Day 735: Real Winners Come From Harlem

originally published January 4, 2014

When I was eight years old, my dad took me to watch the Harlem Globetrotters play. I don’t remember much of the game (I suspect they won), but I’ll never forget the lesson they taught me about comedy: nothing is too sacred to become fodder for a laugh. Athletes pour their sweat and souls into mastering their craft, they face each game with grit, determination and a professional intensity, yet here are a lanky bunch of goof-offs, mopping the floor with the hapless Washington Generals and having a great time.

One can find a sort of nihilism in this, I suppose. A victory for class-clowndom, or an existential detachment from the rites of traditional consequentialism. To my eight-year-old eyes, it was none of this – it was pure fun.

The Globetrotters exist within a strange bubble of competitive sport: their primary focus is to provide entertainment, but they must also perform with the precision of a perpetually competitive unit. There is no famous equivalent in any other major sport, suggesting that basketball alone lends itself to physical antics and slapstickish showboatery. Or maybe no one feels they can pull it off with the deft sense of showmanship that the Globetrotters exude.

It may surprise you to know that the headquarters for the Harlem Globetrotters is located in Phoenix, Arizona. This is not a case of an owner retiring to a warmer climate; the team has actually never been based out of Harlem. They were launched in 1927 in Hinckley, Illinois, and spent most of their early years centered around the greater Chicago area. So why slap the word ‘Harlem’ in the team’s name?

Simple. It’s exotic.

No, really. The original team was comprised solely of African-American players, and the perceived nexus of black culture in America was Harlem. Team owner Abe Saperstein, a white Jew from London who would later invent the three-point shot, was looking for a sprinkling of mystique for his travelling team. There wasn’t an established professional basketball league, so teams in this era would make their money through ‘barnstorming’ exhibition shows, drawing their crowds for a few hours’ entertainment, but with no real end-game on the table. The Globetrotters wouldn’t even play a ‘home’ game in Harlem until 1968.

In 1940 the group was invited to the World Professional Basketball Tournament in Chicago, which they won. When the NBA showed up in 1946, the age of barnstorming teams was clearly cuing up its closing credits. The Globetrotters began working ball-spinning, juggling, balancing, and skillful shots that had no logical place in a normal game into their act. They became known for their comedy, carving out a niche that borrowed more from the world of entertainment than the world of sport.

In 1959 the team travelled to Moscow for a nine-game exhibition at the request of the Soviet government. The team met with Premier Nikita Khrushchev and received the Athletic Order of Lenin medal. It was a surreal fissure in the Cold War, a sign (however fleeting) that perhaps common ground could be discovered between the two superpowers. The Soviet audience was a tad confused at first – they had expected a high-quality American basketball team, not a group of performers. But comedy is the ultimate diplomat, and the Globetrotters were a hit.

To be a Harlem Globetrotter, a player needs more than a sense of humor. They need to be phenomenal at the sport, which is why the team’s past roster includes NBA legends Wilt Chamberlain, Connie Hawkins, and Nathaniel Clifton, among others. In 1984 the team signed its first female player, L.A. Olympics gold medalist Lynette Woodard. It was a badge of honor to be a Globetrotter. Also, it was a magnificent way to feast upon the delicious spoils of victory, over and over again.

When the team has played competitively, they have done rather well, knocking off teams around the world and college teams in the US. Their record as of 2006 was 22,000 wins and only 345 losses. Impressive? Sure, except that most of those wins came against stooge teams that were set up as foils to the Globetrotters’ antics. When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA All-Star Team beat the Globetrotters in Vienna in 1995, it was the team’s first loss in 8,829 games, dating back to 1971. Their most frequent foil is the Washington Generals, a team whose destiny should be obvious, given their logo:

The Generals have also gone by the names Boston Shamrocks, New Jersey Reds, Baltimore Rockets and the Atlantic City Seagulls. They are the same team, owned by former NBA point guard Red Klotz, and switching up uniforms to provide the illusion of multiple opponents crushed beneath the mighty Harlem juggernaut. Hey, someone needs to look like chumps when “Sweet Georgia Brown” starts playing through the arena loudspeakers.

That song has to be the most recognizable theme song for any team in the world of sports. The 1925 hit has been covered by Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald and the Beatles, but it’s the Brother Bones whistling, lyric-less version that heralds the Globetrotters’ arrival.

The team has superseded the sport of basketball, nestling deep into pop culture through savvy marketing and excessive saturation of their brand. A 1951 film, a 1954 sequel (starring Sidney Poitier), and a Hanna-Barbera cartoon that ran from 1970 to 1973 all helped cement the Globetrotters in people’s minds as the only team that’ll show up in the entertainment section, not in the sports pages.

Oh yes, there’s more. The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine was an oddly-titled 1974 live-action variety show. The Super Globetrotters was another cartoon, running (with a laugh track!) for only 13 episodes in 1979. In 1981 the team landed on Gilligan’s Island for an entire TV movie – the final film that reunited most of the original cast. They played a game against the staff on The Love Boat in one episode of that show.

The team has shown up on The Simpsons, 30 Rock, Futurama, Man v. Food, and Family Guy. They continue to tour, and of course they continue to win. Three members of the team even travelled to North Korea on that wacky Dennis Rodman junket.

I don’t think a skillful football, baseball or hockey team could ever match the uniqueness of the Globetrotters’ appeal. They make it seem as though the key to athletic success lies in pure, unrestricted fun. Completely untrue, of course, but for those of us who will never hope to become a professional athlete (and I knew that much when I was eight), it’s a breath of vibrant, comedic air, and a consistently hilarious spectacle.

Just don’t bet against ‘em.

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