In early February, I made the short drive to Bowling Green’s Stroh Center to reacquaint myself with one of the truly great sports-and-entertainment franchises found anywhere in the world, one that this year celebrates its ninetieth year in operation. By the time the National Basketball Association was formed by the merger of two forerunner leagues in1949, the Harlem Globetrotters had already celebrated their twenty-first birthday.
My most recent Globetrotter experience was the third time I’d seen them in person, with the first coming in 1964 with my father when they came to the old Lima Senior gym. To give you an idea of how enamored I was with the experience, on the inside of the commemorative program I still have, I actually taped a piece of confetti on a slip of paper and wrote under it, “This piece of paper came from a bucket used by the Harlem Globetrotters. They touched it!”
Of course, even before I saw the ‘Trotters with my dad, I had certainly seen them on numerous occasions on Wide World of Sports, that Saturday afternoon show that showed viewers both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
The second time I saw the Globies in person came some 20 years at the Elida Fieldhouse when I took my younger daughter Katie back in her grammar-school and CYO-basketball-playing days as a St. Charles Redwing. I remember during warm-ups, the roster had one of the nine females ever to have worn the Globetrotter red, white and blue, and she was one of the long-range shooting specialists. While the name eludes me, although I’m thinking it may have been Lynette Woodard, a one-time Globetrotter back in the 80s, what I do remember with clarity was the player’s launching shot after shot from around the half-court line, with none hitting the mark, which prompted my little Katie to look up at meas the horn sounded to begin the game and say, “Dad, shouldn’t some of those have gone in?”
As for my evening, a solo venture this time, there was the usual blend of both misses and makes, basketball skill and comedic talent and young and old spectators there to enjoy a group of athletes and performers who, despite the near-certain monotony of life on the road performing the same routines, brought a vitality to their work that was clear to me.
I remember the Globetrotters of my youth by their full names, such as The Clown Prince of Basketball, Meadowlark Lemon, who, one-time teammate Wilt Chamberlain before his entry into the NBA and ascension to the Mount Rushmore figures of all-time pro basketball greats once said, was the most gifted basketball player he’d ever seen; all-time Globetrotter selections Bob “Showboat” Hall and Tex Harrison; and two of the greatest ball-handlers ever to hit the hardwood, Marquis Haynes, the first Globetrotter ever to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and his successor, Curly Neal, noted for his shaved head and low rapid-fire dribbling displays.
However, these days, the current version of Globetrotters only were referred to by their nicknames, such as Scooter, Bulldog, Clutch, Jet, Hammer, Flip, Firefly, Bull, Spider, Torch, Too Tall and Big Easy.
The ones that most intrigued me were Torch, the lady whose skills earned her a spot to be on equal footing with the men; Too Tall, who, at 5’2”, is the shortest Globetrotter ever; and Big Easy, the New Orleans native and comedic showman in the tradition of Meadowlark, although if Wilt were around today, would say certainly not nearly as athletically gifted as ‘Lark.
Later, when doing some research for this story, I found out that Big Easy, Nate Lofton, actually holds a couple of the seventeen Guinness Book of Records attributed to the Globetrotters, one, for the longest hook shot ever made (72.65 feet) and, two, for the longest blindfolded hook shot (58.25 feet) ever made. Of course, during warm-ups after the tried-and-true traditional circle of ball-handling tricks performed to the whistling version of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” I noted Big Easy fanned on every long-range attempt, and, of course, I thought of my little Katie’s query from so long ago and lived for a moment in that sliver of space that separates laughter and tears.
At The Stroh that night, much of the act hasn’t really changed over time. Much like musicians whose concerts feature their playing the hits because that’s what the audience expects, the Globetrotters have retained so much of their show from so long ago, from “Sweet Georgia Brown” to the marvelous ball-handling abilities, provided in these times by Too Tall and Torch to acrobatic dunks and long-range shooting. As for the latter, one change was the institution of a four-point line, 6 feet, 3 inches behind the NBA three-point line at the top and thirty feet out from the basket, a feature added in 2016. The undisputed star of that four-point line, was the 5’9” Firefly Fisher, who knocked down a half dozen of them.
While the opposing teams who travel with the ‘Trotters and play the foil to their talents have changed some over time, surely the one most familiar with the Globetrotters was the one I saw defeated yet again at The Stroh, the Washington Generals. Of course, I thought of the most memorable of the Generals from my youth, Red Klotz, the diminutive guard who hoisted up set shot after set shot in an effort to slay Goliath once before he died.
Klotz, who made it all the way to 94 years of age before his set shot clock expired in 2014, did, indeed, have his “once moment,” when, in early January of 1971, the then 50-year-old who was still directing the offense for the evening, this time, for the New Jersey Reds, hit the winning basket in a rare win over the ‘Trotters. How rare? Well, the win that night which left the crowd in disbelief and, I’m guesing, some children in tears, snapped a 2,495-game Globetrotter winning streak.
If you’re wondering about the New Jersey Reds, well, on other nights, essentially the same cast of opposing players donned the uniforms of the Boston Shamrocks, the Baltimore Rockets and the Atlantic Seagulls to present the illusion of diversity of opponents.
As for the comedic portion of the show at The Stroh on a bone-chilling evening before a house that was ¾ full, in addition to golden oldies like the high jinks with the referees and the bucket of confetti, there were some antics I hadn’t seen. One, in particular, really captured my attention because it took place no more than six or so feet from my seat behind the west basket in the bleachers just off the court.
Coming out of a timeout, all the ‘Trotters began walking en masse toward the court’s end line and my bleachers as if they were stalking a prey as the loud speakers played music from The Lion King Then, Hammer, the 6’9” dunking machine and also Guiness holder of the longest underhand made shot (84.8.5 feet) broke free of the others, ascended the bleachers and stopped two rows short of me where there was a young couple with a baby. Hammer bent at the waist and gently lifted the baby high over his head as the “Circle of Life” music crescendoed, thus parodying the scene from The Lion King when the young lion cub Simba is first presented at Pride Rock.
Of course, another thing the current Globetrotters could never match when it comes to comparing the current era and the pre-1960 and early ‘60s Globetrotters is their impact on the game. The Globetrotters of the 1950s and early 60s were a transcendent force during a time when the NBA was still in its infancy. While the NBA of this era was predominantly white and played a far more conservative style of basketball, the free-wheeling, high flying and no-look-passing-and-behind-the-back-and-through-the-legs dribbling Globetrotters showed what basketball could be and eventually has become.
Despite my belief that the talent of the Globetrotters of my youth were more skilled, don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed my early February Globetrotter night. I left Bowling Green homeward bound secure in the knowledge that the Harlem Globetrotters remain an iconic American sports-and-entertainment institution. And, in such troubled times, who doesn’t need some entertainment and grins that is definitely “G” rated.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist and feature writer for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and author of two books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.