After finishing their college basketball careers at the University of Maryland in 1996, Exree Hipp and Johnny Rhodes took their hoop dreams to faraway places. Hipp went to Brazil, Rhodes to Taiwan and Italy.
They continue to travel the world, and, as they were in College Park, they are teammates.
Tonight will be a homecoming of sorts for the two former Terrapins when their current team, the Harlem Globetrotters, makes a visit to the Towson Center.
"It's like being in college for us," Hipp said earlier this week by telephone from Wheeling, W. Va.
Except they didn't play nearly 200 games a year at Maryland. They didn't travel to at least a dozen foreign countries. They didn't go more than two months without a day off.
"It's grueling, but I definitely enjoy what I do," said Hipp, who is in his second year with the Globetrotters.
Hipp and Rhodes represent the kind of player team owner Mannie Jackson has been looking for since he bought the Globetrotters in 1993. They are players who not only can be part of a family entertainment show that the Globetrotters have performed for much of the past 72 years, but can also provide serious competition.
To that end, the Globetrotters will be playing against a team of college all-stars during the Final Four in Indianapolis, as well as in exhibitions against Division I teams next fall. It is in those settings that Rhodes will be counted on heavily.
"Johnny's our competitive leader," Jackson said earlier this week from the team's headquarters in Phoenix. "And I can see Exree as the kind of guy who will be a Globetrotter for 10 to 15 years."
Hipp was the first of the former Terps to join the team. After being unable to latch on to an NBA team, Hipp played with the team entered by the Globetrotters in the prestigious Los Angeles Summer Pro League. He helped it win the 1998 championship with a 10-1 record.
Offered a contract by Jackson, Hipp instead chose to pursue a professional career in South America. After returning home to Washington, D.C., a few months later, he signed on with the Globetrotters and convinced Jackson to give his former college teammate a tryout in advance of a three-game series against college stars.
"They told me they were trying to put together a more competitive team, and that was a big attraction," said Hipp. "It's kind of an equal balance between the entertainment and the competition."
Said Rhodes, who was the MVP of that series, "I really didn't know where this was going to lead. They signed me to play against the college all-stars. That was my purpose when I came. The show stuff comes along with it."
While Curley "Boo" Johnson puts on the kind of dribbling displays made famous by Curley Neal and Marquis Haynes, and Matthew "Showtime" Jackson is in his 13th season as the team's comedian -- sort of the Goose Tatum or Meadowlark Lemon of his generation -- Hipp and Rhodes are slowly becoming part of the show.
"I'm billed as `Mr. Excitement'," said Hipp, whose game is still based on his leaping ability. "I do the tricks, but I also like to maintain my competitive edge."
Rhodes said he is slowly learning what the team calls its "reams," the dribbling and other ball-handling tricks that some NBA stars such as Jason Williams of the Sacramento Kings have copied.
"It takes a lot of skill and repetition to get the tricks down," said Rhodes. "We're in the middle of two-a-day practices to get ready for Indianapolis, on top of the shows. It's pretty tough physically and mentally."
Though the team has yet to lose this year to the New York Nationals, who have replaced the woebegone Washington Generals as the Globetrotters' foils, Hipp said, "We still have to play hard to get the lead so we can do the tricks."
Said Mannie Jackson, who played for the Globetrotters for four seasons back in the 1960s, "It's like a Broadway musical. It's scripted, but you still have to go out and execute. About 20 nights a year we get it right."
When Jackson purchased the team, the Globetrotters had literally become cartoon characters. The popular Saturday morning cartoon show based on the team had made the real-life players seem almost stiff and the organization suffered at the box office.
"It was going downhill fast," recalled Jackson, 59.
Jackson said that the team's gross revenues have quadrupled to between $50 million and $60 million since he bought the Globetrotters, allowing him to pay off both a bank loan as well as a group of investors. But he emphasized the team is not just a business.
"Every day there's an opportunity to make a child smile," he said.