Halem Globetrotters still inspire hoop screams

UP FRONT

January 04, 1996|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

They have been around for 70 years. So what can they show us that we haven't already seen?

Plenty, says the coach of the Harlem Globetrotters.

"There have been some big changes, ever since the new management," coach Tex Harrison says. In 1993, Harlem Globetrotters International Inc. was bought by Mannie Jackson for $6 million when the former Globetrotter formed a partnership.

He is the first African-American and former player to own the sports/entertainment organization, says Joyce Szymanski, a company spokeswoman.

"Under the leadership of Jackson, a senior vice president and corporate officer of Honeywell Inc., the Harlem Globetrotters have embarked on a new era with renewed commitment to excellence and global social consciousness," she says.

Although the team was still popular in 1993, it was suffering from declining attendance. That wasn't the only thing lacking, Mr. Harrison says. "Mannie has upgraded the skills of the basketball players, which had been on the decline."

The Globetrotters have also heightened their social conscience as a team whose members see themselves as role models, Mr. Harrison says. Harlem Globetrotters donate time conducting basketball clinics for at-risk youths through the United Way.

The Globetrotters still play to their theme song, "Sweet Georgia Brown." But they will be doing their dribbling and slam-dunking to contemporary music and theatrical lighting, says Mr. Harrison, who has been coaching since 1979 and was a player beginning in 1954.

The Globetrotters are proud of another new addition to the team: "Globie," the mascot.

"Globie attracts and entertains the kids before the show and during intermission. The mascot is really a tremendous comedian and dancer," Mr. Harrison says.

The Harlem Globetrotters began as an idea in 1926. Their first paid performance was on Jan. 7, 1927, in Hinckley, Ill. The team that was then known as Abe Saperstein and Inman Jackson's Harlem Globetrotters first played before a paying audience of 300.

A highlight of the Globetrotters' history was playing for the largest crowd ever to see a basketball game. The year was 1951, and the Globetrotters played before 75,000 fans in Berlin's Olympic Stadium. The event established a Guinness world record that still stands.

The team's biggest game in the United States was at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1953 before a crowd of 36,256.

Noteworthy facts for you basketball aficionados: The Harlem Globetrotters were the first team to use the slam dunk and the team that developed the figure-8 "weave" offense that was adopted by the Boston Celtics in the early 1960s, Ms. Szymanski says.

Other interesting tidbits:

It was 1968 when the Harlem Globetrotters played their first official game in Harlem, 41 years after the team's debut in Illinois.

And over the years, four people have been named honorary Harlem Globetrotters. They are Henry Kissinger, Bob Hope, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Whoopi Goldberg.

The best thing about being an honorary Globetrotter is that you don't have to stick to the team's rigid schedule.

"We play every day, sometimes twice on Sundays," Coach Harrison says. "That's one of the requirements to join. You have to adapt to the schedule."

The team members know they have a job to do and find the inspiration to keep going in their fans.

"We are in a different city all of the time, and they go out there and see the kids sitting there with this gleam in their eyes," Mr. Harrison says. "The kids are just waiting for us to do something magical with the ball. Then the music plays, and then the adrenalin starts flowing. Those moments make it worth it."

Still, it's a rough schedule, as is evident from the players' burnout rate.

"The average length of time a player stays is five to seven years," Mr. Harrison says. "The showman may last longer. We call the funny man the showman. On this team, it's 'Sweet' Lou Dunbar."

"Sweet" Lou Dunbar has been on the team for 17 years. The self-described "reigning Clown Prince of Basketball" will retire at the close of the 70th season in April.

There are two teams under the Harlem Globetrotters banner. The blue team will play in Baltimore while the red team plays in the Midwest. Both have the same level of skill, Coach Harrison says.

"We will have about 11 ballplayers in Baltimore and about 25 people totally," he says. "Our competition will be the International All-Stars. They are a team of superb players. They are a group of players from Poland, Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago, elsewhere. They are great!"

That's another thing the new owners changed: the Globetrotters' opponents.

"We upgraded the caliber of the challengers we play," Mr. Harrison says. "We are more committed to excellence. We are and continue to be the world's greatest basketball team. There is no other."

The Harlem Globetrotters

Where: Baltimore Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St.

When: Tonight at 7

Tickets: $10, $12, $15, $22 and $70; on sale at the Baltimore Arena box office and TicketMaster locations including Hecht's stores

Call: (410) 347-2010 for information, (410) 481-SEAT for tickets. For accessible seating information, call (410) 727-7811.

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