Twenty years before the integration of professional sports, 24-year-old Abraham Saperstein organized a basketball team. He called his club the “Savoy Big Five,” after the famous Savoy Ballroom of Chicago, home to such Jazz greats as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald and Woody Herman.
At least, that’s what the official team history says, except the Savoy didn’t open until 1927. We may have to just go with it.
Saperstein renamed his club the “Harlem Globetrotters” despite their being from Chicago, the team arriving in a model T Ford for their debut game on January 7, 1927.
The last two years had been nothing but 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.
The squad toured Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, playing almost every night against any and all challengers. Despite a height of 5’3″, 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 crowds with comedic routines, whenever he put a runner out. 6’4″ with an 84″ wingspan and able to touch his knees without bending, Tatum is credited with inventing the hook shot, an early version of the “skyhook” that made Kareem Abdul-Jabbar famous, 30 years later
Tatum was the original “Clown Prince” of the Globetrotters, though the title is more often associated with 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. When he passed away in 1967 at age 45, sports reporter Lawrence Casey of the Chicago Daily Defender remarked, “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, the newest showman on the team, created the signature pregame “Magic Circle,” the behind-the-back shot, the “yo-yo” basketball and the “goofball,” a basketball filled with weights to give it a crazy bounce.
In the early 1940s, the Harlem Globetrotters were the most famous, and 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, Buie worked so hard on his goals that he became the “One Armed Firecracker”. He signed with the Globetrotters in 1946 and played 9 seasons as a starter, 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 in the early years, winning the World Professional Basketball Tournament as late as 1940. The club worked more gag routines into their game throughout the late 40s and 50s, as the newly founded NBA gained popularity. Finally, the team became 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.
Ba Da Da, Dunt Da Da Da, Dunt Da Da Da Da… Now try to keep that out of your head.
Former NBA Baltimore Bullets point guard Louis “Red” Klotz formed an exhibition team in 1952 to play against the Globetrotters. He called his team the Washington Generals, in a nod to future president Dwight Eisenhower.
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 the team, 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 home, for this series the opponent was the “Chinese Basketeers”. At first slow to catch on, the audience of 14,000 sat in stupefied silence, finally warming on the realization 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 finally becoming capitalists.
Abe Saperstein passed away in 1966, at the age of 63. The owner and founder of the Harlem Globetrotters, he was also founder and first Commissioner of the American Basketball League. Under Saperstein’s direction, the ABL was the first basketball league to institute the 3-point rule, in 1961. Saperstein was inducted into the Basketball of Fame in 1971, and the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, in 2005.
Here’s a great piece of sports trivia. At 5’3″, Abe Saperstein is the shortest male inductee in the Professional Basketball Hall of Fame, according to his Wikipedia page.
Abe Saperstein was gone but his creation went on, signing Olympic Gold Medalist Lynette Woodard the 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.
There are nine honorary Globetrotters, including Henry Kissinger, Bob Hope, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Whoopi Goldberg, Nelson Mandela, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Pope Francis and Jesse Jackson. Jesse Owens, the track star who stuffed Adolf Hitler’s “master race” 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-one 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?
Prior to a 2011 visit to Dallas, the Globetrotters emailed local media, challenging Globetrotter nation to a H.O.R.S.E. competition. If you’re not familiar, a player takes a shot. Any shot. You can spin around and bounce the ball off of your head if you like. If you sink the basket, the next player has to sink the same shot. Otherwise, they get an ‘H’.
The last one to spell ‘HORSE’, wins.
71-year-old Kay Seamayer of the “Granny Globetrotters” entered a video, sinking an old Meadowlark three-pointer, blindfolded. Kay is a motivational speaker who wants to encourage everyone to “Get up, Get out, and Get Your Move on”. She was only voted #2 in the HORSE challenge, but the lady would have had my vote.
Shortly before his death in 1999, Wilt Chamberlain paid homage to his favorite basketball player: “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.”
American basketball player, actor and ordained Christian minister Meadow Lemon III, professionally known as Meadowlark Lemon, played over 16,000 games with the Harlem Globetrotters, between 1954 and 1994. He passed away two years ago almost to the day, in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was 83. Rest in Peace, Mr. Lemon. You brought a lot of smiles to the little boy in me.