Harlem Globetrotters: 85 Years of Comedy Exhibition Basketball

Lisa Fritscher February 19, 2011 No Comments

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Harlem Globetrotters Comedy Antics

The Harlem Globetrotters are known for their comedy antics

Despite their name, the Harlem Globetrotters actually got their start in Chicago. Although the team’s roots are shrouded in obscurity, it appears to have been founded at the Savoy Ballroom, a popular dance club that opened in 1927. The team name changed several times, but was officially the Harlem Globetrotters by 1929. According to Globetrotters legend, then-owner Abe Saperstein wanted to associate the team with Harlem because it was the seat of African-American culture. The team did not play its first “home” game in Harlem until 1968.

Merging Comedy with Basketball

Harlem Globetrotters Tricycle Races on the Court

How many professional basketball teams hold tricycle races on the court?

From the beginning, the Globetrotters added comedic elements to their games. Inman Jackson joined the team in 1930, and his flair for working the crowd made him the Globetrotters’ first “showman,” the comedy ringleader position that still exists today. Gradually the team became known more for their comedy than their basketball prowess, although many of the funniest elements are trick shots and precision drills that require a vast amount of ball control.

Proving Their Mettle

Harlem Globetrotters Skill Drills

Skill drills prove the Globetrotters have what it takes

Although the Harlem Globetrotters primarily play exhibition games, they have also played competitively throughout the years. In the 1990s, the team won 10 of 11 games on a European tour, losing only to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s All-Star Team in Vienna, Austria. During a 2003 collegiate basketball tour, in which the Globetrotters played straight basketball with no comedy elements, they won seven of eight games, beating national champions Syracuse among others. According to the Globetrotters, their exhibition games are real games rather than fixed competitions. The team has won more than 23,000 games and lost just 345, for a career average of .986, the best record in professional sports.

Washington Generals

Washington Generals

The Globetrotters' arch-nemesis, the Washington Generals

The Harlem Globetrotters’ most frequent opponents are the Washington Generals, an exhibition team organized in 1952 from the remnants of the Philadelphia Sphas, who often played against the Globetrotters. The team owner is Louis “Red” Klotz, a former Spha who continued to play with the Generals until the age of 62. The team has gone by several different names over the years, but seems to have permanently reverted to the Generals.

The Generals play “serious” basketball against the Globetrotters’ wacky exhibition moves, with generally hilarious results. They have lost more than 13,000 games and won possibly twice. A possible win came in 1962, when Klotz claims that a couple of shots during a very close game were not recorded on the scoreboard. The definite win, in 1971, left Globetrotter fans in shock and disbelief.

Football: Globetrotters Style

Football: Globetrotters Style

As the story goes, there are specific “gag periods” built into each game, when the Globetrotters set up and enact their comedy bits and the Generals’ job is to play the comedic foil. But there are no restrictions on the Generals’ making their shots, and in between gag periods is a real basketball game.

During this particular game, the Globetrotters were ahead by 23 points in the second quarter. But the Generals, playing as the New Jersey Reds, rallied in the second half. The Globetrotters lost track of the score and ended up down by 12 points with two minutes left in the game. They dropped the comedy and started playing hard, but could not recover in time. Team owner Klotz, then 51 years old, sunk the winning basket with seconds to go, and Globetrotters legend Meadowlark Lemon missed a shot that would have given the game back to the Globetrotters. The Generals/Reds won, 100 to 99. According to Klotz, the crowd reaction made him feel like he had killed Santa Claus.

Our Experience

Harlem Globetrotters Seats

We had great seats for the game

Dad grew up watching Globetrotters legends Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal on television. A number of years ago, he and my then-husband attended a Globetrotters game in Orlando, Florida. They came home armed with autographs and photos, and couldn’t stop talking excitedly about how much fun they had. Meanwhile, my first exposure to the Globetrotters was on Scooby Doo. But when current Globetrotters stars Flight Time and Big Easy appeared on Season 15 of the CBS reality show, The Amazing Race, I absolutely fell in love with them.

This past Christmas, I decided to give Dad experiences rather than physical presents. We travel full-time in an RV, so space is at a premium, and Dad loves to go to shows and special events. Among others, I was able to get tickets to see the Globetrotters in Pensacola, Florida, which fit perfectly into our travel schedule.

Getting to Pensacola proved more challenging than we had anticipated, due to the unique situations that can pop up when you’re full-timing. But we managed to check into the campground at Fort Pickens, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, around noon on the day of the game.

Harlem Globetrotters Pensacola Civic Center Parking

Lots of free parking is available in front of the Pensacola Civic Center

Coming from the barrier islands, we missed most of the traffic to the game, easily arriving with nearly an hour to spare. There’s a huge free parking lot in front of the Pensacola Civic Center, but the disabled section was already full. Thankfully, the hotel across the street allowed us to park in their disabled lot.

Water Gag is a Globetrotters classic

The Water Gag is a Globetrotters classic

I was concerned about our seats, but they turned out to be surprisingly good. We were along the side, close to one goal but only ten rows back. The venue is a lot smaller than many others that we’ve been to, so we still felt close to the action. When Flight Time and Big Easy did their “water gag,” we were right in the middle of things.

The Globetrotters have been responsible for introducing a variety of new elements to basketball over the years, and this time it is the four-point shot. In the last two minutes of each quarter, both teams are able to shoot from designated spots 35 feet from the basket. Both the Globetrotters and the Generals successfully made numerous four-point shots during the game we saw, racking up points and furthering the excitement.

Autograph Session

Globetrotters YMCA

The YMCA gets the crowd on its feet and down to the arena floor

When we bought our program before the game, we got a tip from the salesman. In a time-honored tradition, after each game, the Globetrotters stick around on the arena floor to sign autographs and pose for photos. But as the current “stars,” Flight Time and Big Easy would appear separately, up on the mezzanine level…conveniently just outside the section where we happened to be seated.

After the game, there was an announcement that everyone should make their way down to the floor for autographs and photos. While the crowd surged down, we went up. Sure enough, once the majority of fans were on or near the floor, there was a separate announcement that Flight Time and Big Easy would be on the mezzanine. Our tip allowed us to beat the crowd, standing in separate lines for the two stars and still finishing before the majority of people made it to the proper spot.

Both guys were incredibly friendly and down to earth. I mentioned The Amazing Race, and they confirmed that they will appear on season 18, known as Unfinished Business, in which 11 of the most popular teams to never win were brought back for a rematch. Though they couldn’t answer any specific questions, they were incredibly upbeat about the show. I’m hoping that means they do well!

Tips for Parents

Globetrotters Musical Chairs

Musical Chairs is just one of many audience participation bits

Throughout the show, various kids (and a few adults) were brought onstage to participate in games and activities. I’m not entirely sure how they were selected, but everyone who participated seemed to be seated in the first few rows. Unlike many other games and events, front row tickets are no more expensive than any others in the main section, so buying tickets as early as possible may increase your chances of being selected.

Plan to make an event out of the game. While feeding the kids beforehand is a great way to save money, buying cotton candy and souvenirs is part of the game day experience. We were surprised at how inexpensive Globetrotters merchandise was compared to other events we have recently attended. Programs are only $5 and make an excellent souvenir, particularly if you stick around for autographs. A separately priced meet-and-greet before the game increases the amount of time that you have with each player, but is probably only worth the cost if your kids are die-hard fans.

Both the Globetrotters and the Generals work hard to put on a great show, but they really work just as hard to create memorable family moments. Take your time, wait patiently for autographs, and you will be surprised by just how much individual interaction your kids actually get with the players.

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avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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