Black History Month: The Harlem Globetrotters’ 1948 Win Over the Lakers Changed Basketball

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This February, Sports Illustrated is celebrating Black History Month by spotlighting a different iconic athlete or group of athletes every day. Today, SI looks back on the legacy of the Harlem Globetrotters.

The Harlem Globetrotters are known for entertaining fans with their unique mix of theater, comedy and basketball. But several decades ago, they were just a regular old basketball team who helped integrate a segregated sport.

In 1948, nearly 18,000 fans packed Chicago Stadium to witness the Globetrotters take on the Minneapolis Lakers, then professional basketball's premier team. Up until that point, no basketball game at Chicago Stadium had ever drawn 9,000 spectators. 

The Globetrotters were an all-black team, the Lakers all-white. The effects of this racial divide were evident leading up to the game. While the Globetrotters were forced to stay in a small, two-story rooming house—whose dorms were no bigger than 100 square feet and had dilapidated beds—the Lakers spent the night at the luxurious, high-rise Morrison Hotel. 

The game, however, was anything but unequal. Though the Lakers broke out to an early 32-23 lead with help from Hall of Famer George Mikan, the Globetrotters countered with an effective double team, neutralizing the 6'10" center down the stretch. Mikan had just six points in the second half. 

With their defense squared away, the Globetrotters slowly cut the Laker lead, finally tying the game 59-59 with 1:30 to go in the fourth. 

Then, Marques Haynes, one of the best ball handlers of his era, dribbled nearly all of the final 90 seconds off the clock, continuously avoiding defenders to do so. (There was no shot clock during this era of basketball.) 

Then, with just seconds to spare, Haynes dumped it off to Ermer Robinson, who launched a midrange jumper right before the buzzer.

Swish. The Globetrotters won 61-59.

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Soon thereafter, many regressive NBA executives were forced to finally concede that African-American players could compete with white players. The momentum to desegregate—which had been festering for years—was not actualized until the aftermath of this game. 

"It just revitalized so many of us, from the fact that (it showed) what we can be, could be, but we needed a chance," John Chaney, the former Temple coach who was then a black teenager in segregated Jacksonville, Fla, told the Associated Press

In 1950, the NBA finally integrated, when one collegiate player was drafted and two former Globetrotters signed into the league.