Wednesday March 25th, 2009

Now is the moment you've all been waiting for," the baritone emcee bellows over a scratchy P.A. "They've spent eight decades entertaining billions and now they're here tonight. I need you on your feet and ready to greet the world famous. . .

Haaaaarlemmm Gloooooobetrotters!"

With that, the roar of the crowd thickens, the lights dim, the fog machine belches, and eight men dribbling striped red-white-and-blue balls storm onto the court at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, N.J. Ant, Special K, Bam Bam, Bear, El Gato, Scooter, Rocket and a 7-footer with the obligatory nickname Tiny go through an elaborate five-man weave, a braid of beauty, before forming their ritual Magic Circle. As they show off their ball handling sorcery at midcourt, the air is pierced by the familiar strains of... Madonna's 4 Minutes?

This is how it goes for the Globetrotters in 2009 A.D. So long, Sweet Georgia Brown; hello, hip-hop.

You remember the Globetrotters, right? Two or three decades ago they were among the hottest touring acts going, a troupe that not only filled the biggest arenas but also island-hopped with Gilligan, joked with Johnny Carson, showboated on Sesame Street and endorsed McDonald's. They had their own Saturday morning cartoon and, if you missed that, they often appeared later in the day on ABC's Wide World of Sports. "Man," recalls Curly Neal, the 67-year-old former Globies star who's now an advance publicity man for the team, "we were everywhere."

The Globetrotters never picked up their dribble, so to speak. But for a variety of reasons -- the rise of the NBA; the decline in popularity of Wide World of Sports; the birth of And1 tours; and the availability on YouTube of countless monster dunks and crazy crossovers -- the Globetrotters' brand started to collect some dust. The team flirted with bankruptcy in 1993 and a few years later made the tone-deaf decision to face college teams in competitive games, disappointing fans who had come for the slapstick and got matchup zones instead.

Now they're back, serially drubbing the Washington Generals on three tours simultaneously. As they barnstorm from Dubai to Dubuque, they're negotiating the challenge of contemporizing a classic brand, blending elements familiar and new. At a Trotters show you still get the ball-on-the-string gag, the buckets of confetti, the half-court hook shots and eventually Sweet Georgia Brown. You'll also get references to Terrell Owens and the Wii, a cellphone routine and a chance to text your vote on whether the opposing coach should wear a tutu or a hot-dog costume if his team loses. It's all part of an act that a comedy writer has "punched up." The goal: Make sure the kids watching the Globetrotters today will want to take their kids to a game in the future.

It seems to be working. The myth that sports are recession-proof has eroded in the past few months, but the Globetrotters are thriving. SI boarded their bus last week, accompanied them for five games on the current Spinning the Globe tour and watched them play before sold-out crowds ranging from 2,000 to 12,000 fans. The Trotters, owned since 2005 by Shamrock Holdings, a private Burbank, Calif., investment fund, report that revenues are up 18% from last year and record profits are expected in 2009. It helps that the average ticket price is $25, which barely covers parking at an NBA game. There's no violence or profanity. And the good guys always win. It's the sports equivalent of comfort food. "I say we work in the smile factory," says Kevin Daley, a.k.a. Special K. "And people need all the smiles they can get these days."

When the Harlem Globetrotters were founded in 1926, the players were neither Harlemites nor world travelers. The founder, Abe Saperstein, thought that Harlem connoted entertainment; the team actually was made up of the best African-American players in Chicago. They played "real games," mostly in Illinois and the midwest, before eventually traveling around the country. During a 1939 game the Globetrotters were clinging to a 112-5 lead and began goofing around. The crowd ate it up. Before long the antics became their calling card and the Trotters gave new zest to the term court jesters.

There was also a subtle challenge to the status quo in the act. Here was a team of African-Americans putting one over on the Man, the predominantly white opponents whose very name, the Washington Generals, implied establishment power. As Barack Obama put it during a documentary interview, "Whenever the Globetrotters came into town it was just a wonderful, fun-filled afternoon, but it had, I think, some deeper meaning to it."

Today, with an African-American in the White House -- and town houses in parts of Harlem going for $3 million -- the cultural dynamic has changed. The Globetrotters' 29-man roster is entirely black or Hispanic, the Generals' an even mix of black and white. As such, a Globetrotters game feels less like sports-as-social-commentary than simply well-choreographed entertainment. Yes, the Trotters are exceptionally talented players, but to a man they are also performers, improv specialists with irrepressible personalities, smiles all but carved onto their faces.

Take Daley, a 6' 5" slasher who played with Baron Davis at UCLA in the late '90s. He is a longtime member of the Panamanian national team and -- talk about globe-trotting -- pinballed among pro teams in Costa Rica, Taiwan, Iceland, Australia and Turkey. He joined the Globetrotters in 2005 and has graduated to the role of Showman, tasked with controlling the performance. He's the closest approximation to Meadowlark Lemon that the Globies have today.

While Daley, 32, grew up idolizing Michael Jordan -- and played a 23-year-old Jordan going one-on-one against the 39-year-old real thing in a memorable 2002 Gatorade commercial -- he now includes Martin Lawrence and Chris Tucker among his inspirations. "To do this job, you have to love basketball, but you really have to love entertaining," he says. "If you're not outgoing or don't like interacting with people, you may as well not know how to dribble."

The other occupational requirement is a high threshold for travel. The current North American tour -- on which two teams are wending their way through 210 cities while another unit tours Europe -- began the day after Christmas and ends the last week in April. After that, half of the players, who can earn up to the mid-six figures depending on their experience, will get a few days off before going to Europe for a month.

On Friday night, March 13, the Globetrotters played in Hershey, Pa. By the time they had wrapped up the standard 30-minute postgame autograph session, showered and hopped aboard the bus, it was nearly 11 p.m. Slowed by an accident on the highway, the bus didn't roll into Washington, D.C., until 2 a.m. The players were up at eight for a shootaround and a game before a crowd of 12,350 at the Verizon Center that afternoon. (The team tends to play small venues during the week and large arenas on weekends.)

After the show there were no groupies outside, no Saturday night out at a D.C. club awaiting. The team reboarded the bus -- a vessel painted bright blue with giant images of the players arrayed on the sides -- and headed for Fairfax, Va., and a night game on George Mason's campus.

Each Globetrotter treats his row of seats like a private hotel room, icing his knees, catching some shut-eye or curling into a fetal position to use his iPhone. While the players started with basketball aspirations recalled by the ACC tournament games and March Madness discussion shows that played on an overhead TV, more TVs were tuned to Martin Lawrence videos.

"As a kid you might dream of playing [in the NBA], but... now I can't imagine playing anywhere else," says Anthony (Ant) Atkinson, a former Division II star at Barton College in Wilson, N.C. "You're making people happy, entertaining every night, maybe changing their outlook a little bit. You see the world, you see the kids and you get their e-mails, and you think, This is what I was meant to do."

The Globetrotters travel in style compared with the Generals, a separate business entity, subcontracted to play the collective role of straight man. The Generals are still owned by 88-year-old Red Klotz, who retired as a player at age 63 and as coach 12 years later. They travel independently in a plain bus and stayed two to a room at the Comfort Inn in Towson, Md., while their opponents were in singles at the Sheraton. This mirrors a larger disparity between the two teams. Consisting mostly of former Division II and Division III players -- capable ballers, but ultimately not threatening -- the Generals insist the outcomes aren't fixed and that they play to win. Yet Washington hasn't done so since 1971. "We know our role," says Ammer Johnson, a longtime Generals player, once a starter at Idaho State. "Let's put it that way."

That means getting mocked, dunked on and, on occasion, divorced from their shorts. The Generals' coach, Reggie Harrison, is particularly game, an irascible sort who talks a lot of (sanitized) trash during games, flecks of spit flying from the corners of his mouth. He goes to great lengths to cheat and, of course, gets what's coming to him in the end.

If this resembles the pageantry of professional wrestling, it's no coincidence: The Globetrotters' CEO, Kurt Schneider, is a former WWE executive. When Schneider took over the Trotters in 2007, he replaced nearly half the roster with players possessing superior showbiz chops. And since good-guyness is so central to the Globetrotters' image, Schneider went so far as to hire a consultant to provide background checks on players before signing them to one-year deals.

One key to growth, he says, is minting stars, a new generation of Curlys and Meadowlarks with distinct personalities. "It used to be, A Globetrotter is a Globetrotter is a Globetrotter," he says. "But we want these guys to have identities." Schneider also claims that the Globies need to remain on the consumers' radar between appearances. To that end the team has a staff devoted to getting the Globetrotters back on TV shows and on lunch boxes, as well as on mobile applications and social networking sites.

On this Wednesday night in central Jersey, though, the game, the so-called "in-arena experience," was plenty captivating. The Globetrotters alternately entertained with their gags and their legerdemain. Shane (Scooter) Christensen, who was working as a video coordinator for the Phoenix Suns when he was discovered in a pickup game by a Globetrotters scout, put on a dribbling exhibition that included spinning a ball on his nose. Ant Atkinson hit an underhand shot from half-court. There were a few entertainment equivalents of air balls -- playing the tired '80s anthem I Love Rock 'N Roll is probably not the best way to attract the younger set -- but no one in the packed house of 2,450 asked for a refund.

In the end the Globetrotters prevailed 79-75, extending the winning streak against the Generals to 12,857 and bringing the Globetrotters lifetime record to 23,136-345. As the Washington coach donned a tutu, the Globetrotters remained on the court signing autographs. They could have stayed all night, but after half an hour, their shift at the smile factory was over. The team bus backed up to the loading dock, motor humming, ready to head off to the next night's show in Pittsfield.

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