Harlem Globetrotters Make Basketball Family Entertainment

American Icons, People
on September 28, 2008
Bryan Kelsen

Lines form outside the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland, Colo. (pop. 50,608), looking more like a group headed to a G-rated movie than one bound for a basketball game. Inside, the sound of squeaking sneakers on hardwood reverberates around the half-lit arena. The world-renowned Harlem Globetrotters, basketball's tireless traveling ambassadors of fun and frolic, are in pregame warm-ups, wowing a handful of onlookers before the 7 p.m. show.

During a practice drill, a chalk mark—set 12 inches above the 10-foot rim on the backboard—is the object of the famed roundball troupe. Players take turns running full speed to the hoop, leaping absurdly high before either touching the mark or besting it, inching the mark higher and higher up the backboard. It is an awesome display, but then, athleticism is only a part of the package when the Harlem Globetrotters hit town.

For more than eight decades, the legendary cast of players has been crisscrossing the globe, weaving its spell in 119 countries on six continents in front of 128 million fans, with a show equal parts basketball, comedy, education and audience participation. All shows feature Globetrotter University, an interactive pregame session in which players instruct kids and adults on the Globetrotters golden rules from their C.H.E.E.R. for Character program—Cooperation, Healthy mind and body, Effort, Enthusiasm and Responsibility—while teaching ball-handling skills to people picked from the audience. And, of course, it's all done with good humor.

"A lot of stuff you don't want to change," says former player Clyde Sinclair, 49, now a head coach with the team, of the venerable skits. "The Globetrotters have been around 82 years, why change it?"

Bucketfuls of laughs, literally, consist of the time-honored pail-of-water caper (the crowd is doused three times) that ends in a final bucket toss of confetti. Other frivolity includes endless baiting of the referee; encouraging the sellout crowd to sing YMCA between quarters; inviting a kid out of the stands to shoot a free throw (he made it) during the game; and the classic routine of pulling an opponent's shorts down. The ageless antics still ring with audiences of all ages. "I like the part where he pulled down the man's pants," gleefully shouts Brooklin Golding, 5, of Kimball, Neb. (pop. 2,559), attending the game with her parents and older brother. The Golding family also were the recipients of a tossed bucket of water from the Globetrotters. "Grant has their DVD, and he'd watch it all day if he could," says Gene Golding of his 8-year-old son.

From haylofts to center stage
The team's roots trace back to 1927, when a young coach and promoter named Abe Saperstein took his all-Negro basketball team to Hinckley, Ill. (pop. 1,994), for its first game. Saperstein grew up admiring the talent of black kids playing the sport on the streets of Chicago. His concept of an all-black professional touring team offered a novel contrast to the all-white teams of the time.

Saperstein named his outfit the Harlem Globetrotters, for the neighborhood in New York City widely considered a seat of American black culture. He also believed out-of-town teams carried a certain mystique. Oddly, none of the players were from Harlem, and the team would not make its first appearance there until 1968. But at the outset, with the desolation of the Great Depression looming, the business of Globetrotters basketball was hardly a laughing matter. The team, playing anywhere against all comers, barnstormed in drafty and unheated Midwest haylofts, dancehalls, warehouses and cowsheds, often traveling 250 miles over dirt roads by rickety auto to remote outposts that might net $5 total.

Through it all, they played some serious basketball. By 1940, the Globetrotters were the best team in the game competitively, winning the World Professional Basketball Championship in Chicago that same year and defeating the NBL and BAA (forerunners to the NBA) champion Minneapolis Lakers twice in the late 40s.

Clowning was first introduced to the team in the late 1930s, eventually settling at the core of the Globetrotters successful format. Pioneers Runt Pullins, an expert ball handler, and center Inman Jackson, inaugurator of the teams early antics, became archetypes of the hallmark Globetrotter centerpiece: the showman and the dribbler. That surefire combo has steadfastly remained the team's nucleus, so expertly executed and re-created through the decades by the likes of transcendent dribbler Marques Haynes and showman Goose Tatum in the 1940s and 50s; the legendary 1960s-70s-80s duo of Meadowlark Lemon and dribbler Curly Neal; and today's reigning stars, showman Special K Daley and Scooter Christensen.

Neal, a 22-year Globetrotter legend, sees a visible difference in today's group from the Trotters of old. "We're getting better," Neal says of today's team. "There's more athleticism, definitely. But it's the personal touch that softens the onetime wizard dribbler. We always hug when we see each other, like we're teammates, like we've been playing together."

Both Daley and Christensen grew up well aware of the famous hoop troupe. "I saw clips of the Globetrotters growing up," says Daley, 31, the only applicant of a 2004 Trotters tryout of 300 candidates in Los Angeles to make the team, "but I never actually saw a full game until I had on a jersey and was on the bench. I was out there laughing like a fan."

Christensen's story is astounding. The dribbling ace had a good office job with the NBA's Phoenix Suns when a Globetrotters scout spotted him practicing with the team and inquired about him.

"That's our video coordinator," the scout was told. Sun's players had been trying to help Christensen get a job playing basketball overseas. "Here comes the Globetrotters scout, and he's like, 'Who's this kid?'" remembers Christensen, who got the Trotters invite and joined the squad in 2006.

Daley and Christensen are part of an all-time Harlem Globetrotters roster that includes NBA legends Wilt Chamberlain, Connie Hawkins and Nat Sweetwater Clifton. To Daley, joining that hallowed cast is his biggest thrill.

"Carrying on the tradition and being able to say that I was a Globetrotter, that's the best part for me," Daley says.

One tough bit of acclimation all Globetrotters undergo is the transition from competitive athlete to showman. "It takes awhile to get used to," says Christensen, 29, a standout player for the University of Montana. "Your competitive mind never leaves you, and it's still there with me now."

Treating fans like friends
The Globetrotter's 2007-08 Magic As Ever tour of North America drew 2 million spectators to 241 appearances in 203 cities in 45 states, the District of Columbia and four Canadian provinces.

"We are the world's home team, and our goal is to be accessible around the globe," says Globetrotters CEO Kurt Schneider. "This iconic brand has been re-energized and is poised to assert itself as a dominant form of family entertainment worldwide for years to come."

At evening's end, if they haven't already wrapped the near-capacity crowd of 5,000 around their collective talented finger, the Globetrotters ensure it, inviting the entire audience down onto the court for autographs and pictures. As a lengthy line forms in front of him, Special K Daley marvels at the wonder of it all.

"I was always one of those players that played for the crowd, so the Globetrotters brought that out in me," he says. "Now I'm encouraged to do that; they tell me to do things that coaches in high school and college used to hate me to do! I love it, and it's strictly for the fans' enjoyment. It's not about wins or losses. It's about smiles on everybody's faces out there."