Basketball: It's another first for the Harlem Globetrotters – featuring a British player

Paul 'Tiny' Sturgess tells Paul Bignell his size 22 feet have big shoes to fill

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The Independent Online

Nelson Mandela is a member and Barack Obama is a fan. The Harlem Globetrotters, one of the biggest sports franchises on the planet, is coming to the UK. And at the heart of the team for the first time will be a British player.

At 7ft 8in, and with size 22 shoes, Paul "Tiny" Sturgess, one of the UK's tallest men, joins the team's tour of British stadiums next week. Sturgess, 24, joins such luminaries as Meadowlark Lemon, Fred "Curly" Neal, Magic Johnson, and even, however briefly, by comic Bill Cosby.

"It's incredible to add my name to the list of greats who have played for the Globetrotters," said Sturgess. "I've been getting tips and advice from some of the old players – which is amazing at such a young age." A sports all-rounder at school, Sturgess had no special interest in basketball until college, when he grew a foot in a single year.

"I was always one of the taller boys in my class, but I wasn't above everyone else. But then, in college, it started to happen: I grew a foot when I was 16, which was pretty scary. My mum took me to the doctor but everything checked out. I didn't care at all. It made me popular."

The "Globies", as they're affectionately known, have spanned the world several times over since 1927 when the team formed in Chicago's South Side – not Harlem, despite the name – playing more than 22,000 games in 118 countries.

The original team, known as the Savoy Big Five, was pulled together by Abe Saperstein, a British businessman from London. He decided that, despite hailing from Chicago, they should feature the name "Harlem" to indicate that the players were African-American, and the "Globetrotters" moniker to appear as though the team had travelled around the world – which eventually it did.

Starting as a competitive team, from the 1950s onwards they became better known for their on-court comic antics. In one now-legendary move, Lemon threw the ball backwards, over his head, from the halfway line and scored. At every game, they play their hallmark warm-up song, a whistled version of the jazz standard "Sweet Georgia Brown".

"There were over 150 guys trying to make the team, and I was lucky enough to be one of five selected," said Fred "Curly" Neal yesterday. "It was an honour and privilege to play for such a prestigious team that is known around the world for great basketball and comedy," added Neal, who played between 1963 and 1985

Touring the world in the 1970s and 1980s, the "Clown Princes of Basketball" drew huge crowds, inspired films and featured in numerous television specials – even getting their own cartoon courtesy of Hanna-Barbera.

From 1971 until 12 September 1995, they defeated allcomers, until they faced Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's All-Star Team in Vienna, ending a run of 8,8829 straight victories.

Long popular in the US, basketball has a growing following in the UK and is now the third most popular team sport for school-age children.