Saperstein, Abraham M.

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SAPERSTEIN, ABRAHAM M. (Abe ; 1902–1966), U.S. basketball entrepreneur; creator, promoter, and coach of the Harlem Globetrotters Basketball Team for 39 years; member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. Born in London, Saperstein came to Chicago at six with his nine brothers and sisters. He was active in basketball, baseball, track, and wrestling at Lake View High School, winning 15 letters. He then played semiprofessional baseball and basketball, earning $5 a night, and at age 24 took over the running of an all-black basketball team, the Savoy Big Five, named for Chicago's Savoy Ballroom. Saperstein changed the team's name to the Harlem Globetrotters, to indicate both a black team (Harlem), and a traveling or barnstorming team (Globetrotters). He placed his five players in a battered Model T Ford and took to the road. They played their first game on January 7, 1927, in Hinckley, Ill., before a crowd of 300 with a paycheck of $75. Saperstein, who stood five-foot-three, was the manager, coach, trainer, chauffeur, ball boy – and the team's only substitute. The Globetrotters won 397 games and lost 32 in their first three seasons, but found it difficult locating opponents willing bow to their dominating play. Saperstein then conceived the idea of a comic, razzle-dazzle style, and the team soon became a sought-after attraction on the basketball barnstorming circuit, showing off a superb blend of clowning and basketball wizardry, of vaudeville and solid basketball skill. In 1940 the team won the World Basketball Championship against the Chicago Bruins, and won the International Cup in 1943 and 1944. Over the years, the Globetrotters developed into an international entertainment attraction, meeting popes and kings and playing in bullrings, on stages, and aboard aircraft carriers and in more than 100 countries on five continents, including drawing 75,000 for a game at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin in 1951. The Globe-trotters are one of the most famous sports organizations in the world, with Saperstein being called the "Barnum of Basketball" and his team known as "America's No. 1 Goodwill Ambassadors." Indeed, their flashy brand of play and the patriotic red, white, and blue uniforms became the first basketball experience for many spectators in Mexico, Belgium, Portugal, Morocco, Singapore, and Colombia. In March 1961, Saperstein announced the formation of the American Basketball League. Saperstein served as commissioner, though the league only lasted a season and a half. He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1970.

[Elli Wohlgelernter (2nd ed.)]