In their popularity, other sports franchises come and go. (Think Bulls, Cowboys, Marlins, Celtics.) But the Harlem Globetrotters endure. In their 76-year history, the team has entertained more than 120 million fans in 115 countries. Half-court hook shots, the ball hidden under the shirt, the bucket of confetti -- fans associate the Globetrotters with all these, and with beating up on the hapless Washington Generals (or, since 1995, the New York Nationals). Yet over the years, the 'Trotters have actually lost 334 games.
Of course, they've also racked up nearly 21,000 wins. Because the Harlem Globetrotters can bring it: they got enough game, at least, to have beaten all-star teams full of NBA draftees the last three years running.
A foretaste of Harlem wizardry was recently provided by the appearance in town of Eathan O'Bryant, a 5'11" ballhandling ace in his fifth season with the team. In every game, he explains, after playing legitimate basketball and stretching out to a 10- or 15-point lead, the Globetrotters begin to stretch the rules a bit, too -- and the comedy begins. The Magic Circle, for example, is the classic "Sweet Georgia Brown" routine: half a dozen players facing one another, whooping it up, jetting the ball around like, well, magic.
"Then we go into Hoppin' -- that's our weave [an offense the Globetrotters invented] and the Razzle-Dazzle, which is just what it sounds like -- a weave, ending in an alley-oop for a dunk. But everything comes off the Hoppin'," says O'Bryant.
Do the routines ever change? Can they improvise?
"Yeah, each night is different," says O'Bryant. "We have to get a feel for the crowd. Audience participation changes it, and that's great, because that's what keeps it fresh for us. For example, if we pull a kid out of the crowd, and he makes his first shot instead of missing it, then that changes everything. We'll fool with him for awhile, but then we go to his folks, pull them out, have a little fun with them."
They may be just goofin' now, but the Globetrotters have been ensnarled with some of the serious civil rights issues of the past. "I was with Geese Ausbie for four months on a North American tour, and man, some of the stories he would tell about playin' in some of those towns in the South," recalls O'Bryant. (Ausbie played for the 'Trotters from 1961-85; until recently, he served as the team's VP for Global Ambassadors.) "Like, they'd pull into a hotel, and they'd be traveling with the referee, who was white, or the trainer, and he'd have to go into the restaurant and bring the food out to them, because they weren't allowed inside. And now look at it: in the South now, you make an appearance, kids are hangin' on your legs, all kinds of kids, all colors.
"So it's gotten to where now, our organization doesn't see color -- except for red, white and blue."
I asked about the transition from a working-class Latino-and-Black neighborhood in Houston (his hometown) and his two years at Dixie Junior College, located in the very white, conservative, Mormon-dominated southern Utah town of St. George. O'Bryant: "You know, my whole life has been like one big experiment in culture shock. First I move from Houston to St. George, then after college ball at Nevada, I played in Slovakia. I think it's made me a better person, in the sense that now I realize how much we're all the same. Laughter is the same all over." Asked how many different countries he has visited in his five globetrotting seasons, he shrugs and ventures, "30 or 40, I guess."
The hoop wizards from Harlem have indeed affected lives all over the planet. As he left the YWCA gym after a demonstration, kids pulled and tugged as O'Bryant scribbled one last autograph. There were kids on school field trips, kids from alternative schools, kids from broken homes, homeless kids. The faces were white, black and brown. Just to get out the door, O'Bryant playfully had to push away a trio of boys. Like all the kids there, the three boys were laughing and smiling. And yes, they were hanging on his legs.