x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Birth of the world's most famous basketball team

Remember when The Harlem Globetrotters have been entertaining fans and playing their uniquely comedic style around the world for more than 80 years.

Meadowlark Lemon, left, the Harlem Globetrotters' most famous player, was always playing tricks.
Meadowlark Lemon, left, the Harlem Globetrotters' most famous player, was always playing tricks.

The Harlem Globetrotters were actually formed in Chicago. Arguably the most iconic name in basketball, the Harlem Globetrotters have been entertaining fans and playing their uniquely comedic style around the world for more than 80 years. They began as a barnstorming semi-pro team on Chicago's South Side, driving from town to town with five African-Americans jammed inside a Model-T Ford owned by their 160cm coach and promoter Abe Saperstein.

According to team history, their first game was on Jan 7 1927 - taking place only 50 miles west of Chicago against the Hinckley Merchants. The team had a couple of different names before settling on the name that would remain one of the most famous in basketball to this day - the Harlem Globetrotters. Saperstein chose the name to suggest that his team was all-black and well-travelled. The former was true but the latter far from it.

In fact, they would not leave the country until a 1946 trip to what was then the territory of Hawaii and wouldn't play their first game in Harlem, in New York City, until 1968. Although trick plays, pranks, hidden ball tricks, comic skits and ballhandling wizardy would become their staple, in their first years they were just another competitive basketball team, one so good that in 1940 they won the world professional basketball championship and in both 1948 and 1949 defeated the then NBA champion Minneapolis Lakers.

That first victory over George Mikan's Lakers changed the face of both the Globetrotters and professional basketball forever. Up until that time the NBA was a "whites only" league, but after the Globetrotters beat their champion in consecutive years the NBA made a momentous decision. In 1950, Chuck Cooper became the first black player drafted by an NBA team and earlier that year Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, a Globetrotters' star, became the first black player to be signed by the NBA. This saw the Globetrotters evolve into a team in need of a straight man. Having so often found themselves leading by wide margins against many of the tank town teams they faced, the Globetrotters began to amuse themselves and their fans.

Tremendous dribbling feats by Marques Haynes and comedy routines involving Goose Tatum and their most famous player, Meadowlark Lemon, became the norm. It was also Lemon who perfected a trick in which he would approach a fan in the crowd threatening to throw a bucket of water on him only for it to be a bucket of confetti. The legend is that this all began on a night when the Globetrotters found themselves leading 112-5 against a small-town team. Bored by it all, they began to entertain themselves with silly plays and the crowd was so into it Saperstein told his team that in the future, once they had established a big lead, clowning around would be not only acceptable but encouraged.

It became clear to Saperstein and those who would follow him that this was the true genius of the Globetrotters - the ability to entertain with more than their pure basketball skills. It is a formula that launched them on worldwide tours that began after World War II and in 1951 was even used to counteract a communist youth movement rally in East Germany. The US State Department called upon the Globetrotters to play a game in the Allied section of Berlin at the same time as the scheduled rally and such was their popularity that they packed more than 75,000 people into the Olympic Stadium.

Saperstein died in 1966 and the team have changed hands several times, surviving recessions, social upheavals and bankruptcy. Movies have been made about them, books written about them and at least two cartoon shows on national television were based on their exploits in addition to regularly being written into the Scooby-Do cartoon series. They have packed arenas large and small in well over 1,000 cities and 120 countries while playing in over 25,000 games and losing less than 400 of them, a winning percentage in excess of 98 per cent.

Today the Globetrotters are based in Scottsdale, Arizona, and have two separate travelling teams. They are a voice echoing back to a time after the Depression when America was a far different place, a country filled with small towns craving the kind of entertainment the Globetrotters provided. rborges@thenational.ae