For 88 years, the Harlem Globetrotters have been entertaining the masses, bridging political divides and promoting positive virtues through basketball.
At first glance, the players might seem like comedians, and they do have a large repertoire of pranks and magic tricks. But, after seeing them play, there is little doubt that the Globetrotters employ some of the best basketball players in the world.
"We are just goofy people," said Joyce "Sweet J" Ekworomadu, on Thursday at the Bryn Mawr School for girls. "It's amazing to just go out there and be able to put smiles on people's faces."
Sweet J and teammate William "Bull" Bullard were at the school promoting the Globetrotter's Dec. 28 performance at the Baltimore Arena and taking over a very excited gym class for some basketball drills.
"It's so overwhelming," said Blair Hall, of Randallstown. "I'm freaked out."
After a nervous beginning and many missed shots from the girls, Hall and the rest of her class calmed down enough to take on the two emissaries in a game.
Sweet J is the 12th woman to play for the Globetrotters since Olympic gold-medalist Lynette Woodard broke the gender barrier in 1985. Sweet J is known as a sharp-shooter. She made 82 three-pointers in her senior year at Texas State University. She played pro ball in Poland, Italy and Nigeria before joining the Globetrotters in the last year.
"There's always got to be a woman around to keep the men in line," she joked to the class while Bull spun the ball around his body, always just out of reach of several of the girls.
Bull got in one dunk for the girls before leaving the class in the gym, but was probably wise not to attempt more. He is known for his flamboyant dunks, including one in which he puts his feet on the backboard. Last month, while executing this move at a game in Honduras, the whole structure fell forward on top of him shattering the glass and injuring him. He said he has a few more weeks of rehab before he can resume playing with the team.
Sweet J and Bull were returning to the school the next day to present an anti-bullying program, The ABCs of Bullying Prevention. The Globetrotters designed the program in coordination with the National Campaign to Stop Violence. The title stands for Action, Bravery and Compassion. Bull said he has done more than 100 presentations on anti-bullying. He said he was touched recently when a principal forwarded him a letter from a reformed bully apologizing for his behavior after Bull talked to him.
"Bullying is a huge topic that needs to be talked about," said Sweet J.
She said there are many things girls, in particular, obsess about and might turn into fodder for bullying - makeup, hair, clothes, etc. She said sports is one way to keep grounded.
The Globetrotters are known for several other outreach programs that focus on health and character development and recently partnered with World Vision for their "Fans Rule World Tour" that kicks off Thursday.
The Globetrotters are known as America's Ambassadors of Goodwill. They played an exhibition in Soviet Russian in 1959, during the Cold War, long before receiving the official designation by President Gerald Ford in 1974.
Bull said in his six years with the Globetrotters, he has visited 51 countries. He said his favorite country to visit is Germany.
"I'm a sightseer. When I went to Cologne, I saw the second-biggest cathedral in the world. It was built something like 2,000 years ago and was still standing," he said. "The experience of being a Harlem Globetrotter is just a blessing."
It is also a responsibility. There is some debate about what level of responsibility other professional athletes have to be a role model. With the Globetrotters, there is no debate. Being a positive role model is a requirement of the job.
"There is nothing negative about the Globetrotters," Bull said. "There are a lot of people looking up to you. It pushes you to be a better person."
Sweet J said the players enjoy a personal connection to their fans. She recently received a request for advice from a mother with a daughter who wanted to be a professional basketball player.