Harlem Globetrotters: Godfathers to the NBA's Best and Flashiest Stars

Doug Merlino@dougmerlinoGuest ColumnistApril 1, 2011

Harlem Globetrotters vs. Minneapolis Lakers, late 1940s
Harlem Globetrotters vs. Minneapolis Lakers, late 1940s

The following is an excerpt from the e-book The Crossover: A Brief History of Basketball and Race, from James Naismith to LeBron James.

One constant in sports has been friction between team ownership and management on one side and players on the other. Often, there is a racial subtext, such as when running back Adrian Peterson compares playing in the NFL to slavery or Jalen Rose says that he viewed Grant Hill as an “Uncle Tom” for playing for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.

These comments always raise ire on all sides. At base, though, they go back to the inarguable fact that almost all major American sports teams—with the exception of Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Bobcats—are run by white owners. In the NBA, around 80 percent of players are African-American.

Far from being anything new, these tensions can be traced back to the development of two of the first all-black professional basketball teams, the New York Renaissance Big Five and the Harlem Globetrotters.

The first of these two teams—the much less famous—was the New York Renaissance, founded by Robert “Bob” Douglas in 1923.

Douglas, a black man, was born on the Caribbean Island of St. Kitts. He came to New York City in 1901 at the age of 19 and found work as a doorman. A few years later, Douglas walked into a gym and discovered basketball, which would prove to be the motivating force for the rest of his life: He played throughout the 1910s and also managed an amateur club. When he found that too many of his players were leaving to play for money, he started the Renaissance.

The New York Rens in 1939
The New York Rens in 1939

Douglas cut a deal with the black owner of the Renaissance Casino, located on West 138th Street in Harlem. He essentially gave the club naming rights to the team in exchange for letting it play home games in the casino’s ballroom. On Saturday nights, as many as 2,000 people, dressed in formal wear, sat in the balcony to watch the “Rens” play a game based around quick cuts, passing and suffocating defense. After the games the spectators took to the floor to dance to music by big bands such as Count Basie’s.

This was the golden age of “ethnic” basketball, and the Rens' toughest competition included Philadelphia’s all-black Loendi Big Five; the Original Celtics, formed in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood; and the team fielded by the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association. The race rivalries actually helped sell tickets.

In the 1920s and '30s, of course, Harlem was in the midst of its own “Renaissance.” As thousands of black migrants from the South streamed into New York City looking for jobs and opportunity as part of the Great Migration, there was an artistic and cultural explosion in the neighborhood.

Writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston explored what it meant to be African-American, and musicians including Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday pushed the boundaries of jazz in new venues such as the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater. On street corners, the ideas of Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey, who called for black self-respect and a movement to return to Africa, held sway.

A black-owned basketball club was just one small part of this transformation, a sign that African-Americans could own and field a successful sports team. And over time, the Rens got better and better.

Abe Saperstein
Abe Saperstein

The team really hit its stride in the 1930s, anchored by future Hall of Famer Charles “Tarzan” Cooper at center. In the 1932-33 season, the Rens went 112-8, including an 88-game winning streak. John Wooden, who competed against the Rens as a member of the Indianapolis Kautskys, later said, “To this day, I have never seen a team play better basketball.”

In the midst of the Great Depression, the Rens barnstormed around the country, traveling in a bus to take on local competition. As an all-black basketball team, there were certain realities the Rens had to deal with. In the South, they could only play other black teams. In the north, they would use cities such as Chicago as a base and then commute to other towns to play because they could not rent hotel rooms. On the road it was common for the team to be unable to stop and sit down in restaurants to eat.

The Rens' financial success can be attributed to Bob Douglas, a no-nonsense businessman who had his road manager independently count the attendance to make sure the team wasn’t being cheated on the gate. Douglas also demanded the team be paid upfront before the Rens took the court. At the same time, Douglas had the skills to be able to navigate racial sensitivities and do business in Jim Crow America while never asking his players to sacrifice their self-respect.

That a different approach was possible became clear as a rival to the Rens’ dominance emerged during the 1930s. The Harlem Globetrotters, in fact, embodied many of the complexities of American race relations at the time.

Founded in 1927 by owner and manager Abe Saperstein, a Polish Jew who had immigrated to the United States as a kid, the Globetrotters’ strange story actually starts with the team’s name. While based in Chicago, Saperstein decided to add “Harlem” to the name as a marketing gimmick—it made the team seem a little more exotic and ensured that people knew the players were black.

In the early days, the five members of the Globetrotters and Saperstein traveled the Midwest in a car, enduring the same indignities as the Rens. The differences between the teams emerged over time. Primary of which was the Globetrotters adoption of “clowning,” such as ball-handling tricks.

At first, the clowning served the purpose of keeping the Globetrotters from blowing out opposing teams by too many points, which would only incense local fans and ensure the Globetrotters weren’t invited back.

Over time, though, the “skits” grew to include things such as one player dribbling around while the rest stopped to play a game of dice. Other parts of the act included making funny faces and pretending to shirk during the games. These acts clearly drew from the tradition of blackface minstrelsy carried on by actors such as Stepin Fetchit; in general, they played on stereotypes of black men as childish and lazy.

The other difference between the Globetrotters and the Renaissance was in the treatment of players. While Douglas was a tough businessman, he was also known to offer his players fair contracts.

Saperstein started the Globetrotters as a partnership, equally splitting the money from games with the five players. In the middle of a tour in 1934, however, Saperstein announced that he was switching the deal and from then on would only pay players $7.50 a game, a serious pay cut. Three players quit on the spot, and Saperstein had to cancel the tour.

It was a turning point. Upon his return to Chicago, Saperstein recruited replacements and announced to sympathetic sports reporters that he had fired the other three. From then on, the Globetrotters were emphatically Saperstein’s show, with the players as salaried employees who served at the owner’s pleasure.

Regardless of the management differences, both teams were very good, though they seldom competed directly in the 1930s—while Saperstein talked up the rivalry in the press, behind-the-scenes he avoided scheduling games against the Rens.

In 1939, the Rens beat the Globetrotters in the third round of the first-ever World Professional Basketball Tournament in Chicago. The team went on to beat the all-white Oshkosh All-Stars for the title.

In a rematch the following year, the Globetrotters beat the Rens by one point in the quarterfinals of the same tournament. They then went on to take the title themselves.

As the 1940s progressed, the Globetrotters became dominant, led by stars such as Marques Haynes, a masterful dribbler, and center Reece “Goose” Tatum, who’s been credited with inventing the hook shot. In both 1948 and 1949, the Globetrotters beat the Minnesota Lakers, considered the best team in basketball.

In the meantime, the Renaissance slowly faded. In 1949, Douglas sold the franchise to Saperstein.

As professional basketball integrated in the 1950s and Saperstein lost his lock on the top black talent, the Globetrotters gradually switched to solely entertaining. The team became a worldwide phenomenon, drawing massive crowds in places as far away as Rio de Janeiro and Berlin. Much as Michael Jordan would later achieve global celebrity, the Globetrotters became some of the most famous African-Americans in the world.

The Globetrotters maintained the franchise over the following decades, even after Saperstein’s death in 1966. By the 1970s, the team was so ingrained in American culture that it starred in a prime-time variety show called The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine and solved mysteries with Scooby Doo. There was also the 1981 movie The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island, which unfortunately will never be considered one of cinema’s finest moments.

As a little kid in the ‘70s, I anxiously awaited the Globetrotters’ yearly stops in Seattle, which my dad always took me to see. I loved everything about the experience: the entrance to Sweet Georgia Brown,  the behind the back passes whipped around the “Magic Circle,” Curly Neal clowning the refs and Meadowlark Lemon pretending to douse the crowd with a bucket of water that turned out to be confetti.

The Globetrotters always chose a few kids from the crowd to take part in their skits—I dearly hoped they would choose me, though I was never so lucky. They did all this, of course, while demolishing the hapless, primarily white Washington Generals.

By that time, after the Civil Rights movement and Black Power era, about the only demographic that might have viewed the Globetrotters as hip was kids like me.

In 1972, the great Connie Hawkins, who played for the Globetrotters for four years, said that the team became popular by “acting like Uncle Toms. Grinnin’ and smilin’ and dancin’ around—that’s the way they told us to act, and that’s the way a lot of white people like to think we really are.”

In a 1977 op-ed in The New York Times, a black writer named Ross Thomas Runfola wrote: “White American spectators are perhaps most at ease when they are treated to the rhythmic jabbering of the Harlem Globetrotters, who project a slave mentality for Mr. Charlie’s entertainment.”

Finally, in 1979, shortly before his death, Bob Douglas told Sports Illustrated: “Abe Saperstein died a millionaire because he gave white people what they wanted. When I go, it will be without a dime in my pocket, but with a clear conscience.”

Looking back more than 30 years later, I can’t be totally certain why I loved the Globetrotters so much as a kid. The primary reason, I think, is just because it looked like they were having so much fun. The team’s yearly visits were a break from my seemingly mundane suburban existence, a view into a world I imagined out there beyond North Seattle.

Did the Globetrotters’ goofing around on the court exoticize black people and make them seem “other”? I think it did to some extent. The real shame, though, was that I grew up in a racially segregated city where I was only exposed to African-Americans in such a limited context.

Recently, black scholars and writers have worked to call more attention to Bob Douglas and the Renaissance Big Five. Primary among these is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who devotes a large portion of his 2007 book, On the Shoulders of Giants, to telling the story of the Rens. In addition, Abdul-Jabbar has just released a documentary on the team.

It’s easy to see why Kareem is attracted to the Rens, because during his career he was constantly attacked for his mercurial personality. He wasn’t alone—think of the unsmiling Georgetown teams coached by John Thompson and the racist slurs endured by Patrick Ewing.

At the same time, the story of the Globetrotters raises painful truths about race in America that resonate to this day. Above all, Abe Saperstein was a masterful marketer, and he understood that black athletic dominance would go down easier with a white audience if leavened with something to take the edge off.

When the NBA rode to wide popularity in the 1980s, it did so with stars such as Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan, all spectacular athletes who never shied away from flashing Hollywood smiles (we’ve since learned that both Thomas and Jordan have much pricklier personalities than they revealed on the court).

Saperstein recognized that basketball had enough room to be athletic and entertaining, and Globetrotters such as Marques Haynes, with his awesome dribbling ability, revolutionized the game. In truth, Saperstein, a 5'3" Jewish man, can be credited with helping to unleash the creativity and showmanship on the court that flourishes to this day – there is a direct line from the Trotters whipping passes behind their backs to Rajon Rondo dropping a no-look pass to Kevin Garnett.

The underlying reality, which was true 60 years ago and is still true today, is that it’s hard for many black men to find a place in American society. Wilt Chamberlain, who played for the Globetrotters in 1958-59 and looked back fondly at the experience, later wrote that without the team many of the players might have “become janitors or gone on welfare.”

In fact, as Abdul-Jabbar’s documentary on the New York Renaissance reveals, many of the Rens who starred on the court were only able to find menial work when their basketball careers were done. In a world of limited economic choices, playing for Saperstein was hardly the worst. But it’s not surprising that the memory still rankles.

To learn about Doug Merlino's e-book, The Crossover: A Brief History of Basketball and Race, from James Naismith to LeBron James, click here.

Further reading: Bob Kuska’s Hot Potato: How Washington and New York Gave Birth to Black Basketball and Changed America’s Game Forever has an in-depth look at Bob Douglas and the Renaissance. Spinning the Globe: The Rise, Fall and Return to Greatness of the Harlem Globetrotters, by Ben Green, relates the story of Abe Saperstein and the Globetrotters. In Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball, Nelson George provides incisive analysis of the Globetrotters. On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey through the Harlem Renaissance, by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld, tells the story of the New York Renaissance Big Five in a broader context.

Doug Merlino is the author of The Hustle: One Team and Ten Lives in Black and White. Visit his blog. Follow him on Twitter. This is the second of eight parts, with new installments every Friday.


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