The originators of basketball style, influencers on today’s game, and skilled athletes of the highest order, the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters have showcased their iconic talents in 124 countries and territories on six continents since their founding in 1926.
Proud inductees into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, their mission to spread game and bring entertainment to the world continues to drive them today. The Globetrotters are basketball innovators who popularized the jump shot, slam dunk and the half-court hook shot. For nearly a century, the Globetrotters have exhibited Black excellence on and off the court, entertaining, inspiring, and uniting families.
Founded by Abe Saperstein, it was his quick wit and clever wording where he carefully concocted to mythologize the team’s stature – popularizing the slam dunk, the fast break, and the point guard position. Off the court, the all-Black squad shattered societal barriers, served as international goodwill ambassadors, and unknowingly launched the field of “sports entertainment” with their basketball magic, comedy, trick shots, and figure-eight weave to the snappy tune of “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
Though Saperstein set the Globetrotters’ original direction, Reece “Goose” Tatum is the one who transformed Saperstein’s vision into something otherworldly.
Known as the “clown prince of basketball,” the 6-6 Tatum brought a new level of energy to the Globetrotters’ swelling fame. Tatum, who was discovered by Saperstein on the baseball field, interacted with the crowd, spied on the opposing team’s huddle, attached the basketball to a rubber band during free throws, and used his shoe as a smelling salt substitute – antics that would become central to the Globetrotters’ spirited act through the decades. Tatum once pledged to “keep playing until the people stop laughing.”
(To be certain, Tatum wasn’t all tomfoolery. He perfected a no-look hook shot and led the Globetrotters to their famed 61-59 victory over the George Mikan-led Minneapolis Lakers before a crowd of 17,823 at the Chicago Stadium in 1948.)
By the close of the 1940s, the Globetrotters had already played more than 30,000 games and earned a spot on the cover of Life magazine. And in the next decade, they took their show abroad with an international tour. The Globetrotters bookended the decade by playing before 75,000 at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium in 1951 and embarking on a sold-out tour of the Soviet Union – with Wilt Chamberlain as their star attraction, no less – in 1959 amid rising Cold War-era hostilities.
While easing geo-political tensions abroad, the Globetrotters also broke racial barriers at home, including accelerating integration of the NBA. Globetrotter Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton, in fact, was the first African American to sign an NBA contract when he inked a deal with the New York Knicks in 1950.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Globetrotters’ fame continued accelerating with an animated cartoon on CBS and a Saturday morning variety show in addition to packed stadiums in the U.S. and far beyond the nation’s borders. They played 250 games each year, winning all but a handful – thanks, Washington Generals – and dazzling fans in the process, which included presidents, popes, and royalty, en route to becoming the most famous basketball team in the world.
And for a hoops squad that played its first road game in a sleepy Illinois town, that’s a legacy no one could’ve predicted.