The Globetrotters originated on the south side of Chicago, Illinois, in the 1920s, where all the original players were raised. The Globetrotters began as the Savoy Big Five, one of the premier attractions of the Savoy Ballroom opened in January 1928, a basketball team of African-American players that played exhibitions before dances due to declining dance attendance. In 1928, several players left the team in a dispute. That autumn, those players, led by Tommy Brookins, formed a team called the "Globe Trotters" and toured Southern Illinois that spring. Abe Saperstein became involved with the team as its manager and promoter. By 1929, Saperstein was touring Illinois and Iowa with his basketball team called the "New York Harlem Globe Trotters". Saperstein selected Harlem, New York, New York, as their home city since Harlem was considered the center of African-American culture at the time and an out-of-town team name would give the team more of a mystique. In fact, the Globetrotters did not play in Harlem until 1968, four decades after the team's formation.
1950 World Series Harlem Globetrotters with owner Abe Saperstein (right) and team secretary W. S. Welch (left)
The Globetrotters were perennial participants in the World Professional Basketball Tournament, winning it in 1940. In a heavily attended matchup a few years later, the 1948 Globetrotters–Lakers game, the Globetrotters made headlines when they beat one of the best white basketball teams in the country, the Minneapolis Lakers (now the Los Angeles Lakers). The Globetrotters continued to easily win games due to Harlem owning the entire talent pool consisting of the best black basketball players of the country at the time. Once one of the most famous teams in the country, the Globetrotters were eventually eclipsed by the rise of the National Basketball Association, particularly when NBA teams began fielding African-American players in the 1950s. In 1950, Harlem Globetrotter Chuck Cooper became the first black player to be drafted in the NBA by Boston and teammate Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton became the first African-American player to sign an NBA contract when the New York Knicks purchased his contract from the Globetrotters for $12,500 (Harlem getting $10,000 and Clifton getting $2,500.
The Globetrotters gradually worked comic routines into their act—a direction the team has credited to Reece "Goose" Tatum, who joined in 1941—and eventually became known more for entertainment than sports. The Globetrotters' acts often feature incredible coordination and skillful handling of one or more basketballs, such as passing or juggling balls between players, balancing or spinning balls on their fingertips, and making unusually difficult shots.
In 1952, the Globetrotters invited Louis "Red" Klotz to create a team to accompany them on their tours. This team, the Washington Generals (who also played under various other names), became the Globetrotters' primary opponents. The Generals are effectively stooges for the Globetrotters, with the Globetrotters handily defeating them in thousands of games.
The Harlem Globetrotters in the Netherlands (1958)
In 1959, the Globetrotters played nine games in Moscow after Saperstein received an invitation from Vasily Gricorevich, the director of Lenin Central Stadium. The team, which included Wilt Chamberlain, was welcomed enthusiastically by spectators and authorities; they met Premier Nikita Khrushchev and collectively received the Athletic Order of Lenin medal.
However, according to one report, spectators were initially confused: "A Soviet audience of 14,000 sat almost silently, as if in awe, through the first half of the game. It warmed up slightly in the second half when it realized the Trotters are more show than competition." The Globetrotters brought their own opponent—not the Washington Generals, but the San Francisco Chinese Basketeers. A review in Pravda stated, "This is not basketball; it is too full of tricks" but praised the Globetrotters' skills and suggested that "they have some techniques to show us."
The American press—particularly Drew Pearson—made note of the fact that the Globetrotters were paid (per game) the equivalent of $4,000, which could be spent only in Moscow. The games were used as evidence that U.S.–Soviet relations were improving, that Moscow was backing off its criticism of race relations inside America, and that the USSR was becoming more capitalist (Pearson suggested that the games were held because Lenin Stadium needed money).
Many famous basketball players have played for the Globetrotters. Greats such as "Wee" Willie Gardner, Connie "The Hawk" Hawkins, Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain, and Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton later went on to join the NBA. The Globetrotters signed their first female player, Olympic gold medalist Lynette Woodard, in 1985. The Globetrotters have featured thirteen female players in their history. Baseball Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Bob Gibson, and Ferguson Jenkins also played for the team at one time or another.
Because nearly all of the team's players have historically been African American, and as a result of the buffoonery involved in many of the Globetrotters' skits, they drew some criticism during the Civil Rights era. The players were accused by some civil-rights advocates of "Tomming for Abe", a reference to Uncle Tom and Jewish owner Abe Saperstein. However, prominent civil rights activist Jesse Jackson (who would later be named an Honorary Globetrotter) came to their defense by stating,
"I think they've been a positive influence... They did not show blacks as stupid. On the contrary, they were shown as superior."
In 1995, Orlando Antigua became the first Hispanic player on the team. He was the first non-black player on the Globetrotters' roster since Bob Karstens played with the squad in 1942–43.
The Globetrotters' Magic Circle in 2019
While parts of a modern exhibition game are pre-planned, the games themselves are not fixed. While their opponents do not interfere with the Globetrotters’ hijinks while on defense, they play a serious game when in possession of the ball and about 20 to 30 percent of a game is "real". This once led to an infamous defeat at the hands of the Washington Generals in 1971, to the distress of the watching crowd, after the Globetrotters lost track of a big lead with their tricks and the Generals hit a game-winning buzzer-beater.
Starting in 2007, the Globetrotters have conducted an annual "draft" a few days before the NBA draft, in which they select players they feel fit the mold of a Globetrotter. Being drafted by the Globetrotters does not guarantee a spot on the team, although several drafted players have gone on to become Globetrotters: Anthony "Ant" Atkinson (2007), Brent Petway (2007), William "Bull" Bullard (2008), Tay "Firefly" Fisher (2008), Charlie Coley III (2009), Paul "Tiny" Sturgess (2011), Jacob "Hops" Tucker (2011), Darnell "Spider" Wilks (2011), Bryan "B-Nice" Narcisse (2012), Tyrone Davis (2013), Corey "Thunder" Law (2013), Tyler "Iceman" Inman (2014) Devan "Beast" Douglas (2016) and AJ "Money" Merriweather.
Soupy Sales and the Harlem Globetrotters; from a 1969 television special
The Harlem Globetrotters have been featured in several of their own films and television series:
The Harlem Globetrotters, a 1951 feature film starring Marques Haynes and other Globetrotters, also featuring Thomas Gomez, Dorothy Dandridge, Bill Walker, and Angela Clarke. Young Bill Townsend drops out of college to join the famous independent Trotter team. He also finds romance along the way. "Goose" Tatum and fancy dribbler Haynes were the star players of the Globetrotters at the time and Saperstein was the owner. Tatum, Haynes, Babe Pressley, Ermer Robinson, Duke Cumberland, Clarence Wilson, Pop Gates, Frank Washington, Ted Strong, and other current team members appear in the film as themselves. Also featured is a lot of actual game footage (three times against the Celtics with Tony Lavelli and Big Bob Hahn), including the "Sweet Georgia Brown" warm-up routine. (Along with making the film, the team toured Major League Baseball stadiums that year and went on their first tour of South America.)
On December 19, 1956, twelve members of the Globetrotters appeared as guest challengers on the TV panel show What's My Line? Clarence Wilson acted as the spokesman and was accompanied by members George "Meadowlark" Lemon, Charlie Hoxie, Roman Turmon, Andy Johnson, Woodrow "Woody" Sauldsberry, Carl Green, Leon Hillard, Willie Gardner, and others.
The Super Globetrotters, a second animated series created by Hanna-Barbera for NBC in 1979. It featured the Globetrotters (now including new squad members James "Twiggy" Sanders, Nate Branch, and Louis "Sweet Lou" Dunbar) as undercover superheroes who would transform themselves by entering magic portable lockers carried in "Sweet Lou" Dunbar's afro or in a basketball-shaped medallion. Although the Super Globetrotters would first attempt to take on the villain with standard comical heroics, things would almost always be settled with a basketball game.
In a 1979 episode of The White Shadow, the Globetrotters appear wherein Coach Reeves convinces the team to help him send his basketball team a reality check about overconfidence and underestimating their opponents as a result of a winning streak that got to his players' heads. The Globetrotters returned in season three (1980) when star player Warren Coolidge convinced that his basketball ability would preclude his need to finish high school, considers dropping out of school and trying out for the Globetrotters. After failing miserably in his tryout, Coolidge is persuaded to finish his education before giving any thought to a basketball career.
The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island, a 1981 made-for-TV film featured the Globetrotters alongside Bob Denver and the rest of the cast of Gilligan's Island. The film's plot follows the first animated series' formula to a degree with a conflict that ends with an unusual basketball game against an opposing team made up of robots. The Globetrotters decide to play with standard moves in the first half, which the robots are able to counter until Gilligan unwittingly comments that they have not done any fancy tricks. This makes the Professor advise the team to use their comedic style of play to win, which hopelessly confuses the machines. However, a couple of Globetrotters suffer injuries, and the team needs the help of Gilligan and Skipper to substitute.
In "Hoopla" (1984), an episode of the television series The Love Boat, the Globetrotters are on a cruise and challenged the crew to a game in the dining room.
In "Homie the Clown," an episode of the animated series The Simpsons, Krusty the Clown bets all the money he earned franchising his name against the Globetrotters in a game, saying that he "thought the Generals were due." He then shouts "That game was fixed! They used a freakin' ladder for God's sake!"
The animated series Futurama features several episodes in which the Harlem Globetrotters appear as brilliant scientists as well as basketball players living on another planet, the Globetrotter Homeworld. Ironically, the Harlem Globetrotters react harshly to anyone who "laughs at their antics" as evidenced in the episode "Time Keeps On Slippin'" (2001).
On December 5, 2010, in a game televised on ESPN2 against the Washington Generals from HP Field House at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, the game saw several landmark events occur. A four-point shot may be scored from the four-point circle 35 ft (11 m) away from the basket, with three minutes or less to go in any quarter. A penalty box was introduced as the price to be paid for any 'funny business' by a player. The Globetrotters made the first, and most, of the four-point shots in the game. All of the penalties in this game were assessed to the Globetrotters. The visiting Globetrotters went on to beat the Generals 104–98 in this historical game of firsts.
Three members of the Globetrotters appear in the "Harlem NY" episode (2011) of Man v. Food Nation, in which they have to defeat a spicy two-pound barbecue sandwich in 15 minutes.
Special K Daley, Ant Atkinson, and Blenda Rodriguez of the Globetrotters made a guest appearance in the October 18, 2011, episode of Sesame Street, in which they talk with the Muppet Elmo about the number 3.
In 2012, the Globetrotters made a special guest appearance on Disney XD's Kickin' It, in the episode "Eddie Cries Uncle".
Three members of the Globetrotters appeared in a February 28, 2012, episode of the Blendtec online video series Will It Blend?, wherein they help Blendtec CEO Tom Dickson and his Uncle Floyd blend miniature basketballs, glitter dust, a whistle, and a bottle of Gatorade. The team then pour the mixture into a bucket, magically turning it into confetti, which they throw on Dickson.
Globetrotter Bull Bullard competed on seasons four, five and six on American Ninja Warrior. In season four, he advanced to the finals but timed out on the first stage of the finals. Bullard competed on two additional seasons.
Three members of the Harlem Globetrotters visited North Korea alongside Dennis Rodman in 2013, as seen in the HBO series Vice, becoming some of the first Americans to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
In addition Bill Cosby (1972) and Magic Johnson (2003) were each signed to honorary $1-a-year lifetime contracts with the Globetrotters. When Cosby's nominal association with the team was the subject of criticism following sexual assault allegations, the Globetrotters stated that they had had no association with him for decades.
Kinokff, Dave; Williams, Edgar (1953). Around the World with the Harlem Globetrotters. Philadelphia: Macrae Smith Company.
Kinokff, Dave; Bloggs, Fred (1958). Go, Man, Go!. New York: Pyramid Books. Retitled version of the above book, to coincide with the Go Man Go (film).
Kinokff, Dave; Williams, Edgar (1971). Go, Man, Go!. New York: Willow Books. Updated version of two previous books.
Vecsey, George (1970). Harlem Globetrotters. New York: Scholastic.
Gault, Clare; Gault, Frank (1976). The Harlem Globetrotters and Basketball's Funniest Games. New York: Scholastic.
Menville, Chuck (1978). The Harlem Globetrotters: An Illustrated History. New York: Willow Books.
Green, Ben (2005). Spinning the Globe: The Rise, Fall, and Return to Greatness of the Harlem Globetrotters. New York: HarperCollins.
"Ready-To-Read", Educational Book series featuring the Harlem Globetrotters
Dobrow, Larry (2017). Here Come the Harlem Globetrotters. New York: Simon Spotlight.
Dobrow, Larry (2017). The Superstar Story of the Harlem Globetrotters. New York: Simon Spotlight.
Dobrow, Larry (2018). The Harlem Globetrotters Present the Points Behind Basketball. New York: Simon Spotlight.