By Michael LeCompte
We’ve probably all seen them at some point in our lives. They’re instantly recognizable by their red, white, and blue uniforms and “Sweet Georgia Brown” theme song, but exactly how did the Harlem Globetrotters become both an athletic and African-American cultural institution?
Now known as “The Original Harlem Globetrotters” the team was actually born on the South Side of Chicago in the roaring ’20’s to help promote the Savoy Ballroom.
In 1926 Abe Saperstein, a 24 year old Jewish man from London organized a team of local players he dubbed the “Savoy Big Five” to put on exhibitions before dances at the Savoy.
Saperstein made the team’s first uniforms himself (his father was a tailor and had imparted his son with the necessary skills).
In 1928 Saperstein renamed his team the “Globe Trotters” before embarking on a promotional tour of southern Illinois. A year later the team assumed the name “New York Harlem Globe Trotters” as Harlem was by then considered the center of African-American culture in the country.
Originally the Globetrotter’s exhibitions consisted of games against local teams or dribbling and shooting showcases. However, with the rise of semi-pro and ultimately professional basketball in 1946, they could no longer attract or keep the talent necessary to compete on a serious level. As a result Saperstein introduced an element of trickery into his team’s games and the Globetrotters became the entertainment spectacle that we know today.
By the 1950’s the team was living up to its name, holding exhibitions around the world. In 1959 they even travelled to Moscow and played against a Russian National team with Nikita Khrushchev in attendance.
Throughout their history the Globetrotters have primarily played the Washington Generals, a team founded by Red Klotz at he behest of Saperstein to travel with his Globetrotters. Since 1952 the Generals have willingly played the stooge to the trickery of the Globetrotters.
Many talented basketball players have suited up for the Globetrotters. Wilt Chamberlain played for them before joining the NBA and former players, such as Darryl Dawkins, have also found a second life on the court with the team. Every year the Globetrotters hold a draft, mostly in jest, and choose the athletes they want, even if they aren’t basketball players and will never suit up for the team.
Prominent African-Americans such as Magic Johnson and Bill Cosby have been signed to $1 a year lifetime contracts by the Globetrotters.
During the Civil Rights era the Globetrotters were often criticized for not taking themselves seriously enough. Activists felt that the team was reinforcing negative stereotypes by pandering to a white audience in the name of entertainment.
Since 1926 the Globetrotters have held over 20,000 exhibitions in 120 countries, counting among their honorary members the likes of Nelson Mandela and Pope John Paul II.
The Harlem Globetrotters are a distinctly American story. A team of African-American athletes founded in Chicago by a Jewish businessman, named for Harlem and based in Phoenix, Arizona, they have managed to transcend race and world politics with their unique blend of sport and entertainment.