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The Globetrotters and a Baltimore holiday tradition

With the Harlem Globetrotters bringing their unique mix of amazing basketball and endearing tomfoolery to the University of Maryland Baltimore County Thursday night, a longstanding (and long-laughing) Charm City tradition remains robust.

Hard to say they’ve been to Baltimore every December in their 92-year history (they almost assuredly haven’t). But the tradition of bringing some hoops-centric holiday cheer to these parts extends back at least to the mid-1960s, when legends like Meadowlark Lemon, Marques Haynes and Curly Neal were making the Globetrotters at least as famous as their NBA counterparts.

In fact, when the Globetrotters played the Civic Center (now Royal Farms Arena) on March 10, 1963 (their Baltimore appearances were never restricted to just the Christmas season; many years, they also played a game in March), Evening Sun sportswriter Bill Tanton noted, in his “Another Viewpoint” column, that they drew a bigger audience than any NBA game played in Baltimore that winter.

Fans “are more eager to watch [Globetrotters founder] Abe Saperstein’s clowns than they are to watch a serious game,” Tanton wrote, not altogether approvingly, “which may be a sad commentary on pro basketball today.”

On Dec. 9, 1967, the Globetrotters were part of a Civic Center double bill, taking on their perennial foe (and perennial loser), the Washington Generals, before the home-team Bullets took on the Philadelphia 76ers (whose marquee draw was former Globetrotter Wilt Chamberlain). The evening drew a record crowd of 12,161. With the Bullets moving into last place after losing to the 76ers, 123-109, it’s a safe bet that teeming crowd wasn’t there primarily for the home team.

Things were a bit different, for the Bullets at least, when the Globetrotters returned the following year for another double-header. With the addition of future NBA Hall-of-Famer Wes Unseld, the Bullets were no longer cellar-dwellers. The day of their Dec. 21 game, the Evening Sun’s Charles Rayman suggested that the teams should switch opponents, with the “blazing” Bullets taking on the Globetrotters and the Generals (who once lost 2,495 straight games to the Globetrotters) going up against the “hapless” Phoenix Suns. Sadly for the Suns, the suggestion went unheeded; they’d lose to the Bullets, 131-117, falling to 8-25 for the season.

The Globetrotters returned in 1969 for another doubleheader with the Bullets, who were playing the Detroit Pistons. “See the ‘Globetrotters’ carry on,” urged newspaper ads. The Bullets won, 108-105. Records are sparse, but it’s a safe bet the Globetrotters, won, too, even though their opponent this time was the New Jersey Reds (actually just another name for the Generals, who are still losing regularly to the Globetrotters).

By the time the Globetrotters returned in 1973 for yet another holiday appearance, they were doing it alone; the Bullets had abandoned Baltimore for D.C. that season. Local basketball fans must have been especially happy to see hoops return to the Civic Center that Dec. 27, for what Sun assistant sports editor Seymour S. Smith called “this delightful brand of fun and games.”

In an interview leading up to the game, Globetrotters star Meadowlark Lemon, who played more than 25 years for the team, talked with Smith about its enduring popularity.

“This comedy and fancy ball-handling is something you don’t learn overnight,” Lemon said. “First you must be something of a ham, a pretty good basketball player and a very good ball-handler. Then you have to study audience reaction. We let the people dictate what we do — improving on stunts they seem to like and discarding others that lay an egg.”

Nice to see that 45 years later, that formula is still working, and bringing in the crowds.

ckaltenbach@baltsun.com

twitter.com/chriskaltsun

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