The New York Yankees, Real Madrid, Boston Red Sox, the New Zealand All Blacks, Manchester United….these are all names that every sports fan dotes upon. They all represent the biggest and best of sport. The Harlem Globetrotters are mentioned along these great names. You may not know their story, but the name and their colours are emblazoned on every sports fans mind. But where did it all start?
The Harlem Globetrotters, an all black basketball team, were a manifestation of America’s segregation laws. All American sports were racially segregated up until the mid 20th century. In basketball specifically, racial segregation lasted until 1950 when the National Basketball Association (NBA) finally became racially integrated. Up until that time ‘Negro leagues’ existed; these leagues allowed black athletes to play sport while separated from white athletes. The best black players played for the Harlem Globetrotters.
Professional basketball caught on in the early 1920’s when towns established flamboyant teams that played to make money. Most of these teams, like the city they hail from, shared an ethnic identity. The Jews had a team in one city, the Irish had a team in another city and the Blacks had a team elsewhere. Teams really developed from within small, ethnic communities and as such each team represented wider cultural, political and religious values.
During the 1920’s the city of Chicago was experiencing a black renaissance. Jazz music was taking over the windy city, and dance halls were looking at new and exciting ways to entertain the crowd. Basketball was that new and exciting entertainment. The Savoy Big 5, a local team, was brought in to entertain the mass at the Savoy dance hall in Chicago. The team performed in exhibitions before dances. Unfortunately, this lasted less than a month so in 1928 the Savoy Big 5, led by player Tommy Brookins, re-formed under the name ‘Globe Trotters’ and toured the state of Illinois. Shortly after, a man called Abe Sapersteain became the manager and promoter of the ‘Globe trotters’. In 1929 Saperstein worked his magic; he created a brand that is now known the world over. Initially Saperstein named the team the ‘New York Globe Trotters’, he believed that by creating the impression that these athletes were from, what is considered, the greatest city on earth then he could book out local gigs. His ploy did not work due to racial tension in the mid west, so he turned to plan B. Abe Saperstein made a decision to name the team The Harlem Globetrotters. He chose the city of Harlem, in New York, because it was considered at the time as the epicentre of African-American culture. Saberstein wanted the world to know that his team were black. This avoided the shock when white people attended exhibitions.
In this day and age it is strange to imagine that people were so shocked to see black skin. But in the early 20th century in America, and in most Western countries, it was not common to see non-white people. In these early days the Harlem Globetrotters played in venues and cities that were all under the jurisdiction of the Jim Crow Laws. Racism in America was rife, and the players were susceptible to it every day.
On the court, the Harlem Globetrotters were revolutionary. They were doing things that had never been done. They were dunking the ball, creating plays, making trick shots – they were simply unstoppable. As black players the Harlem Globetrotters may not have had power off the court, but on it – sheesh! It was through this camaraderie and skill that the white spectators began to admire the black athletes. They simply made people laugh!
Reece “Goose” Tatum
Perhaps the greatest every Globetrotter!
Reece “Goose” Tatum was born in May 1921 in El Dorado, Arkansas. He is considered to be the original “clown prince”. He is recognised as the man who established the use of comedy in Globetrotter play and is best known for his own tremendous comedic routines, these routines made Tatum a cult figure in basketball.
Tatum created the ‘magic circle’, this was a warm-up routine inspired by a baseball warm-up called ‘pepper’. Tatum and the Globetrotters revolutionised the warm-up and decided to incorporate music to their own version of the routine. The ‘magic circle’ is now a tradition played out at every Globetrotter exhibition to date. The players warm-up to Brother Bones – Sweet Georgia Brown, and if you haven’t seen it please refer yourself to YouTube, worth a watch.
The Messi of Basketball.
At a time when basketball players rarely dribbled the ball, this kid was doing it 6 times a second. He could dribble standing up, sitting down, crouching, dancing – you name it! Opposition would quite literally fall at his feet.
It is really sad that due to the injustice of racial segregation throughout American policy and particularly in sport, that this magnificent talent never got to express his skills in the NBA.
1948: The Harlem Globetrotters vs Minneapolis Lakers
People began to be intrigued by the comparison between the white and black players. This was the game to end all speculation and put the rumour to bed, and show that the black players were not merely clowns of the game but that they had a real competitive edge.
The Minneapolis Lakers had won everything in their sights.
On the night, the Harlem Globetrotters left their class clown reputation behind. They walked out and played straight laced basketball, and won. In the dying seconds with the score tied 59 – 59, Ermer Robinson scored a basket. That night, 20,000 people within the stadium witnessed that the Harlem Globetrotters could play the best in the land and win.
The result sent a message to the nation, and to everyone involved in American sport, that black people and black players were here to stay. The victory echoed around the 50 states, and it was time to lift the segregation on sport.
Indeed it was a Harlem Globetrotter who would break the chains of racial segregation. Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was the first African-American to play in the NBA. Clifton became a Harlem Globetrotter in 1947, and signed for the New York Knicks in 1950.
During the 1950’s the newly established National Basketball Assocation (NBA) struggled to draw crowds, unlike the Harlem Globetrotters who were selling out week by week. Due to the dwindling interest in NBA games the association asked the Globetrotters to open with an exhibition before official matches thinking this would help to draw crowds which it did, until the Harlem Globetrotters left the court and just like that the stadiums emptied.
Whilst the NBA was struggling to get its feet of the ground, the Harlem Globetrotters starred in two of their very own Hollywood movies. ‘The Harlem Globetrotters’ and ‘Go man go’ was enjoyed by thousands of new fans throughout the world. So in 1952 it was time to live up to the name and travel the globe.
The Harlem Globetrotters are now 90 years old. Tonight they will be in my home town Glasgow to celebrate what has been an astonishing sporting story.
I have mentioned only some of the key events that have sparked such an illustrious tenure in sport. I have mentioned but a few characters that have been fortunate enough to grace a Harlem jersey. Since 1952, the Harlem Globetrotters have entertained the masses with sporting prowess and comedy. They have travelled from Rome to Tokyo, London to Zurich, Balboa to Bratislava, Ostrava to Istanbul. It is remarkable to think that a group of black men and a Jewish manager, Abe Saperstein, in segregated and ethnically divided America could create a force so strong that it has reached every corner of the earth spreading sheer joy and laughter around the globe.
I am proud to be a small part of the 90th Anniversary celebrations tonight. Long live the Harlem Globetrotters and the good work they do.