After 65 years, Globetrotters still at home on the road


March 10, 1991|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

SPRINGFIELD, MASS. — Springfield, Mass.

The longest-running card game in sports begins one hour befor the Harlem Globetrotters hit the court.

Tex Harrison deals. No one keeps score. It's just a way to kill time between the hotel and the show. The locker rooms are the same in every town. A couple of benches. Some rolls of tape. A bucket filled with soda cans. A nervous kid wandering around in search of autographs and a harried arena manager reminding the players when to go on.

Harrison, the team's coach and vice president of operations, has been part of the Globetrotters since 1954, serving previously as a player, public relations director and talent scout. He has survived crash landings in Germany and Mexico, performed before kings, queens and popes in Europe and endured the eerie silence of crowds in China.

"Played on every continent, except Antarctica," he said betweehands, rolling an ever-present toothpick between his lips. "The only mutiny we ever had was in South America -- Bolivia, I think. We were going to get on some old, beat-up, obsolete plane, and the pilot came over, drunk and wearing a parachute. We've been run out of some bad buildings. We've worked with some unscrupulous promoters. But we have never put on a bad performance."

With the Harlem Globetrotters, you know the jokes and the punch lines, the plays and the final scores. You even can whistle the team's theme song, "Sweet Georgia Brown." This isn't just basketball, it's show biz. The players change, but the act remains the same.

The Harlem Globetrotters are celebrating their 65th anniversary season as America's last great barnstorming team. Their appeal crosses generational, racial and international boundaries. They've interrupted a civil war in Lima, Peru, and a general strike in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, toured the segregated South of America and the frozen north of Siberia. They've played Baghdad and Boston, Prague and Peoria, San Marino and Schenectady.

"I believe we'll be the first team to play on the moon," Harrisosaid.

He may be right. The Globetrotters have staying power. They were born the year Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs and Al Jolson starred in "The Jazz Singer," and continue to thrive in an era in which Jose Canseco is considered a baseball superstar and M.C. Hammer is called a singer.

"My father played for the Globetrotters, I play for thGlobetrotters and my son could play for the Globetrotters," forward Sterling Forbes said. "I think this will go on forever. I can't see them dying. They're like the Starship Enterprise -- there are still a lot of places to explore."

You watch the Globetrotters, you hit a time warp. They push althe baby-boomer buttons, and, suddenly, you're walking into an episode of "Davy Crockett" or "Leave It To Beaver." Everything is as you remember it -- only in bright, living color.

The Magic Circle is still a wonderful sleight-of-hand celebration of basketball. The Weave is mystifying. The buckets are carefully arranged so that the water hits the referee and the confetti floats harmlessly over the fans.

Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal are retired. The WashingtoGenerals, the Globetrotters' hapless foil, never have won a game under their present name. Sweet Lou Dunbar is the Showman, part Magic Johnson, part Redd Foxx, without the four-letter words. And a female player has been in the act since 1985. The show takes two hours. The memories last for years.

"People see the Globetrotters twice in their life," said teapresident Thomas K. Scallen. "They see them once as a kid, and then once as an adult when they take their children. There is an aura about this team that is incredible. Someone once told me the three most known names in the world were Muhammad Ali, the pope and the Harlem Globetrotters. I believe that now. Michael Jackson and Beatles never played Calcutta, visited Mother Teresa, then hit Saudi Arabia."

There are two touring units of the Harlem Globetrotters, aneach plays a minimum of 250 dates a year. The team has come a long way since British-born promoter Abe Saperstein packed five black players into a Model-T Ford, traveled from Chicago to Hinckley, Ill., and presented the Globetrotters in front of 300 fans, Jan. 27, 1927. Basketball in the Roaring '20s was relegated to dance halls, churches, movie theaters and YMCAs. Sports, like most of the country, were segregated.

But, even then, the Globetrotters crossed racial lines. They wera legitimate team that took on all comers, reaching a competitive zenith in 1940 by winning a world professional championship in Chicago. During World War II, they developed many of the tricks that became their staples. By the 1950s, despite the integration of the National Basketball Association, the Globetrotters were the nation's pre-eminent basketball attraction.

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