When you look into the history of professional basketball, the Harlem Globetrotters always receive a polite mention, but rarely the accolades they deserve. Arguably, this team is responsible for both the popularization of professional basketball and the acceptance of black players in professional basketball. That sounds like an outlandish claim, but a look at the team’s history supports it.
The growth of basketball’s popularity as a spectator sport can be traced back to college basketball. From the invention of the game by Dr. James Naismith in 1891 right up until after the Second World War, collegiate basketball was far more popular than professional basketball. Had the Harlem Globetrotters, not been playing through that dormant period in professional basketball’s history, the game may never have captured the public’s attention and become the worldwide sensation it now is.
The myths surrounding the Harlem Globetrotters began almost with the team’s creation. The original team was not from Harlem, nor did it “globe trot.” It was formed in Chicago and all of the original players were from the south side of that city. “Harlem” was added to the name because it identified them as an all black team. Although they achieved fame as an exhibition team, they were originally a competitive team and only clowned around and showed off their dribbling skills when they held a substantial lead in a game.
They became known as the clowns of basketball, but the athleticism of the Harlem Globetrotters was obvious from the beginning. While early promoters of basketball encouraged excessive violence on the court as a means to attract crowds, the Globetrotters attracted a following by showboating their skills on the court. While many uninformed onlookers often failed to appreciate the level of athletic skill basketball demands, the Globe Trotters’ dribbling and shooting antics were not only crowd pleasers, but also an undeniable demonstration of skill.
As a professional basketball team, their finest hour came in 1948, when they beat the Minneapolis Lakers in a buzzer beater, 61 to 59. That was one of the most significant games in basketball history. The Globetrotters’ victory over one of the best all white professional teams of the era proved that black athletes could seriously compete against white athletes. Two years later, the Boston Celtics drafted Chuck Cooper and the color barrier in professional basketball was finally crossed.
Ironically, while the Globetrotters were largely responsible for the recognition and acceptance of black basketball players, Cooper’s success became their downfall as a professional team. More and more black players were drafted into formerly all white professional teams and the underfunded Harlem Globetrotters found it increasingly difficult to attract top players into their ranks.
The Harlem Globetrotters, never an ordinary basketball team, changed their focus from competitive to exhibition basketball and found their enduring niche in sports history. Today, they are a world wide phenomenon and ambassadors of goodwill. They have played over 25,000 games all over the world. While the original “Globetrotters” were nothing of the sort, the title now describes this amazing team perfectly.