The longest-running card game in sports begins one hour befor the Harlem Globetrotters hit the court.
Tex Harrison deals. No one keeps score. It's just a way to kill time between the hotel and the show. The locker rooms are the same in every town. A couple of benches. Some rolls of tape. A bucket filled with soda cans. A nervous kid wandering around in search of autographs and a harried arena manager reminding the players when to go on.
Harrison, the team's coach and vice president of operations, has been part of the Globetrotters since 1954, serving previously as a player, public relations director and talent scout. He has survived crash landings in Germany and Mexico, performed before kings, queens and popes in Europe and endured the eerie silence of crowds in China.
"Played on every continent, except Antarctica," he said betweehands, rolling an ever-present toothpick between his lips. "The only mutiny we ever had was in South America -- Bolivia, I think. We were going to get on some old, beat-up, obsolete plane, and the pilot came over, drunk and wearing a parachute. We've been run out of some bad buildings. We've worked with some unscrupulous promoters. But we have never put on a bad performance."
With the Harlem Globetrotters, you know the jokes and the punch lines, the plays and the final scores. You even can whistle the team's theme song, "Sweet Georgia Brown." This isn't just basketball, it's show biz. The players change, but the act remains the same.
The Harlem Globetrotters are celebrating their 65th anniversary season as America's last great barnstorming team. Their appeal crosses generational, racial and international boundaries. They've interrupted a civil war in Lima, Peru, and a general strike in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, toured the segregated South of America and the frozen north of Siberia. They've played Baghdad and Boston, Prague and Peoria, San Marino and Schenectady.
"I believe we'll be the first team to play on the moon," Harrisosaid.
He may be right. The Globetrotters have staying power. They were born the year Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs and Al Jolson starred in "The Jazz Singer," and continue to thrive in an era in which Jose Canseco is considered a baseball superstar and M.C. Hammer is called a singer.
"My father played for the Globetrotters, I play for thGlobetrotters and my son could play for the Globetrotters," forward Sterling Forbes said. "I think this will go on forever. I can't see them dying. They're like the Starship Enterprise -- there are still a lot of places to explore."
You watch the Globetrotters, you hit a time warp. They push althe baby-boomer buttons, and, suddenly, you're walking into an episode of "Davy Crockett" or "Leave It To Beaver." Everything is as you remember it -- only in bright, living color.
The Magic Circle is still a wonderful sleight-of-hand celebration of basketball. The Weave is mystifying. The buckets are carefully arranged so that the water hits the referee and the confetti floats harmlessly over the fans.
Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal are retired. The WashingtoGenerals, the Globetrotters' hapless foil, never have won a game under their present name. Sweet Lou Dunbar is the Showman, part Magic Johnson, part Redd Foxx, without the four-letter words. And a female player has been in the act since 1985. The show takes two hours. The memories last for years.
"People see the Globetrotters twice in their life," said teapresident Thomas K. Scallen. "They see them once as a kid, and then once as an adult when they take their children. There is an aura about this team that is incredible. Someone once told me the three most known names in the world were Muhammad Ali, the pope and the Harlem Globetrotters. I believe that now. Michael Jackson and Beatles never played Calcutta, visited Mother Teresa, then hit Saudi Arabia."
There are two touring units of the Harlem Globetrotters, aneach plays a minimum of 250 dates a year. The team has come a long way since British-born promoter Abe Saperstein packed five black players into a Model-T Ford, traveled from Chicago to Hinckley, Ill., and presented the Globetrotters in front of 300 fans, Jan. 27, 1927. Basketball in the Roaring '20s was relegated to dance halls, churches, movie theaters and YMCAs. Sports, like most of the country, were segregated.
But, even then, the Globetrotters crossed racial lines. They wera legitimate team that took on all comers, reaching a competitive zenith in 1940 by winning a world professional championship in Chicago. During World War II, they developed many of the tricks that became their staples. By the 1950s, despite the integration of the National Basketball Association, the Globetrotters were the nation's pre-eminent basketball attraction.
"We broke down a lot of racial lines in this country that peopldon't even know about," said Harrison. "We were the first black people to stay in white hotels in Nevada and Oklahoma and Florida. For three years, we didn't play Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas because of segregation. To get us back there, those states broke down the barriers and desegregated the audiences. I can remember that we had to sleep two to a bed sometimes in people's homes down South. We paid our dues. We've done a lot of good."
The Globetrotters were one of the few black acts to receivregular television exposure in the early 1960s. Their brand of entertainment briefly went out of fashion later in the decade when their humorous sketches appeared at odds with the images of America's inner cities inflamed in riots.
"There was a period when people called us Amos 'n' Andy oUncle Tom," Harrison said. "But you take the 'u' from uncle and say 'unique,' and the 't' from Tom stands for 'talent.' Unique talent, that's what we had. We proved that blacks could stick together and do something. Look, anything we insisted was a Stepin Fetchit routine, we took out of the act. In some instances, we were victims of the times."
The Globetrotters are in perfect sync with the 1990s. They are a family act thriving during the baby boom's baby boom. The Globetrotters went corporate after Saperstein's death in 1966, and have been owned since 1986 by the Minneapolis-based International Broadcasting Corporation. IBC's other major holdings include the Ice Capades and two theme parks in upstate New York.
The Globetrotters are marketed like any other product. They pitch wholesome entertainment. They sell more than 1 million tickets a year. They hawk merchandise ranging from a $4 lapel pin to a $750 white leather reversible jacket with team insignia.
"We don't want basketball players, we want Globetrotters," Scallen said. "We want a guy who can take an eight-hour bus ride, walk into the arena, go out there, play a great game, sign autographs and, as he gets on the bus, one kid asks him for his autograph, and he says, 'Sure.' I've worked with legit theater and rock-and-roll. These guys are the best."
Show time. There are no lasers, no special effects. Just playersball, a crowd and a wonderfully old-fashioned show.
Sweet Lou Dunbar, an effervescent 37-year-old who played at the University of Houston in the 1970s, is the star, a 6-foot-10 gentle giant. His shrill voice, with the aid of a wireless microphone, pierces through the arena. He kisses a referee, gooses the opposing center, steals cotton candy from a vendor and swipes a purse from a middle-aged woman sitting in the front row.
All this in the first 10 minutes.
"I know what people come to see," Dunbar said. "They come to see good basketball. Have fun. Laugh. Forget their frustrations. If I'm out there and a minute or two passes and no one is laughing, we haven't done our job."
It's tough to play with a purpose and a smile night after night. The basketball is performed at three-quarters speed in neatly choreographed packages. Sweet Lou bumps a referee. Tyrone "Hollywood" Brown drops to his knees, dribbling the ball inches off the ground. Sandra Hodge joins the Weave, a woman playing with the guys. "Off the court, they treat me like a lady," she said. "On the court, they treat me like a Globetrotter." Reginald Dixon uses his 50-inch vertical leap for a flying dunk.
The Washington Generals, coached by Red Klotz, lose. Klotz's New Jersey Reds last defeated the Globetrotters, 100-99, in Martin, Tenn., Jan. 5, 1971. The crowd was infuriated. Losing isn't part of the act.
"We're like the Rodney Dangerfields of basketball, we get nrespect," said Luke Murphy, a 27-year-old Generals forward who played at Hofstra. "Before I joined the Generals, I had never even seen the Globetrotters before. The first two months out here, I was laughing all the time. Red pulled me over to the bench and said, 'Luke, we're the straight men. You can't laugh. Get a towel if you have to laugh.' It's funny every night.
"But if we ever win a game, I'll grab the ball, run off the court, call USA Today and tell them: 'We just beat them. We beat the Harlem Globetrotters.' "
Another Globetrotters loss isn't likely to happen in Murphy'lifetime. It would ruin the comedy.
"It takes a special kind of person to adapt and play ball everday," said Cliff Payton, who started out a Globetrotter 13 years ago and ended up a General. "When I first came out here, I was bitching about not playing enough. Then, I didn't want to play. Your legs turn to rubber. And you have to smile all the time."
Smile through Monday night shows in tiny high schoogymnasiums. Smile while kids are jostling for your autograph. Smile while the bags are lost in airports, while the bus chugs from Wichita to Omaha to Lincoln, while the days run together. It's not uncommon for the Globetrotters to bet one another on what day of the week it is.
L "It seems like every night is a Saturday night," Dixon said.
He's not complaining. After playing at Niagara and flunking a few NBA tryouts, Dixon was working for the water department in Houston when he was discovered by the Globetrotters during a summer-league game. He joined 20 other players for a tryout last summer in Orlando, Fla., and emerged as one of six rookie 'Trotters. Because of the worldwide proliferation of leagues, the Globetrotters' talent base is shrinking. The team gets most of its players from predominantly black colleges.
"Contrary to what people might think, we look for players first and entertainers second," Harrison said. "If the basketball isn't good, the show isn't good."
In his first season, Dixon already has toured most of the United States and Europe and even visited Israel. Dixon and the Globetrotters were scheduled to play Kuwait City this spring, but the Persian Gulf War intervened.
"It's mind over matter on the court," Dixon said. "A lot of times, we're so tired, but then you hit the floor, and you're on."
Dixon was amazed that the Globetrotters' traveling group -- 10 to 12 players and five support personnel -- was remarkably free of friction. It wasn't always that way. During his final seasons with the Globetrotters, Meadowlark Lemon dominated the team on and off the floor. The Showman could act the role of prima donna in the locker room, creating jealousy and tension.
"We see each other more than family, but, then, we are family,Dixon said. "We have as much fun in the hotels and restaurants as we do on the court. You have to be kind and friendly to people. That has to be in you. You can't fake it. The kids love you, and you have to love them, too."
For the Globetrotters, the road is a blur of hotels, arenas and faces. The card game never ends. The schedule never ceases. The last of the great barnstormers have a plane to catch and a game to play. Today. Tomorrow. Next year. Next century.
"You have peace of mind out here," Dunbar said. "You're nogetting up doing 9-to-5 work. True, I've been dead tired, and I like getting home. But, then, after a week, I'm ready to go back on the road."
* 1927: The Harlem Globetrotters make their debut in Hinckley, Ill., before 300 spectators.
* 1942: Goose Tatum joins the team.
* 1945: The first overseas tour is launched in Hawaii.
* 1945: Boid Buie, a one-armed player, joins the team and averages 18 points.
* 1951: A crowd of 75,000, the largest ever to see a basketball game, watches the Globetrotters in Berlin's Olympic Stadium.
* 1954: The Globetrotters become the first sports team to play under lights at Wrigley Field.
* 1967: The Globetrotters make their first appearance in Harlem.
* 1979: Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping asks to see the Globetrotters on a visit to the United States. The resulting game is broadcast 900 million viewers in China.
* 1982: The Globetrotters receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
* 1984: Lynette Woodard becomes the first female Globetrotter.
* 1989: The Globetrotters are given the Gen. Omar N. Bradley "Spirit of Independence" award.
Trotting the globe
Countries visited by the Globetrotters:
United Arab Emirates