How the Harlem Globetrotters Integrated the NBA
The 1948 game between the Globetrotters and Minneapolis Lakers that changed basketball forever
|Eric Nusbaum||Nov 5, 2019|| 1|
Welcome to Sports Stories, a newsletter written by Eric Nusbaum, and illustrated by Adam Villacin. Every week, we’ll be learning about sports, history, and sports history. We hope you enjoy Sports Stories — and that if you do, you share it with your friends, families, and any Harlem Globetrotters you might know.
One of the best things about the NBA is the urgency of the present. No pro sports league does a better job of always living in the moment. The stars of right now are the stars we care about. The past exists, but not as something to worship. (Except, to some weirdos, like the illustrator of this newsletter, Kobe.)
But for someone like me who always wants to draw lines between what happened a long time ago and what is happening now; who is obsessed with context, who is always trying to figure out how we got here, basketball’s presentness is also annoying. The sport can feel sort of weightless, even though the “old days” of the sport are not actually that old. And for the most part, the big moments are easy to identify. Jim Naismith hung his peach baskets in 1891. Wilt scored 100 in 1962. The NBA-ABA merger, which led the pro game to its current (excellent) form, happened in 1976. Soon after that, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were drafted.
The NBA’s pastlessness is also in part the result of its relatively gradual ascent in popularity. It’s been a slow rise. Baseball celebrates its past, because those were the most glorious times baseball had. Basketball’s greatest glories are happening now—or better yet, they haven’t even been dreamed up. So on one level, it makes sense that basketball doesn’t talk about how it was integrated at the professional level. It certainly doesn’t need to hearken back to that era to prove its bonafides as a sport for everyone. There is no basketball Jackie Robinson, in part because basketball just wasn’t as popular in the middle of the century. But on the other hand, the story is so good; so critical and fundamental to American culture, that I can’t believe it hasn’t been celebrated more.
Historians generally agree that the pivotal moment in basketball’s integration came two years before the NBA signed its first black players. It came on February 19, 1948, in the form of an exhibition game between two of most iconic franchises in the sport’s history: the Lakers (then of Minneapolis) and the Harlem Globetrotters. The importance of this game isn’t the kind of thing you can “prove.” But it was a big deal. It was an inflection point. To really feel its significance you have to understand what these teams were all about, and where pro basketball was at this point: prehistoric, disorganized, mostly run by hockey rink owners who wanted something to fill their arenas on off nights. The shot clock was still four years away.
The Lakers and Globetrotters could not have been more different. For one, the Lakers were all white and the Globetrotters were all black. For another, the Lakers played in an organized league, National Basketball League—which they would go on to dominate that year behind center George Mikan. The Lakers were relatively new, even in the world of pro basketball, a product of the recent formation of organized leagues in the US and Canada. The Globetrotters, on the other hand, were barnstormers. They played any and all comers. They had a long history dating back to the mid-1920s. They were a product of the earliest, messiest days of pro basketball.
The Harlem Globetrotters were not from Harlem. They were from Chicago. They evolved from a local team of high schoolers on the South Side. These classmates had played together all over town, including as an attraction at a nightclub called the Savoy Ballroom. Eventually, they got hooked up with a local hustler named Abe Saperstein. In his book on the Harlem Globetrotters, the writer Ben Green wonderfully describes the meeting of Saperstein and Globetrotters in roaring ‘20s Chicago as the perfect cresting of two massive migratory waves that helped make America what it was: Jews from Eastern Europe, like Saperstein’s family, which had made its way from Poland, and African Americans from the South, like the families of the players, which had been part of the Great Migration.
Saperstein, who had worked as a rec basketball coach, and as a booking agent for Negro League baseball team, became the promoter, manager, and resident marketing genius behind the Globetrotters. It was a perfect match: Saperstein loved basketball and respected the brilliance of his players: he knew he had something special on his hands, and he had the charm, gumption, and cunning to make the Globetrotters truly global. He also had a penchant for self-glorification and for rewriting history in a manner that would burnish his legacy. For instance, he is often credited for coming up with the team’s name—but that may or may not be the case.
Regardless of who came up with the name, the Harlem Globetrotters remained based in Chicago. The name was part of the brand, meant to evoke the Harlem Renaissance, and black excellence. In the early years, the Globetrotters didn’t quite trot the globe, but they played nearly every night, in cities around the United States. They put hard miles on Saperstein’s beat up Model-T, worked and worked, and they transformed into a powerhouse. There were no tricks, there was no Sweet Georgia Brown yet. The original players were long gone. They were just a damn good basketball team.
In the 1940s, the Globetrotters began introducing comic bits little by little, to boost attendance, and to give themselves a breather as they ran up the score on opponents. Beloved by fans both black and white and led by Goose Tatum and Marques Haynes, they were considered by many observers to be the best basketball team in the world. The other contender for the claim of “best basketball team in the world” was the Minneapolis Lakers. The Lakers had recently acquired Mikan, the 6’10” center who was widely considered to be the best player in the history of the sport. Saperstein knew the owner of the Lakers, Max Winter, and they decided to put on an exhibition game between the two clubs. There’s no evidence that Saperstein and Winter saw a Globetrotters-Lakers game as any kind of referendum on race and basketball; it was simply a mutually beneficial business proposition. It would be speculation to say that the players were thinking about race when they took the court.
Fans started lining up at Chicago Stadium at 3 a.m. The Globetrotters were hometown heroes, and so was the Lakers’ George Mikan, who had previously played at DePaul University and for the Chicago American Gears of the National Basketball League. Nearly 18,000 fans packed into the arena—a cavernous place with ceilings supported by massive steel trusses that rose over the floor and three tiers of seating. Chicago Stadium was, at the time of its construction in 1929, the largest indoor arena in the world. It also featured one of the world’s largest pipe organs. The place got loud.
It was a Thursday night. The Lakers-Globetrotters game was half of a doubleheader, along with a Basketball Association of America game between the Chicago Stags and New York Knicks—but it was also very clearly the main event. (The Globetrotters often played exhibitions before segregated professional games. In fact, some pro owners argued that they didn’t want to integrate their leagues precisely because they were afraid that if they did so, the Globetrotters would lose some of their appeal, and thereby no longer bring in the fans and money they did in these pregame exhibitions.)
The Lakers got off to an early lead, jumping ahead 9-2. Throughout the first half, the Globetrotters had no answer for Mikan. Goose Tatum, who was given the assignment of guarding Mikan, was only 6’3”—seven inches shorter than the big man. At half time, the score was 32-23 Lakers. Mikan had put up 18 points. But the Globetrotters adjusted. They decided to double-team Mikan on defense. They also began to foul him. Fifty years before the term “Hack-a-Shaq” came to be, the Globetrotters employed the strategy on George Mikan. It worked: Mikan missed free throws, and grew frustrated. The Globetrotters also began to outrun the Lakers on offense. They were undersized, but they were also faster, and in better shape as a result of their relentless playing schedule.
By the end of the third quarter, the game was tied at 42. In the fourth, Tatum fouled out, as did Babe Pressley, who had been helping him guard Mikan. The final quarter crawled by. It was ugly and it was physical. Finally, with about ninety seconds left, the Globetrotters took possession with the game tied at 59. This was before shot clocks, so the only move was to hold on until the last shot. They managed to get the ball in the hands of Marques Haynes, who was the world’s greatest ballhandler. Haynes dribbled away the seconds, the crowd on its feet, the Lakers on their heels, before with ten seconds to go, a Lakers defender poked the ball out of bounds. The crowd only got louder.
The inbound pass was to Haynes, who waited, waited, waited, before casually tossing the ball over to Ermer Robinson. Robinson, from San Diego, had joined the team only a couple years before, after his service in World War II ended. He was a shooter. And that’s what he did against the Lakers that night. He pumped his right leg, and lofted a one-handed shot from thirty feet out. The ball floated high in the air under the steel girders of Chicago Stadium. As it descended toward the hoop, the timekeeper’s gun sounded. Then, suddenly, it went in.
The Globetrotters were victors. They hoisted Robinson on their shoulders The stadium filled with noise. Afterward, Mikan visited his rivals in the locker room to congratulate them. That year, the Lakers would go on to win the National Basketball League title. After the season, the National Basketball League would merge with the American Association of Basketball. The new league they formed would eventually be called the National Basketball Association.
The Minneapolis Lakers were the first great dynasty of the NBA. And in the league’s second official year of existence, 1950, the pro basketball color line was broken for good. Three black players opened the season with NBA teams, and two of them, Chuck Cooper and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, were former Harlem Globetrotters. As for the Globetrotters, they remained a bigger draw than any NBA team. But as the league became more competitive, and more popular, they also adapted: acrobatics and tricks became an increasingly large part of their games. In 1952, they signed up another team to serve as their regular opponents: the hapless, glorious, Washington Generals.
The Harlem Globetrotters were the greatest team in the world. They were as responsible as anyone for the growth of basketball as a popular sport in the first half of the twentieth century; they were responsible for the financial stability of segregated pro leagues, then responsible for getting those leagues to finally integrate. But because of all they did, the Globetrotters as they existed in 1948 became a sort of relic: a throwback to the purity of the independent, barnstorming sports franchise, and a reminder that sports is, above all, entertainment. We should appreciate them for it. Basketball has a richer history than it might have you believe.
There’s actually a book on this particular game. John Christgau’s Tricksters in the Madhouse, is one of the most underrated sports books around. Christgau is a great researcher, and elegant writer. (Tricksters is also published by the University of Nebraska Press, who do a heroic job preserving sports history, and making a space on bookshelves for great writing about subjects that might not always get attention from more commercially-minded outfits.)
Also check out Ben Green’s history of the Globetrotters, Spinning the Globe, which unfortunately features a forward by Bill Cosby, but is otherwise a fantastic read that does not shy away from the complexities of this history, and the way the team’s real past has been mired in mythology. For more on George Mikan, check out Michael Schumacher’s Mr. Basketball, which features a lovely passage on the Globetrotters game.
In researching this story, I also came across some awesome work by an independent historian in Minnesota named Stew Thornley. Thornley gets deep into the game, and into the ensuing run of contests between the Lakers and Globetrotters. He’s clearly passionate about this history, and his website is a great resource.
Also, if you like basketball history, or even American history, you should go read the FreeDarko Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History.
The White Globetrotter
One of the tragic things you come across reading about the early Globetrotters is the racism they encountered every day traveling across America, playing for white fans. It was exactly what you’d expect: players being denied service in restaurants, rooms in hotels, forced to eat crackers and cheese from the only store in town for dinner. Oddly, along for the ride as some of this was happening was the first white Globetrotter: Bob Karstens. Karstens was signed by the Globetrotters in 1942 after Goose Tatum was drafted into the Army Air Forces. Saperstein saw Karstens play *against* the Globetrotters in Iowa, and decided to sign him up. He was a skilled dribbler, and inventive trickster, who came up with some of the team’s most iconic routines, including the pre-game Magic Circle, which lives on to this day:
Karestens stayed on with the team for a decade as a manager. He was elected into the Globetrotters Hall of Fame. He could dribble three basketballs at once all the way into his eighties.
Karstens once told the LA Times that Abe Saperstein was as important to the history of basketball as James Naismith. “Dr. Naismith invented it, and Abe showed everybody how to enjoy it.”
This has been Vol. 7 of Sports Stories by Eric Nusbaum (words) and Adam Villacin (art). If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please reply to this email or contact email@example.com. We’d love to hear from you.
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