Is there a greater joy than the sound of a child’s laughter?
2009. Friends give me two tickets courtside to the Harlem Globetrotters. And here we are. And my youngest, then 7 years-old, can’t stop laughing. In heaven, there’s a 24-hour XM radio channel of children laughing. I’m sure of it.
In one bit, the Globetrotters line up as a five-man football team. Clown Prince of Basketball Nate “Big Easy” Lofton crouches under center to take the snap and … well, there’s a fart noise. And now my boy is apoplectic with laughter. He’s holding his belly. Yep, when you’re a little boy, the comedy genre of “fart noise” just never gets old.
I’ve seen the Harlem Globetrotters only once before: 1965. I was 8. I laughed, like my son is laughing now. But I also was transfixed. Astonished at the artistry. The athleticism.
Forty-four years later, some of the bits remain a constant. There’s the confetti-filled water bucket spilled on a fan. The rubber band basketball. Supernatural demonstrations of dribbling and ball handling. The three-man weave offense that any serious seventh-grade basketball team could easily defend, but that has bamboozled and perplexed the Washington Generals (the Globetrotters’ stooge opponent) for decades.
The Globetrotters fill children with joy. Uncensored joy. And if this fills the players with half as much joy, then being a Globetrotter is a beautiful thing to do with your life.
Special this night is a halftime tribute to former Globetrotter and former University of Nevada Las Vegas forward Chris Richardson, who, while traveling with the team in Japan, died inexplicably in his sleep. It’s no mean feat of professionalism to watch master comedians stop their art on a dime … and grieve … and then honor Chris’ life, laughter, and great big smile by stepping right back onstage without missing a beat.
The Globetrotters were the brainchild of Abe Saperstein (1902-1966), and it doesn’t get any more unlikely than this: A 5’ 3” Jewish man, born in England, who conceives, casts and expertly promotes the uniquely American game of basketball as a stage for African American comedy and athletic exhibition.
The original ’Trotters debuted in 1927 as The Savoy Five. They were from Chicago, yet marketed as from Harlem. The name “Globetrotters” sold the illusion of successful, world-traveled entertainers, which, of course, they later became.
I’m a native Arizonan and a once serious basketball player. As such, an avid fan of the NBA Phoenix Suns. Which means I know the story of Connie Hawkins, who spent four years playing for the Globetrotters before his NBA career began.
But, in his 1972 biography Foul, Hawkins is critical of Saperstein and the Globetrotters. He devotes an entire chapter titled “Tomming For Abe,” a reference to the anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852). Hawkins remembers the ’Trotters were rehearsed to act “like Uncle Toms … Grinnin’ and smilin’ and dancin’ around, and that’s the way a lot of white people like to think we really are.”
Hawkins wondered if the only way white audiences could tolerate the superiority of blacks in basketball was to play up silly caricatures of black people.
When I read Hawkins’ book in the ’70s, I remember being disappointed by Connie’s remarks; not because I possessed an educated rebuttal, but merely because I was young and inconvenienced by my hero’s insistence on discussing race.
But, tonight, as I watch the 2009 ’Trotters, my mind floats back to 1965 and the ’Trotters of Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal. Constantly chattering in shrill, affected voices. Flamboyant body language and wide-eyed facial expressions. Funny as hell. But, now, after all these years, I wonder.
Connie was right. I’m just saying. On the court, Meadowlark and Curly were black caricatures. Vaudeville black. No more caricatures, mind you, than comedian Jeff Foxworthy is a caricature of a white Southern man, or Fred Rogers was a caricature of esteem-building, parental empathy. (Come on. No way does Fred make love to his wife with a vacuous, nodding grin, saying: “You’re my special friend. Sure.”)
The modern ’Trotters are different. Yes, all black. But today, some of the Washington Generals are black. And, while Nate ‘Big Easy’ Lofton is an energetic, consummate showman, gone are the cartoonish black caricatures of yesteryear. Nate seems more contained. More himself. More just a quality entertainer in command of his craft.
Times they do change. It would be interesting to know if Connie Hawkins has made any greater peace with his history as a Harlem Globetrotter.
(Steven Kalas is an author, a therapist and an Episcopal priest. He writes a weekly column for the Sparks Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)