In 1926, Abe Saperstein formed an African-American basketball team that became known as the Harlem Globetrotters. Little did Saperstein know that when the team hit the floor for their first road game in Hinckley, Illinois, on Jan. 7, 1927, an evolution of basketball and the black athlete began.
We celebrate the influence of the world’s most famous basketball team during Black History Month.
Barnstorming across the country in their early existence, the Original Harlem Globetrotters were pioneers in popularizing the slam dunk, fast-break, the forward and point guard positions, and the figure-eight weave.
The Globetrotters were so popular in the 1940s that the fledgling NBA would often book the Globetrotters as the first game of a doubleheader, in the hopes of attracting more fans. Trouble was, once the Globetrotters left the floor, so did most of the fans, leaving the subsequent NBA game sparsely attended.
The NBA quickly changed the order, with the Globetrotters playing the second game of the doubleheader. Fans then streamed into the NBA game to ensure having seats when the Globetrotters played.
Despite this, many scoffed at the notion that the Globetrotters could compete against the all-white teams of the NBA.
That all changed in 1947 and 1948. In each of those years, before standing-room-only crowds at Chicago Stadium, the Globetrotters defeated the world champion Minneapolis Lakers – led by Hall of Famer George Mikan – accelerating the sport’s integration.
In 1950, Globetrotter Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton became the first African-American player to sign an NBA contract, joining the New York Knicks. NBA teams then began drafting black players.
LeBron James, Steph Curry and every man that has played in the NBA since the Globetrotters defeated the Lakers have the Harlem Globetrotters to thank for their opportunity.
Atkinson, in his 10th season with the Globetrotters after being the first selection in the team’s inaugural draft in 2007, is grateful for the opportunity given to him not by his Globetrotter predecessors, but all black leaders past and present.
“Black History Month means a great deal to me,” said Atkinson. “So many African-American leaders helped paved the way for us to be living the life we have today. The Harlem Globetrotters are a big part of black history, so it means even more to me, since I’m part of that rich history. My grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles were raised watching the Globetrotters – so I carry a sense of pride and honor to be part of an organization that not only had an impact on my family but a great influence on the world as well.”
Indeed, the Globetrotter’s impact has been felt worldwide. The team has showcased its iconic talents before over 144 million fans in 122 countries and territories on six continents in their 91-year history, often breaking down cultural and societal barriers while providing fans with their first-ever basketball experience.
To help counteract the impact of a giant communist youth rally in what was then East Germany, the United States' State Department contacted Saperstein in 1951 and asked the Globetrotters to play a game in the Allied section of Berlin. On August 22, 1951, the Globetrotters played before 75,000 fans packed into Berlin's Olympic Stadium, with Jesse Owens, the hero of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, as a special guest.
During the team’s silver anniversary in 1952, the Globetrotters made an around-the-world tour, the first of its kind by any basketball team in history. The tour covered nearly 53,000 miles, featuring 111 games in 72 cities in 34 countries. U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson sent a circular airgram to diplomatic and consular officers around the world, stating that the department was backing the Globetrotters on the world tour as “ambassadors of goodwill.”
In August 1959, during the heart of the Cold War, the Globetrotters made their first trip to Moscow to begin a sold-out tour of the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe. Wilt Chamberlain was part of the historic Soviet Union tour, as the Hall of Famer played a full season with the Globetrotters in 1958-59. You see, at the time, the NBA was not accepting underclassmen when Chamberlain chose to end his college career at the University of Kansas, so he joined the Globetrotters.
Even after starting his NBA career, he still played parts of several other seasons with the Globetrotters, joining the team when he could between NBA seasons. Chamberlain said that some of the most pleasant days of his life were playing for the Harlem Globetrotters.
Not only did the Globetrotters break the color barrier in the NBA, they also broke the gender barrier in pro hoops when Olympic Gold Medalist Lynette Woodard joined the team in 1985, becoming the first female to ever play on a men’s pro basketball team and helping to pave the way for the WNBA.
Current Globetrotters female star TNT Lister, one of 15 females ever on the team and one of four on the current roster, understands the significance of Black History Month.
“It spotlights a multitude of African-Americans that have contributed to our society in a positive way,” explains Lister. “The Harlem Globetrotters are a great part of the advancement of today's society. Through laughter, positivity and sports, the Harlem Globetrotters have brought people together of all races and cultures, giving us all a common ground with one another.”
That was never truer than in 1996, when the Globetrotters become the first pro basketball team to play in a free democratic South Africa. The team’s exhibition games netted $1.5 million for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, and the team named Mandela an Honorary Harlem Globetrotter, The prestigious honor, given to only 10 people in history – including Pope Francis in 2015 – recognizes an individual of extraordinary character and achievement who has made an everlasting mark on the world.
The Globetrotters’ legacy was further cemented with their 2002 induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, just the fifth team at the time to ever be so honored.
As you can see, the Harlem Globetrotters have had a tremendous impact on the world both on and off the court. As part of your celebration of Black History Month, and as a tradition that will provide lifetime memories, you can pay homage by seeing this one-of-a-kind family entertainment experience live.