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The Harlem Globetrotters: Making It Look Easy

Published: 1/7/2014
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Legendary Globetrotter Curly Neal (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Anyone who has ever watched the Harlem Globetrotters knows they are full of surprises. For instance, given their name, is it surprising that the team originally formed in Chicago, not New York? The Chicago Globetrotters formed in 1926 and played their first game at the city's famous Savoy Ballroom on Jan. 7, 1927. The team changed its name in 1928 to capitalize on Harlem's reputation as the epicenter of an African-American cultural renaissance, but 40 years would pass before they ever played a game in Harlem. Possibly more shocking, Pope John Paul II was made an honorary Globetrotter in 2000, before a crowd of 50,000 people in Saint Peter's Square. Other unexpected additions to the Globetrotters' honorary roster include Henry Kissinger, Bob Hope and Nelson Mandela, three men not necessarily known for their skills in the paint. As odd as that honorary lineup may be, the real story of the Globetrotters proves just as unusual, and includes some of the most amazing basketball players to ever take to the court.

Perhaps the most famous player to ever don the red, white and blue Globetrotter uniform was National Basketball Association Hall of Famer Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain. Chamberlain dropped out of college after his junior year to play basketball professionally, but was barred from the NBA by league rules that prohibited players who had not completed their studies. The Globetrotters, who had no such prohibition, hired Chamberlain to play the 1958-1959 season for $50,000, the equivalent of about $400,000 today. His tenure with the Globetrotters took him and the team to Moscow for a goodwill tour and a meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. After his season with the Globetrotters, Chamberlain went on to unbelievable success in the American Basketball Association and the NBA, becoming the first player to ever score 100 points in a single game. Chamberlain's number with the Globetrotters, 13, was officially retired March 9, 2000. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1978.

Wilt Chamberlain in Harlem Globetrotters uniform (Wikimedia/Library of Congress)

Nathaniel "Sweetwater" Clifton was already 25 by the time he joined the Globetrotters. After serving with the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II, Clifton first played basketball with the New York Renaissance, an all-black team, but soon caught the attention of the Globetrotters. Clifton played with them from the summer of 1948 to the spring of 1950, while also playing first base for the Negro League's Chicago American Giants in 1949. After his stint with the Globetrotters, Clifton joined the New York Knicks, becoming the second African-American ever to play in the NBA. (Earl Lloyd debuted with the Washington Capitols four days before Clifton's first game.) In his first season, Clifton helped take the Knicks to their first appearance in the NBA finals, where they lost in game seven. In 1957, at 34, he became the oldest player ever named to the NBA All-Star Team.

An Oct.17,1951 photo of Nat Clifton of the New York Knickerbockers at the 69th Armory in New York City. (AP Photo/Bob Kradin)

Reece "Goose" Tatum, known as the original "Clown Prince" of basketball, helped make the Harlem Globetrotters the institution it is today. Tatum wove performance art and basketball fundamentals together in a way that resonated with fans and turned the team from an exhibition spectacle into something truly spectacular. From 1942 to 1954, minus two years of military service in the U.S. Army Air Corps, Tatum performed and perfected amazing feats of basketball like his over-the-back-no-look-nothing-but-net trick shot or the now famous "hook" shot that became a crowd-pleasing staple of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's repertoire in the NBA. Tatum's control of the ball was incredible, with each game bringing shots, passes and saves that confounded the competition as much as they delighted the audience. He was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame with the class of 2011.


 

Written by Seth Joseph. Find him on Google+.

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