How optimistic is Mannie Jackson, the businessman who purchased the Harlem Globetrotters in 1993, thus rescuing the storied club from near bankruptcy and becoming the only African-American majority owner of such a high-profile professional sports franchise in one fell swoop? Even after the Globetrotters lost to an all-star team led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in September, ending a Trotter winning streak that had spanned 24 years and 8,829 games, Jackson sat in his office in Alhambra, Calif., feet up on the desk, and talked only of the future.
"I've told people in this office not to walk around with a passion for this won-lost thing," says Jackson, whose youthful mien and flat stomach belie his 56 years. "We will continue to provide a comedy-basketball experience for the family, but we plan to mix things up. Which means we don't plan on beating the Washington Generals every night."
If that comes as a surprise to longtime Trotter followers, it shouldn't. Those people who know Jackson well—and he counts Jesse Jackson (no relation), Phoenix Sun owner Jerry Colangelo and Honeywell CEO Michael Bonsignore as friends—say that nothing he does surprises them.
Jackson was born in a railway boxcar in southern Missouri, and he shared those close quarters with 12 other members of his family during the first three years of his life, until the Jacksons moved into a two-bedroom house in Edwardsville, Ill. Mannie would accompany his mother and grandmother as they cleaned the homes of white townspeople.
"For some people, it would've been very depressing to have a mom and grandmother who were scrubbing floors and cleaning toilets in white folks' houses," says Jackson. "But it was an education for me. I'd go into their libraries and look at the books they read. I'd listen to them talk and watch how they carried themselves. And I'd watch my mother: how she talked about quality and took pride in what she was doing. I came out of it a better person."
Young Mannie took up basketball, grew to be 6'2" and worked to perfect the jump shot that would become his trademark. At Edwardsville High in the mid-'50s, Mannie and his childhood buddy Governor Vaughn and future NBA guard Don Ohl formed a nearly unbeatable troika. After Ohl graduated in 1954, classmates Jackson, a guard, and Vaughn, a forward, led Edwardsville to the 1956 state final—the only time the school has made it that far. The team fell to West Rockford 67-65.
Jackson was named first team all-state that year, and he and Vaughn won scholarships to the University of Illinois. In 1958 they became the first two blacks ever to letter in hoops for the Fighting Illini.
In Champaign, Mannie met up with another Jackson: Jesse, who at the time was just another hotshot college quarterback. "You should have seen Jesse at 17, 18 years old," says Mannie. "He was an incredible quarterback who could throw the ball 60 to 70 yards." But after a year on the freshman team, which was 10-deep in some positions, Jesse transferred to North Carolina A&T, a predominantly black college closer to his home state of South Carolina.
Mannie and Vaughn, however, stayed at Illinois. In those years the letter of the law was about the only thing that had changed for blacks. "There were no barber shops for me, there were no fraternities for me, there was nothing at the university set aside or thought about for a person of color," says Mannie. "I feel I was robbed of four socially developmental years at the university because of the racial situation."
After graduating in 1960 with a liberal arts degree, Jackson took his jumper to New York, intent on making the NBA. He started in the National Industrial Basketball League, a collection of company-run semipro teams whose players were also being trained for the corporate world. When Jackson failed to make the New York Knicks—a slight he attributes to an unwritten rule that limited the number of blacks in the NBA—he decided to delay his business career a few years and play for the Globetrotters. Like many others before him, he fell under the spell of Abe Saperstein.