THE WOMEN OF THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS –
BREAKING SPORTS BARRIERS
The venue is rocking with anticipation, and she is nervous. Excitement and electricity fill the air, and she doesn’t want to forget the team’s plays and all the ball handling moves she has learned. She takes a deep breath and runs out with the team.
It’s October 17, 2011, on the North Shore of Long Island, and TNT Maddox (now married and with the last name Lister) is hitting the floor for her first game ever as a Harlem Globetrotter… at the time, just the ninth female ever to do so, and the first in nearly two decades.
Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day, and March is Women’s History Month. In celebration, we look at the impact women have had on the world’s most famous basketball team… and vice versa.
“It was so loud; the kids were going crazy,” TNT remembers about her first game. “That’s when I realized I was a part of something truly special and unique.”
TNT didn’t miss a beat in that game, and she is now enjoying her sixth season with the Globetrotters, making her the longest-tenured female player in the history of the franchise (along with Sandra Hodge, who debuted during the team’s 1987 tour).
The Globetrotters broke basketball’s gender barrier in 1985 when they signed Olympic Gold Medalist – and future Hall of Famer – Lynette Woodard, the first female to ever play on a men's professional basketball team. Woodard toured for two seasons with the Globetrotters, and seven other female players followed, helping to popularize women’s basketball and pave the way for the WNBA.
Due perhaps in part to the increased opportunities in WNBA offered and in women’s professional leagues overseas, the Globetrotters went 18 seasons without a female on the roster. Seeing the need to expand their demographic and give young girls a role model, the Globetrotters tried out dozens of female prospects in 2011. When the smoke cleared, it was TNT who earned a training camp spot and the honor of wearing the Globetrotters’ signature red, white and blue uniform.
“My first season as the only woman on the team was filled mostly with excitement, but there was a lot of pressure as well,” explains TNT. “I always felt like I was representing every girl and woman in the stands, so I wanted to do well and make them proud. The fans’ response to me and their kind words after games assured me they were inspired by my presence on the team, and that felt amazing.”
It also helped that her male counterparts embraced her with open arms from day one. “I came in with two brothers, and now I have about 30,” TNT says with a smile.
Like Woodard before her, TNT’s success opened the door for other exceptional women to join the team, and there have now been a total of 15 female players in the Globetrotters’ history – including four on the current roster, the most women ever on the team at one time.
When she was 6, Ace asked her father if he would teach her how to play basketball.
“At first he told me, ‘No,’ because I was too short and a girl. Once I threatened to tell my mom on him, he had a change of heart and started to train me,” Ace laughs.
“When I became a Globetrotter, my parents’ response was, ‘We knew you were destined for greatness,’” says Ace. “My father felt this was my path, because I loved doing tricks and fancy dribbling and ball handling, but he trained me hard in the fundamentals, too. When it’s all said and done, the ball has to go in the hoop. The price of admission for becoming a Globetrotter is being a great basketball player, but you also have to be an entertainer and an individual of great character.”
Indeed. The “Ambassadors of Goodwill”™ leave an indelible mark on communities around the world with acts of kindness, and the women have embodied that role off the court by bringing schools messages of bullying prevention; character and physical fitness; visiting children’s hospitals; lending a hand after natural disasters; helping build homes for the needy; and volunteering at soup kitchens.
Hoops is floored at the response she gets from young girls. “A girl recently told me that she was going to start playing basketball again because of me,” says Hoops. “She said I looked so happy and was always smiling, and I seemed like a great person, so that made her want to get back into the game.”
At any given Globetrotters game, you will also see boys wearing the jerseys of the female stars and clamoring for their autographs after the final buzzer.
“It was surprising at first, but now I am used to it," says Swish. “Girls and boys often reach out to me on social media and tell me that I am their favorite player or that they want to be like me."
“A boy will often tell me he hopes he can be as good as me when he grows up,” says a beaming TNT. “That is very gratifying, because it shows they see me as a good player, not just a good girl player. That's awesome.”
All four agree that women have had a tremendous influence on society and sports and that the Globetrotters should be viewed as pioneers in that realm.
“The Harlem Globetrotters have respected the importance and capabilities of women. They’ve looked past gender and focused on the talent, personality and qualities of the person,” says Ace.
“Women have played a critical role in history, and the Globetrotters made a mark by allowing females into what once was a male-dominated sport,” adds Swish.
“Being a Globetrotters gives me the platform to encourage people to follow their passions and dreams, regardless of gender,” says Hoops.
“The Harlem Globetrotters have helped bring more respect to women, not only in the athletic world, but in general,” adds TNT. “I'm proud to be a part of an organization that understands how vital that is.”
These four amazing women know they carry an immense responsibility to inspire youngsters all over the world and show every day they belong on the court with their male teammates. That can be an enormous cross to bear, but being a female Harlem Globetrotter isn’t without some unique perks.
“Wherever we play, I get my own locker room!” exclaims Ace.