Formed in Chicago, this world-famous black basketball team has long combined sports and entertainment. Owner, promoter, and coach Abe Saperstein transformed a local black semipro team, the Savoy Big Five, into the Harlem Globetrotters in 1927, although the team had no connection to New York City. According to Saperstein, using the Harlem name linked the team with thecultural capital of black America, while the Globetrotter appellation suggested that the team “had been around.”
Barnstorming around the Midwest, the Trotters began clowning in the mid-1930s to promote ticket sales to white audiences. Crowds loved the novelty of basketball clowning, which became a Globetrotter trademark. Saperstein also fielded a clowning Globetrotter baseball team in the 1940s and 1950s.
By mid-century, the Globetrotters claimed to be the nation’s top sports attraction. Trotter games were sellouts everywhere, and the team was featured in popular movies like "Go, Man, Go" (1953).They demonstrated the quality of black basketball on national tours with College All-Stars and by defeating the National Basketball Association-champion Minneapolis Lakers in several games in 1948 and 1949. The Trotters’ success paved the way for the integration of the NBA, which Saperstein discouraged in order to retain control of black basketball. Several disgruntled star players left the Trotters in the 1950s, forming their own competing teams, such as the Harlem Magicians and the Harlem Road Kings. During the civil rights era, critics attacked basketball clowning for emphasizing negative black stereotypes, and some players charged Saperstein with paternalism.
When Saperstein died in 1966, the team was a multi-million dollar business with four teams simultaneously traveling under the Globetrotter name. Currently owned by former player Mannie Jackson, the Harlem Globetrotters continue a long tradition of mixing sports and entertainment.
Raymond A. Mohl
University of Alabama, Birmingham
Ben Lombardo, “The Harlem Globetrotters and the Perpetuation of the Black Stereotype,” The Physical Educator 335 (May 1978); Ron Thomas, They Cleared the Lane (2002); Dave Zinkoff, Go, Man, Go (1958).