The Harlem Globetrotters are a basketball team that combines athleticism and comedy to create one of the best-known sports entertainment franchises in the world. Created by Abe Saperstein in 1927 in Chicago, Illinois, the team adopted the name Harlem because of its connotations as a leading African-American community. Over the years it has toured over 118 countries, playing more than 20,000 exhibition games, mostly against deliberately ineffective opposition like the Washington Generals (1953-1995) and the New York Nationals (1995-present).
There is no clear consensus as to the very beginnings of the Globetrotters. The official history contains several facts which are clearly untrue, such as the team being organized in 1926 in the Savoy Ballroom, which opened in 1927. What is clear is that the genesis of the Globetrotters takes place in the South Side of Chicago in the 1920s, where all the original players grew up. Most, if not all of the original players attended Wendell Phillips High School. When the Savoy Ballroom opened in November of 1927, one of the premier attractions was the Savoy Big Five, a basketball team that played exhibitions before dances.
In 1928, several players left the team in a dispute over bringing other players who had left the team back. That fall, several players led by Tommy Brookins formed a team called the “Globe Trotters” which would tour Southern Illinois that winter. A white man named Abe Saperstein became involved with the team, though to exactly what extent is unclear. In any event, by 1929 Saperstein was touring Illinois and Iowa with his basketball team, called the “New York Harlem Globe Trotters”. Saperstein decided to pick Harlem as their home city since Harlem was considered the center of African-American culture at the time, and an out of town team name would give the team more of a mystique. After four decades of existence, the Globetrotters played their first “home” game in Harlem in 1968.
The first star player of those early Globe Trotters (the name would be merged into one word later on was Albert “Runt” Puller, an adept dribbler and shooter. Soon he would be joined by 6’3″ Inman Jackson, who played center and had a flair for showboating. They would originate the two roles that would stay with the ‘trotters for decades, the showman and the dribbler.
The Globetrotters were initially a serious competitive team, and despite a flair for entertainment, they would only clown for the audience after establishing a safe lead in the game. In 1940, they accepted an invitation to participate in the World Professional Basketball Tournament. Defeating the New York Rens in the semi-finals, they advanced to the championship game, where they beat the Chicago Bruins in overtime by a score of 31-29.
The Globetrotters beat the premier professional team, George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers, for two games in a row in 1948 and 1949, with the Lakers winning the third contest. The February 1948 win (by a score of 61-59, on a buzzer beater) was a hallmark in professional basketball history, as the all-black Globetrotters proved they were on an equal footing with the all-white Lakers. Momentum for ending the NBA’s color line grew, and in 1950, Chuck Cooper became the first black player drafted by an NBA team. From that time on the Globetrotters had increasing difficulty attracting and retaining top talent.
The Globetrotters gradually worked comic routines into their act until they became known more for entertainment than sports. The Globetrotters’ acts often feature incredible coordination and skillful handling of one or more basketballs, such as passing or juggling balls between players, balancing or spinning balls on their fingertips, and making unusual, difficult shots.
Among the players who have been Globetrotters are NBA (National Basketball Association) greats Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain, Connie “The Hawk” Hawkins and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, as well as Marques Haynes, George “Meadowlark” Lemon, Jerome James, former Temple coach John Chaney, and Reece “Goose” Tatum. Another popular team member in the 1970s and 1980s was Fred “Curly” Neal who was the best dribbler of that era of the team’s history and was immediately recognizable due to his shaven head. Baseball Hall of Famers Bob Gibson, Ferguson Jenkins and Lou Brock also played for the team at one time or another. Another famous former player is comedy legend Bill Cosby who had a contract with the Globetrotters when he was younger. In 1985, the Globetrotters signed their first female player, Olympic gold medalist Lynette Woodard, and their second, Joyce Walker, just three weeks later.
Because virtually all of its players have been African American, and because of the buffoonery involved in many of the Globetrotters’ skits, they drew some criticism in the Civil Rights era. The players were derisively accused of “Tomming for Abe”, a reference to Uncle Tom and white owner Abe Saperstein. However, prominent civil rights’ activist Jesse Jackson came to their defense by stating, “I think they’ve been a positive influence. (…) They did not show blacks as stupid. On the contrary, they were shown as superior.”
During the 1970s and 1980s, the team was controlled by Metromedia and, in addition to their touring and playing the Washington Generals or the New York Nationals, were featured in numerous television series and specials, including appearances in live-action variety shows and several Hanna-Barbera cartoons (see “Media” section below).
After a period of decline the Globetrotters franchise was purchased by former team member Mannie Jackson in 1993, and its fortunes revived again. In 2002 the team was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
To try to offset the criticism that they do not play “real basketball”, in recent years the Trotters have scheduled games against college teams and pickup teams like Magic Johnson’s All Stars with varying results. This renews a tradition of playing NBA teams, which the Globetrotters did during the 1950s.
The Harlem Globetrotters visited Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in November of 2000 and named the Pontiff an Honorary Harlem Globetrotter.