Harlem Renaissance

Can the jesters of basketball break away from their Jim Crow roots and once again become kings of the court?

The Washington Post, March 2, 2003

The Harlem Globetrotters like to say they are the world’s winningest basketball team, but tonight they are playing catch-up. After a 70-68 loss to Vanderbilt, on a shot at the buzzer, their commercial flight left Nashville late. Traffic on the way to College Park ate into their warm-up time. Slow to find its rhythm, the squad on the floor — a couple of Globetrotter veterans, a few NBA castoffs, and some scholarship athletes who’ve just exhausted their eligibility — falls 15 points behind the fresh-legged Maryland Terrapins, then rallies before intermission and returns to the locker room down by four.

It’s harder to gauge how the Globetrotters are faring in their ongoing game of existential catch-up. By challenging the defending national champions tonight, they scored a national appearance on ESPN2. But for this preseason game and the rest of their three-week, no-nonsense tour against college teams, the Globetrotters have set aside the hallmarks that distinguish them from other mercenary platoons and foreign national teams that barnstorm in November. There are no ballhandling displays to the tune of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” no buckets of water or confetti thrown, and no Washington Generals to act as their inept foils.

When the announcer introduced the Globetrotters’ lineup, Maryland students offered their customary acknowledgment of the visiting team, unfolding newspapers and hiding their heads. The Globetrotters may be nothing special to 20-year-olds who grew up watching Michael Jordan as he took the Chicago Bulls to NBA championships and joined Bugs Bunny in “Space Jam,” but for previous generations the Globetrotters have a certain nostalgic appeal. My generation tuned in to watch Meadowlark Lemon and Geese Ausbie on “Wide World of Sports” and their animated avatars on Saturday mornings, and older fans may well remember Marques Haynes, Goose Tatum and a mid-century roster that regularly took on college all-star teams and twice defeated the Minneapolis Lakers, the pride of the whites-only National Basketball Association.

Tonight’s Globetrotters have an edge in maturity and size, with four players at least 6-foot-10. “If this was a regular-season game, I’m sure the Globetrotters would be favored,” Maryland Coach Gary Williams said before the game, and before rattling off the Globetrotters’ victories so far this fall — Purdue by 19, St. John’s by 25, Western Kentucky by 15. And despite fatigued physical play that keeps sending Maryland to the line, the Globetrotters stay in the game. With less than five minutes remaining, they have a chance to pull even.

After several passes around the key, Keiron Shine, a third-year guard out of the University of Memphis, gets the ball just beyond the three-point line. Shine — who flew in from Iceland, where another Globetrotters unit is touring with the standard comedic show — steps forward, puts the ball through his legs, and moves to his right. Then he spins left, and the ball gets away. Maryland recovers. Steve Blake feeds a streaking Drew Nicholas, who leaps to lay the ball in but is grabbed from behind — a flagrant foul and a collective expression of desperation. Nicholas makes both shots, and the Globetrotters unravel, shooting hastily and fouling on almost every play. Maryland finishes on a 17-2 run, winning 97-79.

“We really had to work hard,” Williams says, graciously acknowledging that the evening was not the mismatch indicated by the final score. “They’ve been on the road now for a week. That can’t be easy.” When Williams wraps up his spiel, the beat reporters and cameramen scurry to meet deadlines. Globetrotters coach Milton Barnes is left with an audience of three — me and two African American reporters representing the ethnic press. Barnes fields questions about whether Maryland can repeat after losing so many starters, and whether the Globetrotters’ ex-NBA men played up to expectations.

“The key word is ‘ex,’ ” says the subdued Barnes. “We’re hoping that the experience they have can rub off on our younger guys. We’re still in the process of putting our program to the level we want it.”

One of the other reporters, surprised not to have seen the famous Magic Circle ballhandling routine tonight, asks Barnes whether this team is even capable of the razzle-dazzle that the Globetrotters made famous.

“When we’re winning by 20 points, yeah, we’ll bring out the bag of tricks. But the key is getting the 20-point lead.”

Behind this question is a much more fundamental one, but it’s impossible to ask it here. For anyone who has seen the Globetrotters cavort with Scooby Doo or Gilligan, the very notion of a postgame press conference seems laughable. What are the Globetrotters, whose antics are their bread and butter, doing by challenging the Division I national champions? Why are they asking to be taken seriously?

Though unrevealing, Barnes’s brief remarks provide ample cover for the Globetrotters to slink from locker room to bus. The lone straggler is Olden Polynice, a journeyman center cut by the Philadelphia 76ers two weeks earlier.

“How do you like the striped shorts?” a television reporter asks Polynice.

“Hey, I told you, man, Harlem Globetrotters, that’s what I grew up watching,” he says. “I’m proud.”

The Globetrotters were born in an era when professional basketball was just another traveling show. Several of the team’s original members played at Chicago’s Wendell Phillips High School, and then at the Savoy Ballroom on the South Side. When the ballroom dropped the Savoy Big Five, their promoter, an energetic Jewish immigrant and former high school athlete named Abe Saperstein, proposed a touring team. On January 7, 1927, five players rode out to Hinckley, Ill., in Saperstein’s car for the Globetrotters’ first game. They earned $ 75; $ 20 went to Saperstein, $ 10 to each player, and $ 5 to expenses. Their uniforms said “New York”; within a few years, Saperstein would substitute “Harlem” to emphasize that his players were black.

Ethnic sports teams were hardly a unique concept in the 1920s; the New York Rens, a black-owned team operating out of the Ren-aissance Ballroom in Harlem, had ongoing rivalries with Joe Lapchick’s Original Celtics and the SPHAs of the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association. Still, the Globetrotters’ skin color was a novelty attraction as they barnstormed through Midwestern towns. Saperstein was a figure with whom white venue owners would do business. That first year, Saperstein’s team posted a 101-6 record.

The Globetrotters weren’t the first to marry comedy and sports, nor did they start off as a comedy act. Players today tell a handed-down story about a cold night in Iowa during the Depression, when one Globetrotter stood too close to a potbellied stove and his uniform caught fire. As he ran screaming around the court, the audience roared, and Saperstein saw the future. The unspoken point of this tale is that if white crowds were going to pay to see the Globetrotters and not get angry when hometown squads lost, they would have to be distracted by displays of bright smiles, dim wits and other features of an archetype that was a fixture of vaudeville and early cinema. “We have to remember that Saperstein’s Trotters played and were hired in a world where the lynching of Black males for ‘reckless eyeballing’ of white women was still commonplace,” Nelson George wrote in Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball.

Even as they became famous entertainers, the Globetrotters became a bastion of black athletic excellence. In 1940, at the World Tournament in Chicago, they defeated the New York Rens, who had survived the ’30s without resorting to clowning. A decade later, after the Globetrotters had twice defeated the NBA’s Minneapolis Lakers, led by dominant center George Mikan, the Globetrotters’ Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton joined the New York Knicks, becoming the first black player to sign an NBA contract and breaking Saperstein’s monopoly on African American talent. Even so, NBA teams limited the number of black players to keep from alienating their white fan base, which saw behind-the-back passes, dunks and other flamboyant plays as undisciplined and unsportsmanlike. For many black players, the Globetrotters remained their best chance at a real paycheck; Wilt Chamberlain and Connie Hawkins passed through on their way to the big leagues.

It was also around 1950 that the Globetrotters actually started trotting the globe, with tours of Western Europe and South America in the early ’50s, and a trip to Moscow in 1959. While representing the emerging American superpower, they sowed an appetite for basketball worldwide that has only now matured enough to challenge American dominance in the sport.

Saperstein died in 1966, and the team has changed hands a few times since. These days, the signature on the Globetrotters’ tricolor basketballs belongs to a former Globetrotter and Honeywell executive named Mannie Jackson. In 1993, Jackson paid $ 5.5 million for a moribund organization that had all but forsaken athletics for entertainment and was losing $ 1 million a year. The Globetrotters now report $ 6 million in profits on $ 60 million in revenue and an annual audience of 2 million. In September, the Basketball Hall of Fame enshrined the Globetrotters, making them the fifth team to enter the Springfield, Mass., pantheon, and the only one honored while still in business.

Jackson has returned the Globetrotters from the brink of oblivion, but his vision for their future is, in it its own way, as grandiose as Saperstein’s was. The Harlem Globetrotters will not abandon their signature showmanship, Jackson tells me, but he also wants them to become one of the world’s 10 best basketball teams again. I wait in vain for the punch line, and he declines to sketch out how this dream can be realized, though he claims they can do it in the next five or six years. The good, but not great, players who took the court against Maryland didn’t quite have to live up to those expectations. But in addition to taking on the Division I national champions, they were also challenging their own legend, a mix of achievement and abasement forged in the era of Jim Crow.

Before their November trip to Maryland, the Globetrotters had not lost consecutive games since 1961. Further losses to Mississippi State, Connecticut, Central Connecticut State and Ohio State made for a six-game losing streak, their longest in history. Jackson fired Barnes, although the tailspin was destined to end soon anyway; the Globetrotters were about to lay off competitive play for the winter. From late December to mid-April, they get up to their usual tricks, on a North American tour with the New York Nationals — an intentionally hapless traveling team that goes where the Globetrotters go but stays in less fancy hotels. The Nationals have the same role as the Washington Generals once did, as well as the same owner. It is a grueling marathon, with two full complements of Globetrotters constantly on the move; each team is booked seven days a week, sometimes twice in one day. (On March 8, the Globetrotters are due at MCI Center at 11:30 a.m., and the Patriot Center, in Fairfax, at 7:30 p.m.)

In early January, I catch up with the Globetrotters’ eastern unit at a high school gym in Edwardsville, Ill., about half an hour east of St. Louis, where the team will play tonight. When time permits, the Globetrotters hold an afternoon practice to polish their showmanship and hone their basketball skills. The NBA veterans have moved on since the college tour, but five others who played against Maryland are here, running the floor in a full-court drill.

As with any professional basketball team, the Globetrotters’ roster is in constant flux. The average hire lasts less than three years, and Jackson’s staff is constantly making adjustments and scouting new talent. Joining the full-court drill is Tarise Bryson, a 6-1 shooting guard who’s had a recent run of tough luck. In his junior season, Bryson was the fourth-leading scorer in Division I, and he began his senior year with a chance to topple Doug Collins’s career scoring mark at Illinois State and a shot at being chosen in the NBA draft. But his first game back, he broke his wrist. By the time the NCAA denied Bryson’s request for another year of eligibility, it was too late to register for the draft. Bryson’s hopes of attracting attention in the summer leagues were squelched by injuries sustained in a car accident. Since recovering, Bryson’s been trying to keep in shape for next summer.

The Globetrotters don’t pay anybody a million dollars a year, and they can’t compete for a lottery pick. For a less sought-after prospect, however, they can be a tempting option. The minor-league salaries of the Continental Basketball Association and the NBA’s developmental league can be a fraction of what the Globetrotters pay a newcomer; their best-paid players make six figures. Top foreign leagues can afford to be more generous, but players can get homesick. For a player still clinging to NBA dreams, the choice might at first seem like giving up on Carnegie Hall for a steady gig with a wedding band. But as one basketball scout put it recently, to make it as a professional basketball player today, with the spillover into television, marketing and hip-hop culture, “you almost have to be a performance artist.”

The performance the Globetrotters put on is unlike anything else that Bryson — or, for that matter, any of his contemporaries — has encountered in a purely competitive environment. Globetrotters develop a repertoire of “reems,” a term encompassing vaudevillian routines as well as physical feats: dribbling a ball while sliding on one knee, catching the ball on the back of the neck, bouncing it between the legs and grabbing it behind the back with pointed elbows. Globetrotters, who avoid the fierce posturing that pervades basketball, must be career diplomats. All this requires a different set of muscles, both physical and social. The Globetrotters don’t expect new recruits to have mastered these skills, but there has to be the potential and the will to develop them. “I always used to have that hard face,” says Mike St. Julien, a seven-year veteran and the team’s strength and conditioning coach. “Now I smile more and just have fun and meet people.”

Back in November, Bryson played for the Globetrotters at Connecticut, but they cut him the next day. In Edwardsville, the Globetrotters offered him $ 1,000 for 10 days and another chance to make the team. Bryson says he’d never really thought about joining them year-round before Jackson approached him again, and when he tells me, “It’s very interesting seeing what they do,” it’s unclear whether he’s begun to think about it now. At the very least, he’s accepted an invitation to ride the bus as the eastern unit heads up into central Illinois, where he remains a popular local hero.

The Globetrotters will never compete at the highest level if they can’t match the NBA’s salary scale, but they can elevate their game by seeking out the Tarise Brysons of the world — overlooked players at in-between moments in their careers. But even if Bryson could be brought into the fold, he’s hardly a natural Globetrotter; at Illinois State, he had a reputation for being serious and seriously shy, and still speaks with his head down in a soft mumble. “He’s a shooter, but he’s got to play more to find his spacing,” Jackson says after watching Bryson work out in Edwardsville. “In the context of the team, he’s got to find his way.”

In St. Louis, a couple of hours before game time, Bryson joins a small shootaround as four other Globetrotters in full uniform greet hundreds of early arrivals. Children with parents, Cub Scouts and their den leaders, and the odd lone adult wait to meet a Globetrotter — it doesn’t matter which. Instantly recognizable and anonymous at the same time, the players introduce themselves and make cordial small talk. In a subtle way, the Globetrotters bridge the chasm between athlete and admirer and, depending on the customer, other differences as well: tall and short, adult and child, white and black. After a few seconds, a player will wrap his long arms around the fans and smile for a snapshot.

At 7 o’clock, the lights go down. The reems begin before the clock starts ticking, when Matthew “Showbiz” Jackson (no relation to Mannie) stands with his back to the basket by the scorer’s table, and launches a hook shot. The ball arcs high in the air, a revolving blur of red, white and blue crossing half of the court, but fails to hit the rim. The crowd of 10,850 remains silent until Showbiz, tonight’s lead clown, sighs into his microphone, then says, “One more time,” in a thick Georgia drawl. He misses again, and this time the crowd needs no cue to sigh. After each miss, he offers a ridiculous excuse: He’s too close, he’s distracted by the reflection off a bald fan’s head. After the seventh miss, he gives up.

As the starters take the court for the opening jump ball, Tarise Bryson takes a seat at the end of the bench. He’s not in uniform, since the Globetrotters won’t be using him as a substitute, but he’s been given a cranberry velour sweat suit that says Original Harlem Globetrotters. It hangs well on his slender frame but doesn’t quite match his solemn expression. Showbiz, all smiles, makes the rounds of his teammates, shaking their hands and greeting them warmly. He snubs Nationals captain Jared Whelan, a white guard out of Ramapo College, and when he comes to the tipoff circle and looks up at the opposing center, a tall black man with an NBA-caliber scowl, he shrieks and falls back faint, as if from fright. The crowd laughs, though I’m not sure whether the joke is that he’s a mean-looking guy or a mean-looking black guy. In either case, the Nationals’ center gets distracted, Showbiz controls the tipoff, and the Globetrotters take a 2-0 lead.

Sometimes the game is indistinguishable from any other game. Some plays out of the pivot-and-weave offense build to a choreographed dunk. Some reems subvert the conventions of basketball; when Showbiz wants to come off the bench, he presses the substitution horn and doesn’t let go. Others invoke the subject of race. Showbiz stops the game to call a foul on one of the Nationals, and the referee and announcer repeat his call “on the little white dude” verbatim. Later, Showbiz pulls a white boy, perhaps 6 or 7 years old, from the front row and tells the referee that the boy is his son. When race isn’t an explicit issue, it can be a subtext impossible to ignore, as when the clock stops while the team shimmy-shakes in unison to the likes of P. Diddy and Nelly. Throughout all this, I am wondering whether Bryson can see a role for himself in the script.

When the final horn blows, the ushers hoist a rope around the perimeter of the court, and the scoreboard operator puts 30 minutes on the clock. The Globetrotters commit to signing autographs for half an hour after every show. As fans stream down the aisles, Bryson is handed a felt-tip marker. His picture doesn’t appear in the program, but the children would be tickled to walk away with his signature. With the pen and the sweat suit, Bryson has a chance to get a taste of what it’s like to be a Globetrotter, but he stands well back from the fans and maintains a wary gaze.

Bryson perambulates uneasily as the road crew unfurls an inflatable mannequin, a towering Globetrotter that reaches halfway toward the ceiling. He settles behind Showbiz, who is signing programs, pennants, basketballs, hats, T-shirts, ticket stubs, paper cups, dollar bills — anything that absorbs ink. Bryson makes eye contact with a woman he knows in the stands. He taps Showbiz on the shoulder, but the besieged showman is too busy to look up until he is tapped again. When Showbiz turns around, Bryson points up at the woman, who is holding a point-and-shoot camera. She gestures that they should stand side-by-side, then puts the camera to her eye. In the presence of a familiar face, Bryson cracks a bashful smile, and her flash goes off.

For Bryson, this photograph may turn out to be what the parade of pregame snapshots will be for the children: a keepsake of a brief encounter. Bryson will never even make it to the next night’s game in Springfield, because his agent, Bill Neff, has heard that the Globetrotters put out a press release touting Bryson’s tryout. As Neff sees it, the Globetrotters already passed on Bryson in Connecticut, and this new tryout is merely a way to use a cash-strapped kid to hype the Globetrotters’ Illinois appearances.

While Jackson says, “We thought we were doing him a favor,” Neff doesn’t think his client would be served well by joining the Globetrotters anyway. “If you have aspirations of getting better as a player, spinning the ball on your finger isn’t a way of doing it.”

It’s not unheard of these days to play for the Globetrotters and move on to the NBA.

Devean George of the Los Angeles Lakers made the leap. So did SuperSonics center Jerome James. The biggest obstacle in attracting talent, according to Mannie Jackson, isn’t skill or salary levels but perceptions. There is the nagging sense that what the Globetrotters do is not exactly basketball, which is compounded by the persistent afterimage of them as animated superheroes.

“When people came to the arena, the guys tried to act like what people liked on TV,” Jackson says as his rental car crosses Missouri to check on the western unit. He blames previous owners for bowing to television executives’ demands that the Globetrotters cartoon characters have wider lips and more identifiably black voices, feeding stereotypes.

Returning to competition could remind the public that the Globetrotters were more than a blaxploitation-era cartoon, but the roster Jackson inherited in 1993 wasn’t yet up to it. He cleaned house, replacing older comedians with more athletic youngsters. In 1995, the Globetrotters won 10 out of 11 games against a touring team captained by retired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but even the one loss, which came after 8,829 consecutive victories against the Generals and their ilk, was progress. Two years later, the Globe-trotters defeated a new crop of college all-stars. In 2000, they beat the NCAA Division II champion, and lost to Division I champion Michigan State by four. The return to competition harked back to the years before integration, when they were the leading African American franchise. Jackson is still sore that the NBA did not include the Globetrotters in its 1996 golden jubilee, since it might never have reached 50 without Saperstein’s team playing doubleheaders to fill NBA arenas.

“He could bring numbers in,” Jackson says of Saperstein, “but he’d throw them out there as a bunch of Negroes clowning.” Jackson speaks of his predecessor with a processed blend of admiration and disdain. “His times were very racially cast, you know, and he himself was a minority. When you are the bottom of the barrel, you’re stepping on a lot of people trying to climb to the top.” At the same time, Jackson says, “Abe had a very special genius, not just in creating the marketing around the Globetrotters, but to be able to embrace these black folks. He had to take all the crap they took, plus he was building a product that will probably last another hundred years. It is an ingenious product. So Abe was a different guy. I think about him all the time.”

The Kansas City show features a different clown prince, Paul “Showtime” Gaffney, but events unfold much as they did in St. Louis, beginning with Showtime repeatedly missing the long hook shot.

In Omaha the next night, however, Showtime nails the half-court shot on his first try, eliciting a roar of genuine marvel. In the third quarter, Showtime grabs a handbag from the long table at courtside opposite the scorer. After fobbing the purse off on a National and taunting him with Bill Cosby’s Jell-O jingle (“Watch it wiggle, see it jiggle”), Showtime then identifies the bag’s owner, an attractive blonde named Suzi White, and calls her out to center court. A throbbing bass line comes over the public-address system, and Showtime begins an exaggerated bump-and-grind. With everyone in the Omaha Civic Auditorium watching — her 13-year-old daughter, Kelsey, sitting courtside; her fiance, Pat Thomas, a sergeant in the county sheriff’s office, who’s working security; and thousands of strangers — Suzi turns red, then decides to play along, and begins dancing.

When the music stops, Showtime escorts Suzi toward the exit, announcing that they’re heading out for a bite to eat. He then brings her back on the court, and says he can guess where she got her shoes. If he’s wrong, he’ll give her his jersey and autograph it; if he’s right, she has to give him a kiss on the cheek. It’s a sucker bet, and when Showtime announces that Suzi “got her shoes on her feet,” she gives him a peck on the cheek. He turns the other cheek, and she kisses that one, too. Then Showtime takes a towel, wipes off his lips and puckers up. When Suzi kisses him, he faints, and the rest of the Globetrotters stampede onto the court, clamoring to be next in line. Then everyone sits down, and the action resumes.

At the end of the show, the Globetrotters’ bus driver privately approaches Suzi White with a dinner invitation from Showtime. Suzi declines the offer, which Showtime says is

a further gag he improvised after hearing sheriff’s deputies say Suzi is engaged to their superior. During the autograph session, Thomas patrols the court in his uniform, keeping one eye on the crowd and the other on Showtime. Suzi brings Kelsey over to Showtime, so she can ask him to autograph her poster.

A few weeks later, the deputies still hadn’t let Thomas forget the handbag reem. “That’s the way cops are,” he says. “I got grief for that for two or three weeks after she kissed him on the lips.” After all the ribbing, Thomas is even less amused. “If he’s going to take advantage of my girlfriend in that public setting, how many women is he going to take advantage of around the country? He kissed her on the cheek, he kissed her on the lips, he asked her to dinner. To me that sounds like he’s trying to make the moves on her.”

Suzi White now says she regrets kissing Showtime on the lips. “Afterward, I looked up at Pat, and he didn’t look happy,” she says.

Kelsey, however, went back to school and told her friends about her mother’s star turn. “My daughter was like, ‘Mom, you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s funny. Who cares?’ ”

The Globetrotters’ bus, which is virtually a moving billboard for them and their sponsors, leaves Omaha at 8 a.m. For 300 miles, it cruises along the interstate, with the Nationals, in a generic rental bus, following at a safe distance. The early departure allows them to reach Columbia, Mo., with plenty of time to check in at their hotel, have some lunch and relax a bit before heading over to the arena for a full practice. The Globetrotters like to have two hours on the arena floor, with half set aside for rehearsal and the remainder as a free-form scrimmage.

The arena doesn’t free up until 4, however, leaving only an hour before the first fans

arrive for the pregame photo session. The rookies need to run through the double-dunk reem a few times, and figure out who throws the ball off the glass, and who will slam it home. They also have to learn where to kneel as the veterans do the Magic Circle to the tune of “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Five thousand people have bought advance tickets, not bad for a school night, and walk-ups are more likely with no snow on the roads. The Globetrotters have a show in a couple of hours; playing basketball will have to wait.

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