In 1926, 24 year old Abraham Saperstein organized a basketball team. He called it the “Savoy Big Five,” after Chicago’s famous Savoy Ballroom. At least that’s what the official team history says, except the Savoy didn’t open until 1927, so we may have to just go with it.
Saperstein renamed them the “Harlem Globetrotters”, even though they were from Chicago, the team arriving in a Model “T” Ford for their debut game on January 7, 1927. For two years it had been exhibition games before dances. Now, the big game in Hinckley, Illinois would be played in front of 300 fans, with a total game payout of $75.
They toured Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, playing almost every night against any and all challengers. Saperstein himself sometimes suited up to fill in for an injured player. The Globetrotters played their 1000th game in Iron Mountain, Michigan in 1934.
In 1941, Negro League 1st baseman Reece “Goose” Tatum caught Saperstein’s eye. A multi-sport athlete and teammate of Satchel Paige, Tatum would entertain the crowd with comedic routines whenever he put a runner out. He was 6’4″ with an 84″ wingspan, able to touch his knees without bending. He’s credited with inventing the hook shot, an early version of the “skyhook” that would make Kareem Abdul-Jabbar famous, 30 years later.
Tatum was the original “Clown Prince” of the Globetrotters, though that title more often goes Meadowlark Lemon and his confetti-in-the-water-bucket routine. Tatum combined natural athletic ability with a comedic timing that would change the whole direction of the club. He passed away in 1967 at the age of 45, when sports reporter Lawrence Casey of the Chicago Daily Defender wrote, “Like Joe Louis in boxing, Babe Ruth in baseball, Bobby Jones in golf, Goose Tatum was king of his chosen sport.”
When Goose was drafted into the Army Air Corps in 1942, the Globetrotters signed their third Caucasian, the first-ever white player to be offered a contract, Bob Karstens. Karstens was the newest showman on the team, creating the signature pregame “Magic Circle,” the behind-the-back backhand shot, the “yo-yo” basketball and the “goofball,” a basketball filled with weights to give it a crazy bounce. It was the early 1940s and the Harlem Globetrotters were the most famous, and the most profitable, professional basketball franchise in the world.
A near-fatal car accident cost Boid Buie his left arm when he was 13. Never a great athlete before the crash, he worked so hard on his goals that Buie became the “One Armed Firecracker”. He signed with the Globetrotters in 1946, playing 9 seasons as a starter and averaging 14 points per game. Ever since the 2011 Elite Showcase Basketball Classic, the MVP Award is presented in the name of Boid Buie.
The Globetrotters were a serious basketball team throughout the early years, winning the World Professional Basketball Tournament as late as 1940. They gradually worked more comic routines into their game in the late 40s and 50s as the newly founded NBA gained popularity until finally, they were better known for entertainment than for sport.
“Playing the bones” has a musical history going back to ancient China, Egypt, Greece and Rome. Part of 19th century minstrel shows and traditional to musical genres ranging from Irish, to Bluegrass, to Zydeco. Freeman Davis’ “Brother Bones” recording of the 1925 jazz standard “Sweet Georgia Brown” became the Globetrotters’ theme song in 1952.
Former point guard with the NBA Baltimore Bullets, Louis “Red” Klotz, formed an exhibition team in 1952 to play against the Globetrotters. In a nod to future President Dwight Eisenhower, he called them the Washington Generals. The Generals played serious basketball while their opponents juggled balls, spun them on fingertips, and made trick shots. The two teams played 13,000 games between 1953 and 1995, of which the Generals actually won 6.
Those of us who came of age in the 70s remember Curley Neal and Meadowlark Lemon,
who joined the club in 1954. Who remembers that Wilt “the stilt” Chamberlain joined theteam four years later? Chamberlain would be the first Globetrotter to have his jersey retired.
Chamberlain and the Globetrotters did their part to warm the Cold War, with a nine game series in Moscow, in 1959. The Generals stayed at home, this time they brought the “Chinese Basketeers”. An audience of 14,000 sat in stupefied silence, finally warming when they realized that this was more show than sport. The team was paid the equivalent of $4,000 per game which could only be spent in Moscow, prompting the American press to observe that the Soviets were becoming capitalists.
Abe Saperstein passed away in 1966, aged 63. The owner and founder of the Harlem Globetrotters, he was also founder and first Commissioner of the American Basketball League, and inventor of the three point shot. Elected to the Basketball of Fame in 1971. Here’s a great trivia question for you. At 5’3″, Saperstein is the shortest male member in the place. In 2005, he was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
Saperstein’s creation went on, signing Olympic Gold Medalist Lynette Woodard their first ever female player in 1985. Pope John Paul II became an honorary Globetrotter in 1986, in a ceremony in front of 50,000 in Saint Peter’s Square.
The list of official honorary Globetrotters includes Henry Kissinger, Bob Hope, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Whoopi Goldberg, Nelson Mandela, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Jesse Jackson. Jesse Owens, the track star who stuffed Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Berlin olympics, accompanied the Globetrotters to Berlin in 1951. Bill Cosby and Magic Johnson are both signed to $1 a year lifetime contracts, though Cosby’s contract was increased to $1.05 in 1986.
Ninety years after their founding, the Harlem Globetrotters show no signs of slowing down. In 2015, the team drafted 6’6″ 2015 college slam dunk champion LaQuavius Cotton from Mississippi’s Delta State University, and trick shot expert “Dude Perfect” of Mickinney, Texas. How do you not root for a team with two guys named LaQuavius Cotton and Dude Perfect?
Shortly before passing in 1999, Wilt Chamberlain said “Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen. People would say it would be Dr. J or even Jordan. For me it would be Meadowlark Lemon.” Meadowlark Lemon played over 16,000 games with the Harlem Globetrotters. He passed away on December 27 in Scottsdale, Arizona, aged 83. Rest in Peace, sir. You brought a lot of smiles to the little boy in me.