble, or an acrobatic shot in the heat of competition are an important part of the Globetrotters' legacy.

—Thomas J. Mertz

Further Reading:

Lemon, Meadowlark, with Jerry B. Jenkins. Meadowlark. Nashville, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987.

Nelson, George. Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball. New York, Harper Collins Publishers, 1992.

Wilker, Josh. The Harlem Globetrotters. Philadelphia, Chelsea House Publishers, 1996.

Wolf, David. Foul: The Connie Hawkins Story. New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972.