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In this episode of the Dandy Fun House we’re clowning around on the basketball court to bring you the story of the Harlem Globetrotters! Where they came from (not Harlem), their many historic achievements, how they didn’t just just penetrate the color barrier of the NBA, they shattered it like a cheap glass backboard without ever even BEING an NBA team, what spawned their innovative act: part circus, part comedy, part sports, PURE ENTERTAINMENT, and what they’re up to now! It’s time for the tipoff! Let’s step into the Fun House!
If you grew up in the 70’s and 80’s like me, I’ll bet you spent more than a few Saturday mornings watching the Harlem Globetrotters cartoon on tv. You might have even watched their live action variety show called the Popcorn Machine or even caught some entertaining moments from them while your Dad was watching Wide World of Sports! You know – “The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat!”
While you might think of the Harlem Globetrotters as merely an entertainment phenomenon of the 70s and 80s, you might be surprised to learn that their history goes back farther than that! MUCH FARTHER!!!!!!!!
It’s the year 1926 in Chicago’s South Side and the historic Savoy Ballroom is experiencing declining audiences for their dances. They decide to try the interesting combination of holding exhibition basketball games before the dances to expand the appeal. Fellas come for the ball game and then apologize to their gals by staying for the dance, at least I think that was probably the idea.
One of the exhibition teams was called the Savoy Big Five who were comprised of the core players of what would eventually become the Harlem Globetrotters after a dispute amongst players in 1928 that caused a split. Departing members formed the “New York Globe Trotters” but they were pretty much New York in name only.
A year later, a man named Abe Saperstein took over management and promotion, changed the name to the “Harlem” Globetrotters to capitalize on Harlem being considered as the epicenter of American black culture at the time and began touring the team everywhere he could. Over the next decade, the team played throughout the United States and achieved a huge career-boost in 1940 by winning the World Professional Basketball Tournament!
With newfound acclaim and improved operating budgets, The Harlem Globetrotters continued dominating the world of basketball due to their monopolization of the entire talent pool of black players who were not welcome in other teams and leagues of the time. The NBA finally took notice of the opportunities they were missing and started recruiting black players beginning with Globetrotter Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton who signed with the New York Knicks in 1950. While this was a long overdue change for the positive, it also placed the Globetrotters at a crossroads as their cornering of the black talent pool came to end.
But in a stroke of either genius or desperation by team member, Reece “Goose” Tatum to keep the team viable, they began working comedy routines and acrobatic tricks into their games. They incorporated juggling, ball-spinning, trick shots and some of the funniest routines ever performed. Part vaudeville, part circus, part sports and ALL PURE ENTERTAINMENT!
With their new theatrical basketball extravaganza, they set out on their first international tour performing for 75,000 people at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium which earned them the title “Ambassadors of Extraordinary Goodwill” by the US State Department. They later would go on to earn special acknowledgements from Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gerald Ford for their service to global mankind.
The following year in 1951, Columbia Pictures created a dramatic film around the team simply titled “The Harlem Globetrotters.” The movie was about a young college player named Billy Townsend who convinces Globetrotter Manager, Abe Saperstein to let him drop out of school and join the team. But Billy, while being a great player, disobeys too many of the coach’s orders and takes too many risks on the court eventually resulting in a knee injury which gets him benched. Poor Billy!
Being the independent-minded young lad that he is, Billy then sneaks out of his hotel room against team rules to marry his girlfriend and while trying to sneak back in, accidentally trips over a trash can in the dark further aggravating his knee injury. Billy’s not exactly the brightest bulb in the pack! The following day, he hobbles to the game, convinces the coach he is good to play but the knee buckles on the court during a critical play, the Globetrotters lose, everyone finds out Billy lied, he is given his hobbling papers and sent packing.
BUT! Being the silver-tongued dribbler that he is, Billy manages to sweet talk the coach of the opposing team into signing him to a 3-year $50,000 contract under the terms that he rest his knee for the remainder of the season and not play for any other teams.
Fast forward to later in the season, Billy is biding his time working in the college chemistry lab when he learns that the New York Celtics are coming to town to play against the Globetrotters and half the school will be there!
He goes with hat in hand and on recuperated knee to petition the mighty Globetrotters to let him play. The Globetrotters agree, Billy hits the court with a new attitude and fresh perspective and plays as a member of the team rather than a rogue, rule-breaking maverick and together they defeat the mighty Celtics! This of course voids his big money contract with the other team but Billy doesn’t care because in his heart of hearts – Billy has always been a HARLEM GLOBETROTTER!
Did I spend too much time on that? It feels like I spent too much time on that, but honestly I never get to do condensed movie synopsis’ and I’ve been itching to channel my inner Sventoonie!
1952: The Harlem Globetrotters adopt the Brother Bones and his Shadows whistled rendition of Sweet Georgia Brown as the team’s theme song and over the years it becomes synonymous with them. You seriously can’t listen to that version of the song to this day without instantly associating it with the Globetrotters.
1953: The team decides they need a “competitor” to be their follies and expand the routines they’re able to perform. Thus the Washington Generals became their stooges for lack of a better team and the troupe began truly trotting the globe taking the show to any and every corner of the world that would have them!
In 1959, the team went behind the iron curtain to the Soviet Union with Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain onboard who continued to play during the off season with the Harlem Globetrotters even after being signed to the NBA.
Popularity continued to grow throughout the 1960s and then in 1970 Hanna Barbera decided to create a Saturday morning cartoon series on CBS around the team during what most would consider their pinnacle of popularity with none other than Scatman Cruthers providing the voice for team captain Meadowlark Lemon whom along with Curly and the rest of the gang managed to get in all sorts of hijinks every single week. This earned CBS some of their highest Saturday morning ratings in history and proceeded to spawn a Harlem Globetrotters Saturday morning live action variety show called the Popcorn Machine which often followed directly after the cartoon. They also made numerous appearances on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Yes, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat! As well as appearing on such shows as Gilligan’s Island, The Price is Right and countless other classics.
In 1979 the team was honored by game-maker Bally with the “Harlem Globetrotters On Tour.” pinball machine.
The team continued touring and performing almost nonstop throughout the 1980’s simply doing what they do best and entertaining families anywhere and everywhere around the world.
Then in 1993, the team was purchased by former Globetrotter Mannie Jackson who returned the team to competitive play by setting up matches against college teams. Under Mannie’s watch, the team’s revenue quadrupled within the span of five years!
THEN CAME MASCOT MADNESS!
With Mannie at the helm, the team introduced not one, not two but THREE new mascots: Globie, Big G and Little G. (They’re all blue and they all have globes for heads!). Globie is the lead mascot and is said to be the most traveled mascot in professional sports having visited six continents! That’s not all. In 2009, Globie parachuted from 3000 feet onto the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame lawn to deliver a Harlem Globetrotters basketball that had flown on the space shuttle Atlantis during a mission to the Hubble space telescope! And in 2020, Globie was nominated for the Mascot Hall of Fame!
Big G on the other hand has had a bit rougher of a go as he was stolen in 2015 from the team’s tour bus in Vancouver and taken hostage but was quickly recovered almost by accident when police were tracking a missing laptop and stumbled across a case containing his remains… He was back on the court the next day because, well… he’s just a costume!
In 1995 The Washington Generals were retired as the Globetrotters’ foils and were replaced with the New York Nationals who remained in that role until 2015.
In 2002 The Harlem Globetrotters were inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame!
2013: The Harlem Globetrotters franchise is sold to Herschend Family Entertainment owner of various theme parks and tourist attractions throughout America and the team is co-owned by Dolly Parton making them the company’s only Sports Entertainment Franchise.
In 2021, The Globetrotters filed a petition to join the NBA as an expansion franchise. I have not been able to determine if this exercise was serious, a joke or a PR stunt. Perhaps all of the above. I don’t believe it was successful. But what I DO know is that every year, the Globetrotters conduct a draft just a few days prior to the NBA draft to find new players whom they feel might fit the Globetrotter mold. They also use this opportunity to make honorary draft picks of individuals they feel have made extraordinary contributions to sports and society at large such as Usain Bolt, Kevin Hart, Gal Gadot, Tim Tebow and the late, great Chadwick Boseman. The list goes on to include lifetime honorary members like Henry Kissinger, Bob Hope, Nelson Mandela and Pope John Paul II.
To this day, the Harlem Globetrotters have performed over 26,000 exhibition games in 124 countries and the only continent they have not played on is Antarctica and I’m sure that’s next!
And there you go! The ball-spinning, 4-point-shooting, jugglin’, jammin’, jokin’, smokin’ story of the Harlem Globetrotters. You can find them online at http://www.harlemglobetrotters.com where you can also find their tour schedule! Go to their website and get your tickets now!
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Ok, I’ve gotta go work on my free throws! Rebound back here soon to the Dandy Fun House where everything is always FUN AND DANDY!
If you think my ball spinning is bad, you should see me dribble!
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