Harlem Globetrotters: not your average basketball cases

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The Independent Online

Eighty-five years after starting life in a Chicago ballroom where business was slow, the Harlem Globetrotters are still innovators in the game of basketball and the world of showbiz.

The team that made former pope John Paul II an honorary member, helped to develop the slam dunk - when a player leaps into the air and slams the ball into the net - and performs skits on the court is due to kick off its 51st tour of Europe with a game in Frankfurt, Germany on March 18.

From there, the players, their mascot Globie, his big brother and a back-up crew of entertainers who number some of the best break-dancers ever to grace a basketball court, will visit 42 European cities in two months, including 10 in France, nine in Britain and eight in Italy.

Also on the cards is a week's visit to the United Arab Emirates in April.

Players like Herb "Flight Time" Lang - whose nickname was given to him by a Globetrotters' boss who said he must earn frequent flyer miles every time he jumps in the air - will treat fans to familiar Globetrotters' routines like the behind-the-back pass and three-man weave.

But they'll also introduce a new feature in basketball, the four-point shot, taken 35 feet (10.67 meters) from the basket.

The Globetrotters score around 35 percent of the time from the four-point mark, according to Lang, who pointed out that many US college and professional, NBA teams have a similar shooting average from the three-point spot, which is 12 feet closer to the basket.

During a stop in Fairfax on the Globetrotters' tour of the United States and Canada in early March, "Dizzy" Grant shot two four-pointers in a row, helping to carry his team to yet another win over the Globetrotters' perennial rivals, the Washington Generals.

The Generals haven't beaten the Globetrotters since 1971, but watching the two teams interact on the court at George Mason University begged the question whether there wasn't some crossover between them.

It turns out there is: four-point ace Grant was once a General.

The Globetrotters were founded in 1926 by Abe Saperstein and began life as a "barnstorming" team, taking on anyone who would play them.

Thirteen years later, the team played in its first professional basketball championship tournament, but was knocked out by the New York Rens.

That same year, 1939, in a game in which the Globetrotters were crushing a local team by the score of 112-5, the players delighted the crowd when they started to clown around.

After the game, Saperstein gave the green light for player shenanigans in future games - but only if the team had a safe lead like 112-5.

That was also the year that Globetrotter Inman Jackson created the team's "Clown Prince" of basketball role.

Inman also created the pivot position now used at all levels of basketball, just one of many Globetrotters' innovations that have become a part of mainstream basketball.

"But today, our focus is on putting on a good show," Lang, a former high school and college all-star player, told AFP.

After the Fairfax game on March 5, 13-year-old Luke Symon dribbled one of the $25-dollar red, white and blue Globetrotter basketballs that were being snapped up like hotcakes, as he said to a friend, "I'm going to be the first white Globetrotter."

He's already been beaten to the punch, but not by many.

"Bob Karstens made history in 1943 by becoming the first-ever Caucasian to ever be under contract with the Harlem Globetrotters," Eric Nemeth, director of live event publicity for the storied team, told AFP.

"Seth Franco, who played on the 2004 tour, is the only other Caucasian player to ever be under contract with the Harlem Globetrotters."

These days, the Globetrotters use scouts to find talent, and recruit at a training camp in New York state.

"We've had players from Mongolia, the Dominican Republic, Brazil. So you don't have to be American to become a Globetrotter," said Lang, who, with 12 years on the team, is the longest-serving Globetrotter.
Lang has played in 85 countries, from Argentina to France, Japan to Libya.

The big question about the Globetrotters is: which came first, the basketball player or the showman?
"First, you have to be a great basketball player," Nemeth explained.

"You also need to be a good person, with an outgoing personality, but most players learn the Globetrotters' signature moves after they make the team."