Civic Engagement

Harlem Globetrotters: The team that changed basketball forever

The 1950 NBA Draft was historic.

With the No. 14 pick, the Boston Celtics selected Charles "Chuck" Cooper out of Duquesne, making him the first Black player to be drafted by an NBA team. With the 100th pick, the Washington Capitols selected Earl Lloyd out of West Virginia State University. Lloyd went on to become the first Black player to play in an NBA game when he checked into Washington's season-opener on Oct. 31, 1950.

And finally, there was Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, who made history by becoming the first Black player to ever sign an NBA contract.

MORE: Celebrating Black History Month

Interestingly enough, Cooper and Clifton got their start in a similar way. After graduating from Duquesne, Cooper signed a contract with the Harlem Globetrotters before he was drafted to the NBA. His time with the Globetrotters was short-lived, but Clifton spent two years with the Harlem Globetrotters before the New York Knicks purchased his contract from the team.

They're two of several NBA legends who have suited up for the Harlem Globetrotters, a list that includes Wilt Chamberlain and Connie Hawkins.

The Harlem Globetrotters have become known for being one of the most entertaining shows in basketball, but the team has an illustrious history. Their origins trace back to 1927 when an all-Black team called the Savoy Big Five played exhibition games in the Savoy Ballroom in Chicago, Illinois. The team eventually broke up over "an internal money squabble," and those who fled went on to create the Harlem Globetrotters.

While they were initially known as the New York Globetrotters, calling them the Harlem Globetrotters was the idea of Abe Saperstein, a Jewish immigrant who was initially hired to be the team's booking agent. The Globetrotters didn't even play in Harlem for the first time until 1968, but Saperstein decided to "capitalize on the racial makeup of the team," and Harlem was considered to be the "highest level of Black achievement" at the time.

Connecting Harlem to the team also allowed outsiders to know that the roster was made up of all Black players.

This was nearly 30 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, implying that segregation in other public facilities was unconstitutional as well. Because the United States was still segregated, Black basketball players had to pick up games wherever they could. Serving as the team's owner, coach and manager - among other roles, including substitute player at times - Saperstein worked hard to book games.

It paid off on Jan. 7, 1927, when the Globetrotters travelled to Hinckley, Illinois to play their first road game. They made $75, according to The Washington Post, with $20 going to Saperstein, $10 going to each player and $5 going towards expenses. The Globetrotters lost, but they earned enough money to travel to their next location.

That set the tone for the team's early years, as the Globetrotters travelled across the Midwest to play other semi-professional teams in predominantly white towns.

"A lot of times it was the first interaction that a lot of white people ever had with Black athletes and maybe with African Americans in general," Ben Green, who wrote "Spinning the Globe: The Rise, Fall and Return to Greatness of the Harlem Globetrotters," told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Globetrotters played more than 1,000 games across the next decade, during which time they established themselves as a competitive team. Their rise earned them an invitation to the inaugural World Championship of Professional Basketball in 1939, where they were one of only two all-Black teams in the tournament, the other being the New York Rens, who defeated the Globetrotters en route to the championship, a historic moment in its own right.

The Globetrotters returned the following year, this time defeating the Chicago Bruins to win the tournament. Their victory prompted The Chicago Tribune's Arch Ward to proclaim them the "best-known team in professional basketball."

The antics that the Globetrotters have become known for were born in 1939 - Saperstein supposedly told them to save it for when they built a big lead - but they continued their rise up the basketball ranks. In 1948, the Globetrotters played one of the most consequential games in history when they took on the Minneapolis Lakers, then of the National Basketball League. In front of nearly 18,000 fans in Chicago Stadium, the all-Black Globetrotters defeated the all-white Lakers, who were led by Hall of Famer George Mikan.

The Globetrotters found themselves trailing 32-23 after two quarters of play but stormed back thanks to some savvy halftime adjustments and came away with the win, doing so on a buzzer-beater from Ermer Robinson.

There was a rematch a year later - the Globetrotters came up with the victory again - but it was that first matchup that had an everlasting impact.

"Basketball's moguls quickly sensed the dollars-and-cents meaning of the Globetrotters' 1948 victory: Talented Black players improved the game, and fans would pay to see them," Ron Grossman of The Chicago Tribune wrote.

What followed was historic. Two years later, three Black players made the jump to the NBA, breaking the league's colour barrier. One of them, Earl Lloyd, went straight from college to the NBA, but two of them, Charles "Chuck" Cooper and Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, got their start with the Harlem Globetrotters.

It's fitting that two of the NBA's pioneers began their professional careers with a team that has changed basketball forever.

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