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Still Crazy After All These Years

March 30, 2009
March 30, 2009

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March 30, 2009

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Still Crazy After All These Years

Now in their ninth decade, the Harlem Globetrotters have thrown cold water on their critics and faked out the doomsayers with an act that's as entertaining as ever

NOW IS the momentyou've all been waiting for," the baritone emcee bellows over a scratchyP.A. "They've spent eight decades entertaining billions and now they'rehere tonight. I need you on your feet and ready to greet the world famous...HAAAAARLEMMM GLOOOOOOBETROTTERS!"

This is an article from the March 30, 2009 issue

With that, theroar of the crowd thickens, the lights dim, the fog machine belches, and eightmen dribbling striped red-white-and-blue balls storm onto the court atBrookdale Community College in Lincroft, N.J. Ant, Special K, Bam Bam, Bear, ElGato, Scooter, Rocket and a 7-footer with the obligatory nickname Tiny gothrough an elaborate five-man weave, a braid of beauty, before forming theirritual 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 itgoes for the Globetrotters in 2009 A.D. So long, Sweet Georgia Brown; hello,hip-hop.

You remember theGlobetrotters, right? Two or three decades ago they were among the hottesttouring acts going, a troupe that not only filled the biggest arenas but alsoisland-hopped with Gilligan, joked with Johnny Carson, showboated on SesameStreet and endorsed McDonald's. They had their own Saturday morning cartoonand, if you missed that, they often appeared later in the day on ABC's WideWorld of Sports. "Man," recalls Curly Neal, the 67-year-old formerGlobies star who's now an advance publicity man for the team, "we wereeverywhere."

The Globetrottersnever picked up their dribble, so to speak. But for a variety of reasons—therise of the NBA; the decline in popularity of Wide World of Sports; the birthof And1 tours; and the availability on YouTube of countless monster dunks andcrazy crossovers—the Globetrotters' brand started to collect some dust. Theteam flirted with bankruptcy in 1993 and a few years later made the tone-deafdecision to face college teams in competitive games, disappointing fans who hadcome for the slapstick and got matchup zones instead.

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

It seems to beworking. The myth that sports are recession-proof has eroded in the past fewmonths, but the Globetrotters are thriving. SI boarded their bus last week,accompanied them for five games on the current Spinning the Globe tour andwatched them play before sold-out crowds ranging from 2,000 to 12,000 fans. TheTrotters, owned since 2005 by Shamrock Holdings, a private Burbank, Calif.,investment fund, report that revenues are up 18% from last year and recordprofits 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. SpecialK. "And people need all the smiles they can get these days."

WHEN THE HarlemGlobetrotters were founded in 1926, the players were neither Harlemites norworld travelers. The founder, Abe Saperstein, thought that Harlem connotedentertainment; the team actually was made up of the best African-Americanplayers in Chicago. They played "real games," mostly in Illinois andthe midwest, before eventually traveling around the country. During a 1939 gamethe Globetrotters were clinging to a 112--5 lead and began goofing around. Thecrowd ate it up. Before long the antics became their calling card and theTrotters gave new zest to the term court jesters.

There was also asubtle challenge to the status quo in the act. Here was a team ofAfrican-Americans putting one over on the Man, the predominantly whiteopponents whose very name, the Washington Generals, implied establishmentpower. As Barack Obama put it during a documentary interview, "Whenever theGlobetrotters came into town it was just a wonderful, fun-filled afternoon, butit had, I think, some deeper meaning to it."

Today, with anAfrican-American in the White House—and town houses in parts of Harlem goingfor $3 million—the cultural dynamic has changed. The Globetrotters' 29-manroster is entirely black or Hispanic, the Generals' an even mix of black andwhite. As such, a Globetrotters game feels less likesports-as-social-commentary than simply well-choreographed entertainment. Yes,the Trotters are exceptionally talented players, but to a man they are alsoperformers, improv specialists with irrepressible personalities, smiles all butcarved onto their faces.

Take Daley, a6'5" slasher who played with Baron Davis at UCLA in the late '90s. He is alongtime member of the Panamanian national team and—talk aboutglobe-trotting—pinballed among pro teams in Costa Rica, Taiwan, Iceland,Australia and Turkey. He joined the Globetrotters in 2005 and has graduated tothe role of Showman, tasked with controlling the performance. He's the closestapproximation to Meadowlark Lemon that the Globies have today.

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

The otheroccupational requirement is a high threshold for travel. The current NorthAmerican tour—on which two teams are wending their way through 210 cities whileanother unit tours Europe—began the day after Christmas and ends the last weekin April. After that, half of the players, who can earn up to the mid-sixfigures depending on their experience, will get a few days off before going toEurope for a month.

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

After the showthere 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 ofthe players arrayed on the sides—and headed for Fairfax, Va., and a night gameon George Mason's campus.

Each Globetrottertreats his row of seats like a private hotel room, icing his knees, catchingsome shut-eye or curling into a fetal position to use his iPhone. While theplayers started with basketball aspirations recalled by the ACC tournamentgames and March Madness discussion shows that played on an overhead TV, moreTVs were tuned to Martin Lawrence videos.

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

THE GLOBETROTTERStravel in style compared with the Generals, a separate business entity,subcontracted to play the collective role of straight man. The Generals arestill owned by 88-year-old Red Klotz, who retired as a player at age 63 and ascoach 12 years later. They travel independently in a plain bus and stayed twoto a room at the Comfort Inn in Towson, Md., while their opponents were insingles at the Sheraton. This mirrors a larger disparity between the two teams.Consisting mostly of former Division II and Division III players—capableballers, but ultimately not threatening—the Generals insist the outcomes aren'tfixed 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 gettingmocked, dunked on and, on occasion, divorced from their shorts. The Generals'coach, Reggie Harrison, is particularly game, an irascible sort who talks a lotof (sanitized) trash during games, flecks of spit flying from the corners ofhis mouth. He goes to great lengths to cheat and, of course, gets what's comingto him in the end.

If this resemblesthe pageantry of professional wrestling, it's no coincidence: TheGlobetrotters' CEO, Kurt Schneider, is a former WWE executive. When Schneidertook over the Trotters in 2007, he replaced nearly half the roster with playerspossessing superior showbiz chops. And since good-guyness is so central to theGlobetrotters' image, Schneider went so far as to hire a consultant to providebackground 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 withdistinct personalities. "It used to be, A Globetrotter is a Globetrotter isa Globetrotter," he says. "But we want these guys to haveidentities." Schneider also claims that the Globies need to remain on theconsumers' radar between appearances. To that end the team has a staff devotedto getting the Globetrotters back on TV shows and on lunch boxes, as well as onmobile applications and social networking sites.

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

In the end theGlobetrotters prevailed 79--75, extending the winning streak against theGenerals to 12,857 and bringing the Globetrotters lifetime record to23,136--345. As the Washington coach donned a tutu, the Globetrotters remainedon the court signing autographs. They could have stayed all night, but afterhalf an hour, their shift at the smile factory was over. The team bus backed upto the loading dock, motor humming, ready to head off to the next night's showin Pittsfield.

"People need all the smiles they can get thesedays," says Daley.
A key to growth is minting a new generation of Curlysand Meadowlarks.

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PHOTOPhotograph by Icon SMI/CorbisMISDIRECTION Kris (Hi-Lite) Bruton douses a ref, a move that his globetrotting forebear Goose Tatum (far right) no doubt would have enjoyed.PHOTOJ.R. EYERMAN/LIFE (TATUM)[See caption above]PHOTOHARLEM GLOBETROTTERS INTERNATIONAL, INC. (BALL)PHOTOSIMON BRUTYSHTICK FIGURES (Clockwise from top left) Ant Atkinson plays keepaway; Special K Daley comes up shortless; Ant hits a pull-up jumper; Special K makes it rain ... popcorn; Christensen bamboozles a General; and Globie the mascot stands tall.FIVE PHOTOSSIMON BRUTY[See caption above]PHOTOHARLEM GLOBETROTTERS INTERNATIONAL, INC.TIME TRAVELERS (Clockwise from top left) Curly and Meadowlark were spinning sorcerers; Geese Ausbie went from bird to octopus; a Sweet circle; Marques Haynes's dazzling dribble; Wilt joined the show; and owner Saperstein (left) with the original five.FOUR PHOTOSHARLEM GLOBETROTTERS INTERNATIONAL, INC.[See caption above]PHOTOHULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES (CURLY AND MEADOWLARK)[See caption above]PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER (MAGIC CIRCLE)PHOTOHARLEM GLOBETROTTERS INTERNATIONAL, INC.