The Harlem Globetrotters have played in over 115 countries for more than 120 million fans. They have scored over 20,000 victories, and only 332 losses. They surpass every other team in the history of sports for number of games played. Today they are best known for their wildly-entertaining comedic routines and ball-handling skills on the court, and of course that famous song, “Sweet Georgia Brown.” But the Harlem Globetrotters have a long history of serious basketball play and their beginnings were modest.
Founded in 1926 in Chicago by a 24 year-old named Abe Saperstein, the original team was called the “Savoy Big Five,” named after Chicago’s famous Savoy Ballroom, where they played many of their early games. The first game they ever played was in Hinckley, Illinois on January 7, 1927, during which the team sported jerseys with the words “‘NEW YORK” printed on them, to give the impression that they were from the city. Eventually their name evolved from “Savoy Big Five” to “Saperstein’s New York Globetrotters” to the “Harlem New York Globetrotters” and finally just the “Harlem Globetrotters,” all in an effort to make it clear that they were an all-black team that traveled the world. In fact, they didn’t actually play a game in Harlem until 1968.
Left: Abe Saperstein
By 1934, eight years after their founding, the Globetrotters had played 1,000 games. This was quite a feat for an all-black team at the time — professional teams were “whites only,” so Saperstein had to work very hard to book games for his team. Saperstein acted as owner, manager, coach, publicity agent and even substitute for the team. With each passing year the Harlem Globetrotters’ playing strengthened, their popularity increased, and their tours lengthened. By 1936, they hit Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan, Montana, Washington, and North and South Dakota.
In 1939 the Globetrotters played in their first professional basketball championship tournament. They lost to the New York Renaissance (the Rens), but would return year after year to be victorious. 1939 also saw the beginnings of the now-classic Globetrotters’ antics. During a regular season game they were leading an opponent 112 to 5. The lead was so outrageous that it made for a boring game, so team members entertained themselves and the crowd by being a little silly. The crowd loved it and Saperstein was pleased. He told his team that the clowning around was acceptable, only after they had secured a safe lead.
Saving their comic routines for strong-lead games, the Globetrotters continued serious ball play. 1946 saw both the team’s first overseas trip to the US Territory of Hawaii, and the establishment of the National Basketball Association (NBA), which was a “whites only” league that allowed game play against the all-black Globetrotters. From this point on, the Globetrotters toured internationally and would also, throughout the 50s, continuously compete against NBA teams.
In 1951, the Globetrotters were called upon by the US State Department to help counteract a communist youth rally in East Germany. They played in the Allied section of Berlin to an enthusiastic crowd. In following years they played for three different popes, for the Hollywood cameras during the making of the 1951 film “The Harlem Globetrotters,” on the Ed Sullivan show and for sold-out crowds in the USSR and Eastern Europe. In 1958, they won their ninth-straight World Series of Basketball, and in 1959 they achieved their 7,000th career game and finished the season undefeated. They had risen to become one of the finest basketball teams in the world.
A turning point came when the NBA broke their “whites only” ruling in 1950, and began to draft black players. This made it more difficult for Saperstein to keep the competitive edge in the Globetrotters, because many black players began to receive flashy offers from the NBA. Nonetheless, by the time owner Abe Saperstein passed away in 1966, the Globetrotters had played 8,945 games, in more than 1,200 cities and 82 foreign countries. They were known as serious athletes, but their image was evolving towards an entertainment troupe and national icon.
This reached a height during CBS’s 1970s production of a cartoon called “The Harlem Globetrotter Show” — later “The Harlem Globetrotter Popcorn Machine” show — and with Globetrotter “appearances” on Scooby-Doo. President Gerald Ford called them “America’s Ambassadors of Goodwill.” In the ’80s they were given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American Social History opened a permanent exhibit honoring them.
In 1985, the Globetrotters signed the first woman to play official basketball with men, Olympic gold medalist Lynette Woodard. In 1996 two Globetrotters, Michael “Wild Thing” Wilson and Fred “Preacher” Smith set a Guinness World Record for dunking at 11 feet and 8 inches.
Today there are at least three different Harlem Globetrotters teams touring the country. In September of 2002 the Harlem Globetrotters were inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. They continue to entertain across the country and, more recently, in an effort to gain back some of their serious ball-playing reputation, they have scheduled games against college teams and pick-up teams like Magic Johnson’s All Stars. “Sweet Georgia Brown” is still playing and so are the Harlem Globetrotters.