The Harlem Globetrotters Still Got Game

After 91 years, the backboard wizards continue to entertain—and amaze

Remember them galavanting onto the court? You’re a kid, a fifth-grader finding it hard to believe in Santa Claus. But here’s a team of in-the-flesh superheroes displaying their powers. Backboard wizards, they’re proud, smiling, focused. Their red, white and blue jerseys are bright, crisp and bring to mind Captain America. Their comedy isn’t far removed from the campy Adam West–starring Batman TV show. But the Harlem Globetrotters are funnier, cooler. Even the Washington Generals players brought in to intentionally lose to the Trotters seem like fans.

You want to be like the Trotters because of their arsenal of tricks. They bounce the ball off their heads, twirl it behind their backs, flick it between their legs and spin it on their index fingers like a top. They fake passes, looking one way and throwing it another, where a teammate is ready to stuff it with epic intensity. You want to be like them because they make your parents gasp one moment, then laugh the next. And after they dazzle and delight, you want to join them in their tour van—the one from the Super Globetrotters Saturday-morning cartoon. You want to fight crime.

Sure, the memory (OK, my memory) is distant, before identity politics and a loss of innocence complicated the role of black entertainers in the U.S. Using physical comedy today, even if it’s a facet of the performance, is deemed suspect by negative nellies (academics, snobby sportswriters). But the Globetrotters, who turn 91 this year, endure because they have a history and tradition of ignoring critics, of proving that basketball and entertainment can coexist marvelously. And they always innovate. This year they introduced the first-ever four-point shot, moving the field-goal arc farther from the basket—and they’re nailing it.

Scrappy Origins

The Trotters have always been a struggle rather than a slam-dunk. Jewish sports promoter Abe Saperstein launched the “New York Harlem Globetrotters” in Chicago in 1928, two years after the team was initially established in the same city. With an unheated Model T Ford bought off a funeral parlor and five of the best black basketball players he could find, Saperstein barnstormed the Midwest, playing local all-white bush-league teams for meager gate earnings. He booked games via telegram. The Trotters earned newspaper raves for their style—fast, nimble, showy.

Ten years later, Saperstein’s superstars were successful, spawning copycat teams. But as the Trotters added comedy to their games, sportswriters grew critical, labeling them entertainers first, ballers second. Words like “clowns” and, even more negatively, “minstrel,” appeared. That changed in 1940, when the Trotters won the World Professional Basketball Tournament. They were legitimate champions.

Soon World War II erupted, and players were lost to the war effort. The Trotters persevered by touring military bases. They penetrated the South, playing segregated audiences. After V-J Day, the team was sitting pretty, drawing huge crowds.

It was time to dominate.

Conquering Heroes

The organization’s postwar years were spotty. Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens racing horses during an outdoor exhibition was a low point. But for every cringeworthy footnote there was a feat, like playing pre-Castro Cuba and defeating the (all-white) Minneapolis Lakers in ’48. When the NBA broke the color line in ’50, the Trotters soldiered on. Hollywood came courting, producing two box office-smashing Trotters flicks.

The team packed Madison Square Garden, appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, traveled to Soviet Russia, and performed in a Spanish bullring. They conquered Mexico, South America, Asia. The U.S. State Department deemed them goodwill ambassadors. Wilt Chamberlain joined the Trotters for a season (’58) before bolting for the NBA’s then-Philadelphia Warriors.

TV elevated the Trotters’ visibility, making them pop-culture icons. From CBS Sports Spectacular to the animated series, the franchise flourished after Saperstein died in ’66. Camera-ready stars like Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal kept the Trotters buoyant in the corporate ’70s and ’80s. Over the years, there were strikes, different owners, criticism from civil rights leaders (but only praise from Jesse Jackson) and changes (including the first female Trotter, Lynette Woodard, in ’85).

Decline and Rebirth

By the early ’90s, the franchise was flagging. Attendance numbers dropped and tours collapsed. Worse, an Ice Capades costumer redesigned their uniforms into jumpsuits.

Following former Trotter and corporate executive Mannie Jackson’s purchase of the team in ’93, things steadily turned around. In the last 25 years there’s been Guinness World Records (such as Most Slam Dunks in One Minute) and media appearances galore. Today, the team once again symbolizes credibility, comedy, camaraderie.

“I hadn’t heard of the Globetrotters until I saw Scooby-Doo,” admits current Trotter forward Zeus McClurkin. “I didn’t think they were real. And I didn’t see the Trotters until I played against them as a Washington General.”

Tired of watching McClurkin dunk on them, the Trotters signed him in 2011. Like the Spider-
Man adage goes—“With great power comes great responsibility”—he embraces the entertainer tag as part of his larger duty to society.

“To be [a] Globetrotter, you have to be a basketball player, an entertainer and a kind person,” he says. “Whether we’re visiting children’s hospitals or teaching bullying prevention, we use our platform to do good.”

In other words, they remain superheroes. Moreover, McClurkin embraces the nostalgia.

“Another great part of our job is [that] people [are] continuing the tradition of bringing their families to a Globetrotters game. When we step on the court in red, white and blue, we remind them of a happy time in their lives,” he says. “Even though they don’t know me, they know I’m a good guy, and they’re thrilled to see me and my teammates.”

The Harlem Globetrotters

Feb. 9, 7 p.m., $26.50-$133.50, T-Mobile Arena,