If you’ve ever seen the Harlem Globetrotters play, you know their reputation as the “Clown Princes of Basketball”. But it didn’t always use to be that way, and today the RedState Department of History looks back on an historic event that set the stage for several milestones in its wake.
On this date in 1927, the Globetrotters played the first game in their history, in Hinckley, Illinois. They were the creation of entrepreneur Abe Saperstein, who took players from an earlier team known as the “Savoy Big Five“, named for the hotel where they played their early games.
You may have noticed, but Savoy isn’t in Harlem. The African-American team was from Chicago and didn’t actually play a game in Harlem until the 1960s. But what they did do was play solid basketball for their day and won 107 games in their first 119-game barnstorming season.
But it was a series of games from 1948-52 that established the Globetrotters nationally, and eventually helped integrate the new National Basketball Association.
There was a lot at stake — and not just a game between all-black and all-white teams. Saperstein and Lakers general manager Max Winter simply wanted to know who had the better team. It was a sporting competition, pure and simple.
The Lakers were led by George Mikan, the game’s first great big man, along with Jim Pollard and a host of other early stars. The Globetrotters were led by center “Goose” Tatum and the incomparable Marques Haynes, regarded as the world’s greatest ball handler.
On February 18, 1948, the teams met at Chicago Stadium before over 20,000 people — and despite Mikan’s domination of Tatum, the Globetrotters won 61-59 on a controversial buzzer-beating shot. Amazingly, the win extended the Trotters’ win streak to 104 games – and the Washington Generals hadn’t even been invented yet.
The game made headlines, and with the Lakers members of the Basketball Association of America the next season, the teams scheduled two more games – one in Chicago and the other in Minneapolis. For the first game, the Lakers were without Pollard and fellow star Swede Carlson, and the Globetrotters won 49-45 with Haynes dribbling out the game using some of the clowning tricks the Globetrotters were beginning to use.
That didn’t sit well with the Lakers, and when the teams met two weeks later in Minneapolis, the full-strength Lakers beat the Globetrotters 68-53, with Minneapolis guard Don Forman imitating Haynes’ wizardry with his own trick dribbling act. That’s the part most Globetrotter histories online don’t mention.
The teams would play each other eight times through the years, with the Lakers beating the Globetrotters six times in a row after losing the first two games.
But by then, the impact of the Globetrotters had helped integrate the NBA, and the team soon turned to full-time comedy as part of its act. With legendary performers such as Meadowlark Lemon, Curly Neal and Geese Ausbie in addition to Tatum and Haynes, they won the hearts of millions of fans the world over.
But the Globetrotters had more famous athletes on their team as well, including Wilt Chamberlain for a time, and three players who would later reach the Baseball Hall of Fame — Ernie Banks, Bob Gibson, and Ferguson Jenkins.
For the last ten years, the Globetrotters have held a “draft” of players who they feel fit the team’s ideal. Athletes selected include soccer players Tim Howard, Lionel Messi, Landon Donovan and Neymar, golfer Jordan Spieth, sprinter Usain Bolt and football/baseball player Tim Tebow, among numerous others.
To listen to the team’s longtime theme song, “Sweet Georgia Brown“, click here.
Happy Sunday and enjoy today’s open thread!