Maybe it's the ice-cold gym, or the five-hour bus ride across the northern Great Plains, or the hopscotching 168-game season, or the fact that they haven't lost to their stooge team in 15 years, but tonight in Sioux Falls, S. Dak., the Harlem Globetrotters are not hot to trot. Sweet Lou Dunbar, the team showman, looks vaguely bored and remote. He's grabbing at gags as if they were life preservers on the Titanic.
"Please put your arm down," he instructs his stooge-team opponent. "I'm trying to shoot."
"I'm trying to play some defense," answers the stooge.
Dunbar leans over to sniff the stooge's armpit. "That's de-fense all right," he says.
January 6, 1986
The spectators are sinking like leaky lifeboats. But then, at the start of the second quarter, Lynette Woodard, the first woman Globie, enters the game. She takes the floor with the flash and dash of an understudy leaping into a starring role in 42nd Street. Caressing the ball with long, sleek fingers, the 6-foot Woodard arches her body toward the basket, plows through a phalanx of towering men and scores a layup with a crash of elbow and forearm. The audience revives. Woodard's teammates are resuscitated.
The Globetrotters needed resuscitation after 59 years of playing the same game with the same jokes. "The road is hard," says James (Twiggy) Sanders, a Globie in his 10th season. "If you're in the NBA and you don't feel good, you don't have to hide it on the court. But Globetrotters don't just play, they've got to have fun and project that fun into the crowd. Lynette really helps break the monotony. She comes to play, and she comes to have fun. And I'm not going to let her have more fun than I'm having."
Woodard not only brings a feminine touch to the spin dribble, she also brings 1985 basketball to the Globetrotters, who have lost some of their luster over the last 10 years. The Trotters hadn't really updated their game since 1927, when Abe Saperstein, the team's Great White Father, sausaged five young blacks into a Model T Ford for their debut in Hinckley, Ill. Their routines were O.K. when basketball was played by white guys who stood with both feet on the floor and launched two-hand set shots. Nowadays any kid on an asphalt court can do a passable imitation of Trotter routines.
On the hardwood, the show was competing with collegians and pros like Pearl Washington, Julius Erving and Michael Jordan. The team compensated with tired vaudeville. "The comedy had become frayed and stale," says Earl Duryea, the new team president. "I just saw too much Stepin Fetchit stuff. We had become a show that the black audience couldn't relate to." The whites were dribbling away, too. "If we didn't change direction quick," Duryea says, "there was a good possibility we'd be out of business in a couple of years."
Duryea, who spent 12 years with the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Circus, was installed last February by the team's owners, Metromedia Inc., to make the Globetrotters a center-ring act, if not the greatest show on earth. He shortened some of the reems, as the bits are called, and eliminated others. He pared the staff and hired a college coach, Russell Ellington of Savannah State, to remind the Trotters that they were playing basketball. He brought in the ABA's old red, white and blue ball, put a mike on Dunbar and phased out old standbys Curly Neal and Geese Ausbie—the latter, ironically, a cousin of Woodard's—who had 46 years on the squad between them. Neal and Ausbie have since sued the Globetrotters over the circumstances of their departures.
Woodard was hired, among other things, to pitch the show toward women and teens. A few token whites have appeared with the Globetrotters over the years, but the only female was a thick-skinned, 9-foot, 8,000-pound walk-on who pounded the parquet in four humongous red sneakers—Bertha the Elephant, a trunk-dunker. Duryea wanted a woman with a good perimeter shot. A woman with a working knowledge of the fundamentals. "A woman," as he puts it, "who could go to France and know the difference between Perrier and Mitterrand."
At 25, Woodard was the oldest of the 18 distaff candidates who tried out. She came in with the best credentials. She had been captain of the 1984 U.S. women's Olympic team and had scored 3,649 points in her career at Kansas, more than any other woman player in college history. Woodard had also played a year of pro ball in Italy, and for a year prior to her Trotter tryout, she had been working as a full-time assistant coach at Kansas.
She had been fascinated by the Trotters since Ausbie came to dinner one night when she was five and twirled a basketball on his finger. "It was unreal," she says. "I couldn't believe the magnificent things he was doing with a basketball." She tried them and busted up the house. Woodard was a lot better with a basketball when, as a junior in college, she decided she wanted to become a Globetrotter. The team hadn't yet decided it wanted a woman, though. When the decision was made, the players were wary. "I was crushed, absolutely crushed when I heard about the idea," says former Trotter Larry (Gator) Rivers, who assisted Ellington at the Trotters' first women's trials. "We strive to be recognized as a legitimate team, yet there are those who say we're only a bunch of clowns. This seemed like just another gimmick."
"I'd heard rumors, but it was still a shock," recalls Dunbar. "My first reaction was: Show me, don't tell me. I figured it might be a publicity stunt."
Duryea had private doubts as well. "But after the trials began," he says, "it was no longer a question of can a girl play, but which one?"
Woodard won the respect of the team with her savvy and all-around play. "We can't say that she's one of the guys," says Dunbar. "Sometimes we have to tell her to shut her ears, but she's bringing out the gentleman in all of us." On the road Woodard, like each of the male Trotters, has her own hotel room and two seats on the team bus, but she doesn't suit up with the guys. Before entering the locker room, she always knocks. "Probably the hardest thing to remember," says five-year Trotter veteran Harold (Bobo) Hubbard, "is that she might be walking into the locker room any minute, so we got to have clothes on. It's like having your little sister around."
Woodard is thrilled by it all. "I got the chance of the century," she says. "It's the first time in history it's been done. Since the earth was created, let alone when basketball began. How sweet it is! How sweet it is!" And awaaay she goes.
The Trotter troupe is divided into showmen, dribblers and hoppers. Woodard seems destined to be a hopper, a Globie who plays straight basketball, runs the weave and sets up reems for the others. And so far, anyway, she hasn't broken into the magic circle for the Trotters' famous pregame Sweet Georgia Brown routine. "She's got a beautiful fake," observes Red Klotz, the 65-year-old owner and coach of the Globetrotters' ever-losing opponent, the Washington Generals. "But she doesn't get a break from us. On the court, my players don't see a boy from a girl."
In Sioux Falls, Woodard plays a little more than a quarter. "The crowd recognizes the fact that she's a lady and we've got to protect her," says Sanders. "We're not going to let her get beat up out there, but we don't baby her, either."
As Woodard goes for a rebound, a General comes up behind her and slams her to the floor.
"Ooohh!" groans Sanders from the bench.
Dunbar lopes over to her. "Darlin'," he whispers. "Are you O.K.?"
"Why you fussin'?" Woodard says, popping back to her feet. "What are you do in'?"
"I guess she's a lot tougher than she looks," Sanders says.
She is. In fact, if she has a fault, it's that she tries to drive against the big guys instead of pulling up and lofting outside shots. "She doesn't take enough jumpers," says Klotz, "but she'll learn, the easy or the hard way." Woodard works hard at learning. For six weeks before the tryouts for the 10 women Trotter finalists, she got up every morning at five to lift weights, run wind sprints and jog five miles. "I have to refine my skills so that everything I do looks so simple it's unbelievable," she says. "That's the Globetrotter magic."
For an apprentice sorceress, she has certainly charmed the public. Surrounded by a swarm of kids in an Omaha hotel lobby, Woodard ignites a smile that could melt an M & M in your hand. She asks a straw-haired tyke named Joe (Kool) Powell his age. Kool holds up eight dubious fingers and blurts out, "The Harlem Globetrotters are the best basketball team in the world."
"The world?" an onlooker asks.
"Well, maybe not the world," he says. "But at least the states I've been in." Which turn out to be Nebraska, Iowa, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee.
"Better than the teams in the NBA?"
"NBA teams don't have all those tricks" Kool explains. And NBA teams don't have Woodard. "When she dribbles, it's like she's bouncing a big potato through a revolving door," he says. "And I like the way she looks." He blushes at the thought.
"In her uniform, that is."