Maybe if I asked you, at point-blank, the first basketball team that comes to mind, 90% of you would answer the Harlem Globetrotters.
That’s because the Harlem Globetrotters are simply the most famous team across all sports.
The story begins in Chicago in the ’20s, when the city (and the nation) was still racially segregated. A group of young African-Americans began to play with Wendell Phillips Academy High School. Not only did they love to play, and love putting on a show, but they also liked to have fun while playing.
At the time they were not a performance team. They began to play in a semi-professional league formed exclusively by African Americans, the “Negro American Legion League” and called themselves “Giles Post.”
In 1927 one of their high school classmates, a marketing genius ante litteram Abe Saperstein – white, London-born, Chicago upbringing, the son of Polish Jews – had the brilliant idea. He transformed a group of boys into one of the most incredible sights the history of sport has ever seen.
Abe Saperstein and the first Globetrotters
The Harlem Globetrotters invented the game. Many of the movements that you see on a basketball court today descended from this team. They had a very strong will to prove that African Americans could do more than just sing.
Saperstein first changed the name of the team and made it more attractive, Abe was obsessed with New York and selected a neighbourhood in Manhattan, Harlem to be exact, to highlight the fact that this was a team formed by young African American men. But this was not enough, so he added the word “Globetrotters”, meaning those who travel the world. It is one of the most classic and well-chosen nomen omens of history.
Their first official match as the Harlem Globetrotters was played in January 1927 in Hinckley, Illinois. There were only five players, plus Saperstein, crammed into a small car that was traveling from one city to another in the Midwest.
Abe coached and managed the Globetrotters but also wore the team uniform under his coat, and on one occasion even entered the court, becoming the first white player for the Globetrotters. This was 15 years before Bob Karskens – the first white man to be put effectively under contract for the team.
In the 30’s and 40’s the Harlem Globetrotters developed what still is their trademark, the ability to handle the ball like no one else before them. They developed spectacular routines bringing a sense of competitiveness and entertainment to the game.
In 1939, Saperstein was invited to play in a tournament sponsored by the Chicago Herald-American, the “World Professional Basketball Tournament.” They lost that year and in the following year they were up against another team composed entirely of African Americans. The New York Renaissance, become the “world champions of professional basketball.”
A momentous date in the history of the Globetrotters was February 19, 1948, when the Chicago Stadium played against the very strong Minneapolis Lakers (who later became the Los Angeles Lakers) that dominated the league, which in a year’s time would become the NBA, and be played only by white men.
The Globetrotters wanted to challenge them and to make it clear to everyone, not only the absurdity and injustice of not being able to play “officially” with white players, but also that they were stronger.
That game ended 61-59 for the Globetrotters, which proved yet again that they were “the strongest basketball team in the world,” claimed Arch Ward, respected Chicago Tribune sportswriter.
From this point on, things change. After having proven that they could compete with everyone, the Harlem Globetrotters adopted a new style of play, thinking exclusively to entertain and have fun.
They began to travel the world and entertain everyone with their gags, throws and spectacular actions, magic balls, fake buckets of water and much more.
In 1952 an antagonist Globetrotters team arrived on the scene, a team designed to lose: the Washington Generals founded by Herm “Red” Klotz. He officially agreed with Abe Saperstein to become the touring team who would play against the Globetrotters. Over the years they have changed names: Boston Shamrocks, New Jersey Reds, Baltimore Rockets, Atlantic City Seagulls and New York Nationals, to make the audience believe that they played against several different teams but in fact the players remained the same.
More than 16,000 matches were played between the two teams, but not all won by the Globetrotters, in fact, 6 of these saw the Generals prevail. The last time it happened in 1971, breaking a streak of 2,499 victories.
Location Martin, Tennessee, two minutes from the end, while the Globetrotters did all their numbers, someone from the bench pointed out to them that they were twelve points behind. Then they start playing for real, but lose by one point. It’s a team tragedy. From then on, the Generals have not won another game. Unfortunately, after 60 years in August of 2015, the Harlem Globetrotters decided not to play any more games against the Washington Generals.
There are many men who have worn the Harlem Globetrotters jersey and among them there are several professional players we can mention: Jamario Moon, Reece “Goose” Tatum, Meadowlark Lemon (clown prince of the Globetrotters for years), and even Wilt Chamberlain, the man who on March 2nd, 1962 scored 100 points at Hershey Sports Arena, Pennsylvania against the New York Knicks. Chamberlain won two NBA championships, earned four regular season MVP awards and garnered a reputation as a life-long bachelor after his notorious claim of having slept with over 20,000 women.
Wilt, Arnold & Andre
So now that you know their story, it’s time to go see the Harlem Globetrotters in action. Look up when they are next playing and treat yourself and your family to a performance of a lifetime.