To have an appreciation for the most popular Harlem Globetrotters of all time, one must know something about the history of this one-of-a-kind team.
To say that the Harlem Globetrotters is an institution in basketball is an understatement. For a good chunk in the dawn of the sport, the Globetrotters were basketball. In many ways, the franchise made basketball hip and cool. They also broke new ground in terms of basketball style of play and social issues.
How did the Harlem Globetrotters come to be? Who were their members that made an immortal mark in the organization and the sport? Who were the most popular? Let’s find out.
History of the Harlem Globetrotters
When basketball was still in its infancy, a group of boys from Chicago’s South Side decided to start a team. They called themselves the Savoy Big Five and instantly became a premier attraction at the Savoy Ballroom in 1928. The members were all Black Americans, and they essentially saved the dwindling dance attendances at the ballroom by performing as a front act for them. Needless to say, they were a hit!
Not long after that gig, things turned south. Some players, led by Tommy Brookins, decided to form their own team. The group called themselves the “Globe Trotters” and hired Abe Saperstein as team manager and promoter.
Saperstein quickly let the ball rolling. By 1929, the team was known as New York Harlem Globe Trotters. The name “Harlem” was chosen because, at that time, the Upper Manhattan neighborhood was the unofficial center of Black culture.
The moniker “Globetrotter” stuck because Saperstein wanted to create a myth about how the team has played in international venues. During that point, all was just part of the marketing and the mystique created by Saperstein. The team was neither from Harlem nor has played in international venues.
As far as talent goes, the Globetrotters could more than hold their own. And, of course, talent is part of the equation in winning games. The Trotters found themselves winning it all in the 1940 World Professional Basketball Tournament, an annual invitational tournament held in Chicago. A few years later, the Globetrotters beat the Minneapolis Lakers in a much-publicized game, 61-59.
Before, the Globetrotters-Lakers game was pretty much about how the other team was predominantly black and the other primarily white. The Trotters proved that if you can play basketball, you can play, regardless of color.
Incorporating Comedy into the Game
Members of the Harlem Globetrotters were seriously skilled basketball players. The 1940 WPB tournament and the edging of the Lakers attest to that. However, there came a time when they had to do something different, and thanks to Reese “Goose” Tatum, they found their calling by incorporating comic routines into their act. That is how they were known more for entertainment than sports.
The Globetrotters’ acts were more than comedy, though. They would often show off skillful ballhandling and impossible shot-making. It’s not uncommon to see a Globetrotter skit that involves juggling and balancing basketballs or doing a spirited dribbling routine.
For the Globetrotters, it’s fair to say that their comedy kept them in the game, so to speak. By the 1950s, the NBA’s popularity and the fact that many American cities were already represented made it extra difficult to tour and find quality opponents. That is why they decided to make comedic acts a central part of their show, their trademark until today.
The Washington Generals
The Globetrotters are synonymous with comedic basketball. That was the direction and decision they made back in the 1940s. In 1952, a real problem surfaced. They needed punching bags and comedic stooges to absorb their punches. The answer was, of course, the Washington Generals.
The Generals were the Globetrotters’ primary opponents. Red Klotz, a former NBA point guard, first formed them. The team plays under different aliases, but the job is simple: Be the Tom to the Trotter’s Jerry. The Generals lost thousands of games to the Globetrotters, almost all by double-digits.
Despite a gazillion losses to the protagonists, the Generals’ roster is primarily composed of competent players. And despite those Ls, the results were not rigged. Part of the job was not to interfere with the Globetrotters’ routines, but that doesn’t mean they automatically take a loss.
Still, it wouldn’t always matter. The Generals lost to the Globetrotters about 16,000 times while only winning six games at most. (Official records only say three.)
In 2015, the Globetrotters chose to cut ties with the Generals. The last Globetrotters-Generals game was held in Wildwood, New Jersey, on August 1, 2015.
7 Most Popular Globetrotters of All-Time
While Wilt Chamberlain may be the most popular Globetrotter of all time, he only played a year for them, thanks to his status as an NBA all-time great. That was before he turned pro in 1959 and went on to dominate in the professional ranks. With that being said, he wasn’t exactly a “clown prince” like the seven guys on this list.
1.) Meadowlark Lemon
If Wilt Chamberlain called you “the greatest basketball player” he’s ever seen, then you deserve a spot on this list.
Meadowlark Lemon took Tatum’s keys as the Globetrotters’ foremost showman, and needless to say, he did his job and more. Lemon was part of a point in Trotters’ history where they became household names because of their various TV shows.
All in all, Lemon, whose real name was Meadow George Lemon III, was considered the best ambassador for basketball and its best showman. NBA legends such as Isiah Thomas, Shaquille O’Neal, and LeBron James consider him a role model.
He probably wasn’t the best ballhandler on his teams, nor the tallest, but his ability to connect with people is uncanny. His lifelong mantra was if he could make people laugh, then maybe they’ll listen to what you have to say.
His trademark shot was a half-court hook shot which he made with amazing frequency. To see Meadowlark execute the confetti bucket trick was a sight to behold.
People can go back and forth arguing about that, but the guy’s got a point. And he has his life as proof that it works!
2.) Reese “Goose” Tatum
If not for “Goose,” the Globetrotters may just have disbanded into oblivion decades ago. Because of Tatum’s idea to do comic skits, the Trotters found a niche that proved to be theirs and theirs alone.
It’s easy to see why Tatum nudged the Globetrotters in that direction. He was a natural comedian and an awkward-looking fellow. Having a 7-foot wingspan, Goose’s were so long that watching him catch a ball looked funny. Hence, he was dubbed the original “Clown Prince of Basketball.”
The best thing about Goose was not even his comedic timing. Along with that came superb athletic and basketball skills that many of his contemporaries called him “the Michael Jordan of his era.” Tatum was part of the Globetrotter teams that beat the George Mikan-led Lakers in 1948 and 1949.
3.) Fred “Curly” Neal
“Curly” was a magical ballhandler, and that alone should earn him a spot on the most entertaining Globetrotters ever. But then again, like other Trotters in this list, he was more than an entertainer.
Neal was a key figure on the team for more than 22 years. He always sported a shaved head and an infectious smile that exuded pure joy from playing basketball. “Curly” was one of only eight Trotters to have his jersey retired.
4.) Marques Haynes
If Curly was the Globetrotters’ primary ballhandling magician from 1963 to 1985, Haynes had the role before that. Some even call him the most gifted dribbler of all time.
Haynes teamed up with Tatum in the better part of the 40s to provide top-notch entertaining basketball. Goose provided the comic relief as the “Clown Prince,” while Haynes got to showcase raw athletic ability. And as a testament to his greatness, Haynes was the first Globetrotter to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
5.) “Sweet” Lou Dunbar
Louis “Sweet Lou” Dunbar was one of the most admired Globetrotters of all time. The guy was so talented that he was able to handle multiple roles during his tenure.
He could be the center of attention, the ballhandler extraordinaire, or the clown prince. Dunbar also interacted with fans during his Globetrotter heyday and was known for the gigantic Afro he wore.
What made Dunbar unique aside from his hairdo and versatility? Well, he, indeed, was ahead of his time. During college, the 6-foot-10 “Sweet” Lou was a natural small forward. However, he was allowed to play a lot of point guard for the University of Houston.
When the need arose, he also played center or whatever the coach needed. With averages of over 22 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 4.1 assists, he was truly “Magic” before Magic!
Until this day, Dunbar is still involved with the Globetrotters organization as a coach and Director of Player Personnel.
6.) Hubert “Geese” Ausbie
Geese played the “Clown Prince” for the Trotters for two decades, and boy, was he crazy! Ausbie has a reputation for being a quiet gentleman off the court but a hilarious prankster on it.
Geese was an exceptional athlete despite his reputation as a court jester like the other players on this list. He averaged 40 points in his senior year in high school, where he once scored 186 points in a three-game span. He carried that scoring prowess over to NCAA Division II, averaging 30 points a game.
As a testament to Ausbie’s tremendous athletic skills, he was offered contracts by NBA and MLB teams! However, he chose to play for the Globetrotters after joining a tryout in 1961. He never looked back since. His #35 jersey was one of only a handful retired by the organization.
7.) Robert “Showboat” Hall
Hall may be the least-known of anyone on the list, but that doesn’t make him less entertaining. If your nickname is “Showboat,” then you should walk the walk and talk the talk.
“Showboat” became the primary showman of the team in 1955 after Goose Tatum. And judging from his performances, he wasn’t just a guy who took over for the original “Clown Prince.” According to Cleveland Press, ’ Jack Clowser, Showboat ‘did Goose’s routines better and added his unique element.’
One description of Hall’s peculiar basketball skills is that he can do better with his feet than most people do with their hands. Now, if you don’t find that entertaining, nothing will.
Harlem Globetrotters Today
The Harlem Globetrotters do 450 shows worldwide on average. Because of the pandemic, tours may have to take a backseat, but they are back at it in 2021.
They will be having a show in Hungary next month before touring all over the United States until the first half of next year. After that, they’ll be off to Mexico to tour Tijuana, Mexico City, and Monterrey.
To basketball fans back in the day, one mention of the Globetrotters puts smiles on everybody’s faces. And guess what? Some things haven’t changed.
By Jan Rey
Jan is a sucker for all things basketball and still yells, “Kobe!” every time he tosses a crumpled paper into a trash bin.
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