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The Harlem Globetrotters were often victims of racism off the court and behind the scenes

Discrimination, false accusations and bankruptcy didn’t break them down

When people hear the whistle of “Sweet Georgia Brown” by Brothers Bones, it likely sparks childhood memories of the Harlem Globetrotters. The Globetrotters are renowned for their larger-than-life personalities, supreme athletic abilities and skills on the basketball court. They have been a major source of fun and entertainment for families around the world for 90 years. But that wasn’t always the case.

Most saw the glitz, glamour and the phenomenal basketball skills of the Globetrotters, but few saw the racism they had to endure after their inception in 1927 through the civil rights era of the 1960s. The team members, like many other African-Americans, were victims of the harsh Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation.

The organization has been a staple of family entertainment throughout the country. Their creativity and genuine showmanship have excited generations of fans and created a lasting impact on American sports culture.

The players provided entertainment, but they were often reminded that they were black men and suffered experiences that plagued other African-Americans. Once the basketball games were over, they were prohibited from eating at certain restaurants, turned away from hotels because many were designated as “whites-only” and were even falsely accused of robbery. The early days of the Globetrotters were filled with various trials that the players had to overcome.

Undeniable racism

From one team member to the next, the Globetrotters who played during the Jim Crow era can share stories of their struggles.

Curly Neal, a Globetrotter from 1963-1985, is one of the most recognized team members. He was awarded the Legends honor in 1993 for making a major contribution to the success and the development of the Globetrotters organization. He penned an op-ed piece for USA Today in which he recalled one of the multiple racial incidents the team experienced:

“I can still remember hearing the story from the great Tex Harrison. Fifty-nine years ago, the Harlem Globetrotters had just played in front of 18,000 fans in northern Florida — most of them white — and tried to grab a bite to eat at a restaurant. The restaurant wouldn’t let the team in. Wouldn’t serve them. They went to a hotel next. They were turned away. Later, they found out that a performing chimpanzee sponsored by a local bowling alley got a big fancy suite.”

Sweet Lou Dunbar, who joined the Globetrotters in 1977 after playing in the semipro league with the Houston Rockets, said black families would house the team when they couldn’t find a hotel.

But Globetrotter Hallie Bryant, who received the Legends distinction in 2009, remembers having to resort to extreme measures when the team couldn’t find a hotel or black family in Nebraska.

“When the team played in a Nebraska town that only had ‘white hotels,’ the team had to sleep in the county jail; players often had to bunk together in unheated quarters,” said Bryant, who spent 27 years in the organization as player, official spokesperson and director of team personnel.

And with separate hotels for black and whites, the Globetrotters had to double up on games because audiences were logistically segregated.

“They had to play for two different audiences; for the white audience and [then] they had to go across the track and play for the black audience,” Dunbar said.

While the Globetrotters were treated as second-class citizens at home, overseas, they were treated like royalty.

“Part of the great irony of their story was that when they would go overseas, they were treated like kings. They were put up in the fanciest hotels in Paris, Rome and London. They met the Pope, kings and queens. They played in front of Juan and Eva Peron,” Ben Green, author of Spinning the Globe: The Rise, Fall, and Return to Greatness of the Harlem Globetrotters, told The Undefeated. “Then, they came home and couldn’t stay in a hotel. They couldn’t order a hamburger. Once they got back home, all of the racism, all the prejudice in the U.S. just ascended back on top of them. I am sure it scarred them.”

Fit the description

Unfortunately, the racial discrimination the Globetrotters experienced was not limited to the South. Dunbar recalled an incident in Santa Barbara, California, where he, teammates Ovie Dotson and Jimmy Blacklock were targeted by the police.

It was 1983 and the team had just returned from Australia. The three players went downtown to walk around – they stopped for ice cream and went to a jewelry store. They flagged down a taxi when they were ready to head back to the hotel. While on the way to the hotel, they heard sirens. The taxi pulled over.

As he’s pulling over, I turn around and I look around my shoulder and they had an unmarked car with this guy pushing his door open sticking a pistol out the window. I immediately just threw my arms up in the air. Just seconds later I looked to my right, there was an alleyway and there [were] some more cops with guns pointing them at us,” Dunbar said. “This guy got on the megaphone and told the taxi driver, ‘Listen, take the keys out of the car and throw them out the car.’

The taxi driver said, ‘The key doesn’t come out.’ One of the guys in the back seat said, ‘Hey, they didn’t hear you.’ He’s telling them, ‘The keys doesn’t come out.’

They tell him, ‘Listen, take your right hand, open the door from the outside and get out the car.’ Then they start telling the guys in the back to do the same thing: open the door and walk to the middle of the street and lie down in the middle of the street. I was in the front seat. They told me slide out through the driver’s side and do the same thing.

As I slid out I had on flip-flops at the time and one of my flip-flops came off. I said, ‘Well, I don’t want to be an accident.’ I walked out, I had one flip-flop on, one off. They made me lie down in the street and they had these cops come pick us up and handcuffed us. This guy, I’m 6’10” probably about 230 at that time. This cop was probably 5’5″ and they had him trying to pick me up on the middle of the street with my hands handcuffed behind my back. They stuck us each all in a separate police car.

I asked the guy, ‘Can you tell me what we supposedly had done?’ He just said, ‘Be quiet, we’ll tell you later.’

What had happened in a neighboring city, Montecito, which is right next to Santa Barbara, three black guys had robbed a jewelry store of average height. I’m 6’10”, Toby Dawson’s is 6’5″ and Jimmy’s 6’2″, almost 6’3.” This was the description they gave. They caught all this on tape because one reporter told us he said, ‘We followed these guys from the ice cream stand. We ran with the cameras when you guys had the ice cream.’ I said, ‘Really?’ They had a guy from the jewelry store drive by, look in the police car, they told people that we weren’t it.”

The “you fit the description” narrative was in play. There was no possible reason confusion would occur with the description of three average men to that of three tall basketball players.

How the black community began to view them at one point

The Globetrotters owe their success to the black community. And while black support was strong when the team was starting out, the cheerleading faded in the 1960s.

“By the 1960s, they were being called ‘Al Capones.’ There was a lot [of] resentment behind the civil rights movement that the Globetrotters were typically playing to white audiences and sort of playing to these stereotypes of black athletes,” Green said.

“They got away from playing good basketball and they were just seen as clowns,” he added. “I feel like that was part of what led to their demise.”

Many individuals in the black community saw them as just a comedy show and believed they were “clowning” for mostly white audiences. Then the Harlem Globetrotters cartoon aired from 1970-1972 and many team members of the animated series, including Dunbar, who was well-known for his large afro, made guest appearances on Scooby Doo. Produced by Hanna-Barbera and CBS Productions, the Saturday morning show took a negative hit. They were called Uncle Toms and were accused of jive talking.

As a result of diminished support, the Globetrotters suffered severe financial difficulties and were almost bankrupt in the early ’90s. Former team member and Legend Mannie Jackson purchased the Globetrotters in 1993. Jackson became the first African-American to own a major sports/entertainment organization.

Jackson was able to turn the Globetrotters around, according to the Globetrotters website, by reviving the near-bankrupt organization and restoring its status as one of the most admired and publicized teams in the world, while increasing revenue five-fold and rebuilding the fan base to near record levels.

Profound influence on the NBA

According to the team website, Abe Saperstein founded the Globetrotters in 1926, and they played their first road game in Hinckley, Illinois, on Jan. 7, 1927. Since then, the Globetrotters have entertained more than 144 million fans in 122 countries and territories worldwide  —  introducing many to the sport  —  pioneers in popularizing the slam dunk, fast break, the forward and point guard positions, and the figure-eight weave. The Globetrotters were enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002.

“Defeating the Chicago Bruins in 1940, the Globetrotters won their first World Basketball Championship. In 1948 and 1949, the Globetrotters stunned the world by twice defeating the World Champion Minneapolis Lakers. They were socially influential and quickly became recognized as the world’s best basketball team, showing that African-Americans could excel on a professional level,” the website said.

It’s believed that the victories over the Minneapolis Lakers led to the integration of the NBA. The first African-American player to sign an NBA contract was the Globetrotters star Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton, who signed with the New York Knicks.

“I think there’s a direct connection between those things. When the Globetrotters are beating the best team two years in a row, it’s about time to integrate the leagues,” Green said.

Former NBA commissioner David Stern said in the documentary, Harlem Globetrotters — The Team That Changed The World, when he started traveling the world for the NBA, it was still was indelibly imprinted upon nations that when you said basketball, people would say Harlem Globetrotters.

Lasting legacy

The Globetrotters have created a deep legacy in sports and black history. The Globetrotters’ name is universal.

“Everywhere in the world when you say, ‘Harlem Globetrotters,’ people get excited about it. I have a ring that says ‘Harlem Globetrotters Legends.’ When I check in different places, when they see the Globetrotters, they [say] ‘Globetrotters!!! Globetrotters!!’ even if they can’t speak English,” said Bryant.

The Globetrotters made an enormous mark on history by signing Olympic gold medal winner and Globetrotter Legend Lynette Woodard in 1985. She was the first American woman to play for a men’s professional basketball team. After her two stints with the Globetrotters, Woodard signed with WNBA’s Cleveland Rockers in 1997 and the following year during the expansion draft was selected by the Detroit Shock. She received the Globetrotter Legend distinction in 1996 and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2004.

While the Globetrotters’ impact on basketball was influential, their effect was also felt on a social landscape.

“The Globetrotters more than any other influence carried basketball around the world,” Green said. “They showed up in South America, Europe and Asia, places that didn’t even know basketball. Because of them, civil wars stopped, union strikes were halted. The whole country would go crazy over them.”

Their influence reached around the globe. Neal had a fitting summation on the legacy of the Globetrotters in his op-ed piece:

“The Harlem Globetrotters have been — and will continue to be at the forefront of breaking down racial barriers in this country. Whether it’s playing in front of another packed house at Madison Square Garden or brightening the days of the amazing people of Flint, Mich., during their ongoing water crisis, the Globetrotters have been there.

“Even if we once weren’t welcomed in restaurants and hotels, we have always been welcomed on the court, in front of people who wanted to have a good time.

“That’s why when I look at what has changed in this country, I don’t lament what is still wrong. I think about how much has been accomplished and how a basketball team, its only mission to brighten the days of others, was a part of that.”

The Globetrotters paved the way for these players to join the NBA. Because of it fans and players alike owe the Globetrotters a debt of gratitude and immense appreciation. Throughout all the struggles and trials, they still found a way to entertain and sustain a legacy that will last for centuries to come.

Dunbar is still with the organization today as director of player personnel and coach. He received the Legend distinction in 2007.

The team from the start had some of the best black athletes in the world. It was their only recourse to showcase their talents because professional sports weren’t integrated. Once integration happened, the Globetrotters became a different team, more entertainment-based than competition. They are basketball performers who have the ability to entertain through basketball and comedy.

Once hosting players such as Wilt Chamberlain, Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins, Earvin “Magic” Johnson and baseball’s Bob Gibson, the Globetrotters broke down barriers that led to integration of the NBA. They showed white America they belonged. Today’s audiences of the Globies are filled with young children and their parents who loved the team.

Sharon Brown is a basketball writer and founding editor of All Heart in Hoop City's blog.