The 2001 Harlem Globetrotters sure look a lot like your
grandfather's Harlem Globetrotters, maybe your
great-grandfather's Harlem Globetrotters. They shuck and jive
and speed-dribble along the thin line between genuine comedy and
tired slapstick, still stealing ladies' purses, dragging fat
guys out of the audience and, yes, throwing that bucket of
confetti into the crowd. "I hate the damn confetti," says Mannie
Jackson, owner, chairman and nothing less than savior of the
Globetrotters, "but every time we don't do it, I get e-mails. So
we keep throwing the confetti."
Though the Trotters are still defined by the strains of Sweet
Georgia Brown, a fast-paced weave that produces a backdoor
basket and that damn confetti, this 75th season continues an
evolution for the Globies, who less than a decade ago were a
red, white and blue monument to obsolescence. The Globetrotters
opened their 2000-2001 season four months ago by beating Metro
State College of Denver, the Division II national champion, and
a few days later took Michigan State, the Division I champ, to
the wire before losing 72-68. Then they defeated Purdue 74-65.
Those games were straight-up, hold-the-confetti showdowns, as
will be the final stop of this year's North American tour,
against a team of top college seniors during Final Four weekend
in Minneapolis. Last year, in the first National Association of
Basketball Coaches Roundball Challenge, the Globetrotters beat
the collegians 82-80. In addition, a half dozen or so
straight-up games are scheduled for the Globies' international
tour that begins in late April.
"Competitive games return us to what we were," says Jackson, who
during his years as a Globetrotters player in the '60s was
christened Young Squirrel by Meadowlark Lemon for his boundless
energy. "We weren't clowns. We began as the best basketball team
in the world. Champions. Warriors. We want to get back to that.
We have to get back to that."
Indeed, for the first 12 years of their existence, from 1927 to
'38, the Globetrotters played regulation basketball, taking on
all comers and generally dispatching them with ease. During a
game in '39 which they led 112-5, they began clowning around.
The crowd loved it, and soon the Trotters were rolling
basketballs down their arms and shoving them under their
jerseys. Over the years the Globies became known as court
jesters, and the fact that they beat the Minneapolis Lakers in
consecutive years ('48 and '49) and pounded a college all-star
team in a series of well-publicized games throughout the '50s
was secondary. They were an item for the entertainment pages,
not the sports pages, a perspective that was set in stone in
'70, when they gave their name and likeness to a Saturday
morning cartoon show. "When we became known more for being a
cartoon than a basketball team," says Jackson, "that's when we
were in trouble."
In 1991 the Globetrotters' previous owners, the International
Broadcasting Corporation, filed for bankruptcy protection. Two
years later Jackson bought the team for the bargain-basement
price of $5.5 million, putting up only $50,000 of his own money.
He's now the sole owner of an enterprise that's worth more than
$50 million, according to Jackson. Ticket revenues are up 195%
since '93, and attendance has grown by 18% annually over the
same period. Some of the turnaround came from changing business
procedures. Jackson, who was a senior vice president at
Honeywell Inc. before he took over the Globetrotters, overhauled
an organization that was as outdated as the set shot Red Klotz
used to launch for the Washington Generals. Still, Jackson says
the biggest change was reinventing the Trotters as a top-flight
team and scheduling some bona fide opponents.
Wun (pronounced Juan) Versher, now in his seventh year as a
Globetrotter, came to the first tryout camp under Jackson and was
flabbergasted. "They picked players totally on the basis of
basketball skills," says Versher, who played two seasons at
Arizona State from 1991-93. "I mean, we never heard Sweet Georgia
Brown." Camps are still run that way. "The tricks will come,"
says Versher. "You can learn to be a Globetrotter."
Even the most optimistic member of the Globetrotters--and that
would be the inimitable Charles (Tex) Harrison, 68, a Globies
coach who has been with the organization almost continuously
since he signed on as a player in 1954--knows sports fans aren't
perusing the morning papers to find out how the Globies did. (If
you're scoring, through Sunday their 75-year record in all games
stands at 20,583-333.) The effects of becoming a "real"
basketball team on a part-time basis have been mostly internal.
"We had lost a whole generation of fans," says Harrison. "We
were a tired act. Now, with these things that Mannie has
reinaugurated, we're charged up. Energized."
Energized because the season is no longer an endless
fish-in-a-barrel assault on the New York Nationals, who
succeeded the Generals as the Globetrotters' traveling stooges.
There are goals beyond banking in a layup with a ball launched
from the back of the neck, as Herbert (Flight Time) Lang does.
The parts of the Globetrotters-Nationals exhibitions that are
competitive--generally the first four or five minutes of each
10-minute quarter--are now played with intensity, because the
players on the Globies' three touring teams are auditioning for
spots on the competitive team. To identify the top
Globetrotters, the touring teams practice an hour or two a day,
including game days, and the teams each play close to 100 games
in 100 nights, a schedule Versher labels as "grueling and
The Globetrotters, who make between $50,000 and $400,000 a year,
typically arrive at the arena between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m.,
practice, drub the Nationals, and don't leave until almost every
autograph is signed, about 10 o'clock. Then they bus to another
city and do it again the next night. Globies coach Joby Wright,
who played for Bob Knight at Indiana and was the coach at Wyoming
for four years, is scheduled to take 19 Globetrotters into camp
in River Falls, Wis., on March 25 to choose a squad of 12 to play
the college seniors at the Final Four.
Jackson's goal is to make the Globetrotters the ultimate
challenge team, contractually tied each year to play the NBA
champion, the NCAA champion, the champion of every country that
plays high-caliber hoops. They have no such deals now. That
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and Purdue coach Gene Keady
schedule them because they respect the Globetrotters' legacy and
because they want a stiff preseason test doesn't mean NBA
commissioner David Stern is going to come running out with a
contract. "Within two years we want to be one of the top 20
teams in the world," says Jackson, setting a goal that seems far
from reality, "but until I can schedule enough games against
great competition, it's just conversation. Everybody knows this,
though: We're ready to play. That's always been the Globetrotter
COLOR PHOTO: ROSS F. DETTMANN/HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS Antics like Michael Wilson's hang-from-the-rim dunk are only part of the act now.