7/29/13 - the harlem globetrotters and the early n.b.a.

In today's selection -- although the Harlem Globetrotters are now the beloved clowns of basketball who have played in front of 100 million spectators in 115 countries, it was not always that way. The team was founded at a time when professional basketball was barely viable, players often played for more than one team, games were played in dance halls, and teams barnstormed to remote locations for meager paychecks. The Globetrotters played their first game in 1927 in Hinckley, Illinois and the players earned $10 each. Blacks were barred from the NBA until 1950, so in their early years the Globetrotters were "a bastion of black athletic excellence" who took on and defeated the best teams in the NBA:

"Since the first decades of the 20th century, there had been local and regional professional basketball leagues, most of them short-lived -- the Hudson River League, Interstate League, Metropolitan Basketball League, New England League, Western Pennsylvania Basketball League, Midwest League, to name a half dozen. Teams traveled near and far for games (and a paycheck), with the top players often playing for more than one team (depending on who came up with the money or offered them the most for their services on a particular night). Among the most successful barnstorming troupes of the twenties were the Original Celtics, the Philadelphia SPHAs (pronounced spas), the New York Renaissance, and the Savoy Big Five -- the last two composed entirely of African Americans.

"Many basketball games in that era were held in dance halls, and spectators attended the games as much for the opportunity to dance afterward as to see a basketball game. The SPHAs, whose name is an acronym of its former sponsor, the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, played in the Broadwood, whose floor was, on some occasions, waxed and slippery -- ideal for dancing but not for basketball. The New York Renaissance -- or 'Rens' as the team was called took its name from Harlem's famous Renaissance Ballroom, while the Savoy Big Five got its name from the ballroom in Chicago that sponsored the team.

"Abe Saperstein was a young Chicago promoter who bought the Savoy Big Five club and, wishing to associate the all-black team with the most famous black community in the United States, renamed them the Harlem Globetrotters -- never mind that they were based in Chicago and the only trotting they did for their first 20 years was throughout the United States. Saperstein, all 5'5" of him, turned out to have a remarkable flair for promotion as well as inexhaustible energy. 'He made the bookings, handled the promotion, took care of the travel arrangements, pushed the tickets, counted receipts,' the syndicated columnist Red Smith would write years later. For lack of money, Saperstein dressed his players in uniforms that had been made in his father's tailor shop. Not until some time in the thirties did the Globetrotters wear the uniforms with which they are so well identified -- white-and-red-striped shorts, blue jerseys with stars on them, and horizontally striped red-white-and-blue high socks. Their first game as Harlem Globetrotters was on January 7, 1927, 48 miles from Chicago in that famous basketball haven of Hinckley, Illinois. They earned a total of $75 for their effort: $20 to Saperstein, $10 to each of the five players, and $5 for expenses. Twenty thousand games, 100 million spectators, and 115 countries later, the Globetrotters probably rank as the best-known and most-loved sports team ever.

"While the public associates the Globetrotters with their comic routines -- or reams, as the players call them -- in their original incarnation, before spicing up the games with comedic antics, the Globetrotters were among the finest basketball players in the world. They were good enough to win the Chicago Herald American's World Professional Tournament in 1940 (the winner of which was generally recognized as the best professional team in the world), and talented enough to defeat the future NBA champions in an exhibition game in 1948. (That championship Minneapolis Lakers team, incidentally, was led by George Mikan, at 6' 10" basketball's first overpowering big man who, before Wilt [Chamberlain], was considered the greatest center to play the game.) As if the aforementioned doesn't establish the Globetrotters' basketball pedigree, the reader should know that each spring, from 1950 to 1962, the Globetrotters also played a series of coast-to-coast games against a college All-America team. Future professionals like Guy Rodgers, Tom Heinsohn, and Tom Gola, who weren't on the court to play the role of hapless foils, played against the Globetrotters before joining the NBA. These games were legitimate, hard-fought athletic competitions, and most of them were won by the Globetrotters. So the men who wore the Globetrotters uniform were never just basketball clowns -- anything but.

Abe Saperstein, Satch Paige, and Walter Dukes of the Harlem Globetrotters

"Black Americans in the forties and early fifties had few nationally known sporting heroes of their own color to root for. Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson were the most prominent, and, once he broke the color line in baseball, Jackie Robinson made the list. Blacks were barred from the NBA until 1950, and even then it was almost a decade before black players made their presence known. When it came to basketball heroes in the forties and early fifties, blacks had the Globetrotters, who represented, in the words of author Blake Eskin, 'a bastion of black athletic excellence.' ...

"When blacks finally were permitted in the NBA -- which they have since dominated for many decades -- the Globetrotters lost their talent pool."


Robert Cherry


Wilt: Larger Than Life


Triumph Books


Copyright 2004 by Robert Allen Cherry


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment