How the Harlem Globetrotters’ famous 1948 win against the champion Lakers paved way for Blacks to play in the NBA

Michael Eli Dokosi October 11, 2019
The 1976-77 National Unit Harlem Globetrotters team. Kneeling, from left: Nate Branch, Curly Neal, Meadowlark Lemon and Jackie Jackson. Standing, from left: Dallas Thornton, Edmond Lawrence, Robert Paige, Twiggy Sanders and Jerry Venable. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Harlem Globetrotters, a predominantly black professional U.S. basketball team, is now remembered for its ball handling, antics, tricks and entertainment.

In its early years, it was a formidable basketball team, playing the game straight-up and conquering opponents.

In 1925, a group of former basketball players from Chicago’s Wendell Phillips High School reunited to play for the Giles Post American Legion basketball team that barnstormed around the Midwest. The reunion culminated in the Savoy Big Five in 1926, who played home games as pre-dance entertainment at Chicago’s newly opened Savoy Ballroom. However, by 1928, a pay dispute led five players to jump ship to form the Globetrotters.

NEW YORK – NOVEMBER 23: Meadowlark Lemon of the The Harlem Globetrotters being interviewed for CBS Sports Spectacular. Image dated November 23, 1960. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

The players were good and strong, however, they needed someone to package everything and to enable them to make steady money to feed themselves and families.

Enter, Sports promoter Abe Saperstein, who acquired the team soon after and owned it until his death in 1966. In 1930, the team’s name was rebranded to Harlem Globetrotters from its New York Globetrotters name to tap into the fierceness of the Harlem neighbourhood in New York; although it will take decades before the team, actually played in Harlem.

Abe Saperstein, owner and coach of the Harlem Globetrotters, is shown at Toots Shor’s restaurant in New York City, Jan. 24, 1950. (AP Photo/Tom Fitzsimmons)

The travelling team had cultivated keen fans and displayed such mesmerizing skills that in 1939, they participated in the first professional basketball championship, losing to the New York Renaissance in the final game, however, undaunted they won the prestigious World Professional Basketball Tournament against Chicago Bruins the next year.

In 1948, the Globetrotters stunned the basketball world by defeating the Minneapolis Lakers, champions of the all-white National Basketball League, the precursor to the National Basketball Association (NBA). The following year, they beat the Lakers again.

The Globetrotters didn’t start to incorporate comedy, ball tricks and dribbling exhibitions into their games until the late 1930s.

When they did, it was Inman Jackson who was the first to assume the role of “clown prince” on the team. As the National Basketball Association became racially integrated in the 1950s, the opportunities for competitive games on the barnstorming circuit dried up. As a result, the team made comedic entertainment its central focus. Some outstanding Globetrotters were Reece “Goose” Tatum, Marques Haynes, Clarence Wilson, “Meadowlark” Lemon, Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain, Herb “Geese” Ausbie, and Lynette Woodard, the first woman to play for the team.

After their famous wins against the World Champion Minneapolis Lakers of the NBA, the Globetrotters who became socially influential were regarded as the world’s best basketball team, showing that African-Americans could excel on a professional level.

Members of the Globetrotters basketball team are shown arriving in New York aboard the liner Mauretania. From top to bottom are: Louis Pressly; William “Rookie” Brown; Boyd Buie; Reece “Goose” Tatum; Frank Washington; Markus Haynes; Sammy Quee; Clarence Wilson; and (in front) manager Winfield Welch. (Credit: Bettmann / Contributor)

The victories over the Lakers accelerated the integration of the NBA, as Globetrotter Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton became the first African-American player to sign an NBA contract when he joined the famed New York Knicks in 1950. The Globetrotters also embarked on their first-ever international tour in 1950, playing before their largest crowd ever – 75,000 – at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium in 1951, finishing the decade with their maiden trip to the Soviet Union in 1959.

Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain played a season with Globetrotters in 1958-59 and was part of that Soviet Union tour. Chamberlain, the NBA’s huge draw credits his time with the Globetrotters as one of his most pleasant days.

Wilt Chamberlain. (Credit Underwood Archives)

The Globetrotters have been named Ambassadors of Goodwill for serving mankind around the world and received accolades from world leaders including Presidents Eisenhower and Ford. 

The appeal of the Globetrotters shined on even into the ‘70s and ‘80s. The Harlem Globetrotters cartoon show on CBS earned some of the highest ratings in the history of Saturday morning television. The players also featured on various TV shows.

Former Globetrotters player Mannie Jackson purchased the team in 1993, becoming the first African-American to own a major international sports and entertainment organization. He tripled the team’s revenue in three years and quadrupled its size in five. The team was also active in philanthropic efforts, with charitable contributions totaling more than $11 million under Jackson’s guidance.

Thirteen people with ties to the Harlem Globetrotters have been inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. In 2002 the team was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

On October 1, 2013, the Globetrotters were purchased by Herschend Family Entertainment. They continue to bring their entertainment to millions of fans around the world with more than 400 live events each year.

Harlem Globetrotters via Lennox McLendon/Associated Press

It is estimated 750 men and women have played for the Globetrotters, a team which has entertained popes, kings, queens and presidents around the globe.

The Harlem Globetrotters have also starred in two 1950s Hollywood movies, including “Go Man Go” featuring Sidney Poitier. In recognition of their role as entertainers, the Harlem Globetrotters received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1982.

Nat Sweetwater Clifton, of the New York Knickerbockers, holding a basketball in each hand. (Credit: Bettmann)


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