The Harlem Globetrotters are the most famous basketball team of all time.
The Savoy Big Five was a basketball team founded on the south side of Chicago in the 1920s. All of the players were African-American and most had attended Chicago’s Wendell Phillips High School, playing exhibition games before dances at the Savoy Ballroom beginning in 1927. Two years later, Abe Saperstein became owner, promoter and coach of the team. The son of a tailor, Saperstein sewed the team’s original red, white and blue jerseys and began calling his team the Harlem Globetrotters, choosing “Harlem” because it was the center of African-American culture in the 1920s, and “Globetrotters” to make it seem the team had traveled all around the world. The Globetrotters were one of the best teams in the country, winning the World Professional Basketball Tournament—the most prestigious event in pro basketball–in 1940. When the NBA was formed eight years later, it began fielding African-American players. Globetrotter Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton signed with the New York Knicks in 1950, becoming the NBA’s first black player. As the NBA gained popularity, the Globetrotters–led by Reece “Goose” Tatum, the original “clown prince” of basketball—began introducing comic routines into their act. Tatum was a gifted athlete, having played Negro League Baseball with Satchel Paige [Daily Dose, July 7]. Goose invented the hook shot, had a wingspan of 84” and could touch his kneecaps without bending. A key role in the Globetrotters’ act was ballhandler, and Marques Haynes was one of the greatest of all time. Haynes–who could bounce a basketball six times a second—is considered the greatest player never to compete in the NBA.
Following his frustrating junior year at the University of Kansas, Wilt Chamberlain [Daily Dose, March 2] wanted to play professionally, but the NBA did not accept players who had not finished their last year of studies. In 1958, Wilt joined the Globetrotters for $ 50,000 [over $ 410,000 today]. At the height of the Cold War, the Trotters played a nine-game tour in Moscow. Pravda wrote, “This is not basketball; it is too full of tricks. But they have some techniques to show us.” Meadowlark Lemon played for the team for 25 years and is the most recognizable Globetrotter ever. The consummate entertainer, ‘Lark smack-talked throughout the game, hid the basketball beneath opponents’ jerseys and chased referees with water buckets. Jim Murray wrote, “Lemon was an American institution whose uniform should hang alongside the Spirit of St. Louis and Gemini space capsule in the halls of the Smithsonian Institute.” Mr. Lemon is a member of both the Naismith and International Clown Halls of Fame. A decade after Haynes departed, Fred Neal took over the role of ballhandler. “Curly” was instantly recognizable with his shaved head and took his nickname from Curly Howard of the Three Stooges.
The Harlem Globetrotters were America’s first “Show Time” team. They mixed theatre and sports, bringing razzle-dazzle to a game that desperately needed it. In 90 years of existence, the Trotters have played more than 26,000 exhibitions in over 120 countries and territories. Clad in red, white and blue uniforms, they take the floor to Brother Bones’s whistled version of Sweet Georgia Brown before performing an act that features incredible coordination and skillful handling of the basketball, balancing balls on fingertips, executing behind-the-back passes and making half court shots. Former NBA guard and current L.A. Clippers coach Doc Rivers recalls, “I remember my dad taking me to Chicago Stadium and getting to see them. Then I get back home and I’m sitting in the backyard doing the ball-spinning-on-my-finger thing.” The Trotters are supremely talented, playing over 350 games a year that combine athleticism, theatre and comedy. After losing to their primary opponent—the Washington Generals—in 1962, the Harlem Globetrotters only lost three more games in the next 50 years. The team has won over 22,000 games and boasts an all-time winning percentage of .985. Despite their name, the Trotters did not play in Harlem for four decades, performing there for the first time in 1968. In 2003, the team embarked upon an eight-game tour against college competition, beating Michigan State, UMass and defending national champion Syracuse during that span. Eight Globetrotters have been inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, including Olympic gold medalist Lynette Woodward, the only female in team history. MLB Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and Ferguson Jenkins—two of the best pitchers of their era—played for the Globetrotters. In 1971, Harlem Globetrotters founder Abe Saperstein—who stood 5’5” tall– was elected to the basketball Hall of Fame, making him the shortest man ever inducted.
“Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen. People would say it would be Dr. J or even Michael Jordan. For me, it would be Meadowlark Lemon.”
– Wilt Chamberlain, former Globetrotter and member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame