The Harlem Globetrotters, inching their way toward 100 years in business and at least a quadrillion acts of hijinks, are about to flood Eastern Mass. with their basketball tomfoolery. They’re at the DCU Center in Worcester on Friday, the Tsongas Center in Lowell on Saturday, and TD Garden on Saturday and Sunday.
That’s a total four games, three cities, in a little more than 48 hours, including Saturday’s day/night doubleheader in which the legendary “Sweet Georgia Brown” brigade (yes, it plays on as their theme song) will dart between Lowell and Causeway Street.
Twinbills are in their showmen’s bones. When whites and blacks wouldn’t dare mingle in our same buses, restaurants, and arenas, the all-black Globetrotters found opportunity, fame, and fortune in America’s divided houses. They lived by “Let’s play two!’’ long before Cubs legend Ernie Banks got in the game.
“The Globetrotters of the past used to play for an all-white crowd at one point in the day, and then an all-black crowd,’’ noted Anthony “Buckets” Blakes, a 13-year Globetrotter who visited the Worcester YMCA last week to promote the tour. “And then all whites on one side and all blacks on the other, to now being integrated. Because the Globetrotters were so athletic, so entertaining, so funny, and so down to earth . . . all that transcended ethnicity.’’
And here they are today, continuing to do basketball with their homebrew mash of theater, comedy, sport, and spoof. Born just before the stock market crash of 1929, they keep dribbling down the road, albeit now with three teams (North American, South American, and European troupes) touring the world and each with a woman on its roster. Joyce “Sweet J” Ekworomadu, the 12th woman in the Globetrotters’ 89-year history, will play in Worcester, Lowell, and Boston.
It’s easy to forget in 2015 the reason we stream to arenas and pony up our dollars at the ticket window. In their broadest definition, sports are entertainment, escapism. But with fan focus increasingly on the serious business of championships, analytics, fantasy pools, and the latter’s link to gambling, the simple joy of seeing a good game or marveling over the world’s best athletes doing what they do is often lost in the exercise.
Take a few minutes to listen to all-sports radio here in the Hub of the Sports Universe. Are the callers happy? Are the hosts having themselves a good time? Are all those talking heads on ESPN, with perpetual updates on blood doping, steroids, homicides, and domestic abuse, making us feel good?
Sure, there is some fun to extract from it all, but not with anywhere near the consistency that the Globetrotters deliver. In a world hell-bent on winning games and capturing titles, the Globetrotters play only to win us over, conquer our funnybones. Hardcore sports fans consider them clowns, a bit of a joke. Well, yeah. D’oh!
Truth is, if you think about it, the Globetrotters today offer escapism from a sports industry that has surrendered its escapism over the last 40-50 years. Once considered that little bit of folly on the sports calendar, they’ve become the shelter in the everyday storm of sports. Check that, make it every-hour storm.
“No matter what people are going through in life,’’ mused Blakes, 38, who played his college ball at the University of Wyoming, “if you can find some entertainment entity that is very affordable and provides you with two hours of happiness and joy, you’ll definitely stand the test of time. I think that’s what the Globetrotters bring to the table.’’
The Harlem Globetrotters were founded in Chicago, not New York, and were first known as the “Savoy Big Five” and then briefly the Chicago GlobeTrotters. They didn’t play a game in Harlem until 1968, but adopted the upper end of Manhattan as their own late in the 1920s because Harlem then was chic, the hub of African-American culture.
Many of the first Globetrotters joined the team directly out of Wendell Phillips High School, which opened on Chicago’s South Side in 1904. The school still operates today as Wendell Phillips Academy.
“And we still have the same crackerbox gym,’’ said John Byrne, the school’s athletic director, reached last week by telephone. “I can’t tell you it’s the same floor, because I know that’s changed a few times. But it’s the same gym where those guys played.’’
According to Byrne, Wendell Phillips alums who went on to play for the Globetrotters included Tommy Brookings, Hillary Brown, Inman Jackson, Lester Johnson, Byron “Fat” Long, “Kid” Oliver, Al “Runt” Pullins, Randolph Ramsey, and Walter “Toots” Wright. Some of their pictures, said Byrne, still hang in the school’s first-floor hallway, along with fellow alum Nat King Cole of music fame.
Over the years, such legends as Wilt Chamberlain, Ferguson Jenkins, and Bob Gibson played with the Globetrotters. Gibson, the Hall of Fame pitcher for the Cardinals, played only one season, roughly 10 years before tying the Red Sox in knots in the 1967 World Series.
Much of today’s Globetrotters show traces back decades, complete with the fickle bucket that might be used to toss confetti over a referee, but all the better if it serves up cold water. No one is ever sure what it will spew. The team’s “Showman” position, which many may remember was filled for 20-plus years by Meadowlark Lemon, today has that most visible player on the court miked up, his constant chatter over the public address system a focal point of the entertainment.
“I think their secret is that they’re able to keep it fresh,’’ said Steve Nazro, TD Garden’s director of events, who has watched the Globetrotters play on Causeway Street for some 50 years. “They’ve always got some new twist to the show. They’re funny and they’re very good players. It’s not just a bunch of fat guys running around out there.’’
They are the everlasting, ever-enduring Globetrotters, about as Americana as the Flexible Flyer, the hula hoop, and the basketball rim itself. If you can bare the tiniest bit of fun in your sports life, if you can be that brave, that cavalier, they’re worth going to see. They are 21st century current, and they remind some of us that all sports once were meant for fun.