Globetrotters truly giants on the court, among men

September 25, 2002|By Laura Vecsey

THE HARLEM Globetrotters will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday.

What took so long?

Ever since June, when this year's Hall of Fame class was announced, I have wondered how a team as much responsible for the perpetuation of and affection for the game as anything else on Earth is only now being granted its proper honor.

At least the Globetrotters made it to the Hall before Michael Jordan.

Even now with those ailing knees and that perplexing inability to let go of his insatiable appetite for competition, Jordan is perhaps the only other force in basketball besides the Globetrotters who transcends borders, culture and race.

Even on that score, Jordan - who steadfastly refuses to sully his powerful marketing brand by taking a controversial stand - never played as high above the rim as the Trotters did in their role in integration.

With the Globetrotters, their Hall of Fame credentials are beyond question or compare.

We're talking 76 years, 120 million people and 117 countries.

We're talking generation after generation of wildly skilled ballhandlers, shooters, ambassadors of the game, entertainers.

We're talking about generations of African-American men, whose team was formed because of and against racial segregation, who turned out to be one of America's greatest symbols of freedom, expression, self-realization.

We're talking Meadowlark Lemon, Goose Tatum, Marques Haynes.

We're talking to Fred "Curly" Neal, a bald-headed star long before Charles Barkley, who could spin a ball on his finger, dribble a ball like it was a yo-yo.

"It's overdue," Neal said in a phone interview yesterday as he prepared for this weekend's trip to Springfield, Mass.

"This organization has been around since 1927. We've brought the game to millions of people abroad. Abe Saperstein [founder and original owner of the Globetrotters] used to bring his own court and set it up in soccer stadiums, tennis courts.

"We played in front of the Pope. We went to China. We brought the game to Europe. We were pioneers and we were ambassadors of goodwill. We were children-oriented. It was about respecting your parents, making good decisions."

It was also about incredible, mind-bending acts of basketball.

In 1970, when I was 8 years old, my father took me and my sister to see the Globetrotters play at an outdoor night game in Rome.

This was my introduction to basketball, one I have never forgotten.

Neal and Lemon were the kings of the court, gregarious entertainers with immense talent who made mincemeat out of their all-white, all-dorky Washington Generals opponents.

So what that the Globetrotters were as much about theater that night?

It's not as if the Globetrotters were solely dependent on comedy and hijinks.

"We were in Prague, Czechoslovakia, one night, and they just didn't have a sense of humor," Neal said. "It wasn't much of a time for laughter over there. So at halftime, Abe just told us to go out and play. When the game was over, those people stood for 15 minutes and gave us a standing ovation."

Mannie Jackson, a former Globetrotters player who bought the team nine years ago, has restored them as one of the world's great sports brands. They are once again playing "real" games against some college teams, including an exhibition Nov. 12 against Maryland that will open the Terps' new Comcast Center.

Any attempt to relegate the Globetrotters to the role of "clowns" is "revisionist history," Jackson says.

"That was part of the scheme to discredit the team. There was a period between 1935 and 1955 when the Globetrotters were the most dominant basketball team on the planet. They beat everyone. They beat the Minneapolis Lakers," Jackson said.

"To say the Globetrotters were clowns, that's just silly stuff. Like Bob Hope wasn't a goof when he was on stage? Is it that confusing?"

This weekend, the Globetrotters could find themselves battling another matter of perception.

Can they get their moment in the spotlight on a day when Magic Johnson is also being inducted into the Hall of Fame?

In a fair and just world, the Globetrotters deserve a day to themselves, "away from the NBA marketing machine that is a cartel" for the way it assumes total control over the game of basketball, Jackson said.

In spite of its Pac-Man appetite for revenue streams, the NBA owes as much, if not more, to the Globetrotters as it does to Magic or Michael or any other single star it so heavily promotes.

Magic and Larry Bird's coast-to-coast championship duels may have spiked the NBA's popularity, but knowledge and affection for basketball already had been securely sowed throughout the world, thanks to the Globetrotters.

More important is the Globetrotters' role in accelerating integration of the NBA.

"You take kids today who are 23, 24, and their view of history is distorted," Jackson said. "Maybe they think about Julius Erving, Michael Jordan and maybe Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. They haven't allowed themselves to be connected to anything before that historically. They don't know how it all got here.

"Maybe that's part of the issue with NBA players. They don't have a broader view. ... Too many don't identify with the past."

With the Globetrotters' Hall of Fame induction, it's time to fix some of that basketball history.

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