The 2001 Harlem Globetrotters sure look a lot like your grandfather's Harlem Globetrotters, maybe your great-grandfather's Harlem Globetrotters. They shuck and jive and speed-dribble along the thin line between genuine comedy and tired slapstick, still stealing ladies' purses, dragging fat guys out of the audience and, yes, throwing that bucket of confetti into the crowd. "I hate the damn confetti," says Mannie Jackson, owner, chairman and nothing less than savior of the Globetrotters, "but every time we don't do it, I get e-mails. So we keep throwing the confetti."
Though the Trotters are still defined by the strains of Sweet Georgia Brown, a fast-paced weave that produces a backdoor basket and that damn confetti, this 75th season continues an evolution for the Globies, who less than a decade ago were a red, white and blue monument to obsolescence. The Globetrotters opened their 2000-2001 season four months ago by beating Metro State College of Denver, the Division II national champion, and a few days later took Michigan State, the Division I champ, to the wire before losing 72-68. Then they defeated Purdue 74-65. Those games were straight-up, hold-the-confetti showdowns, as will be the final stop of this year's North American tour, against a team of top college seniors during Final Four weekend in Minneapolis. Last year, in the first National Association of Basketball Coaches Roundball Challenge, the Globetrotters beat the collegians 82-80. In addition, a half dozen or so straight-up games are scheduled for the Globies' international tour that begins in late April.
"Competitive games return us to what we were," says Jackson, who during his years as a Globetrotters player in the '60s was christened Young Squirrel by Meadow-lark Lemon for his boundless energy. "We weren't clowns. We began as the best basketball team in the world. Champions. Warriors. We want to get back to that. We have to get back to that."
Indeed, for the first 12 years of their existence, from 1927 to '38, the Globetrotters played regulation basketball, taking on all comers and generally dispatching them with ease. During a game in '39 which they led 112-5, they began clowning around. The crowd loved it, and soon the Trotters were rolling basketballs down their arms and shoving them under their jerseys. Over the years the Globies became known as court jesters, and the fact that they beat the Minneapolis Lakers in consecutive years ('48 and '49) and pounded a college all-star team in a series of well-publicized games throughout the '50s was secondary. They were an item for the entertainment pages, not the sports pages, a perspective that was set in stone in '70, when they gave their name and likeness to a Saturday morning cartoon show. "When we became known more for being a cartoon than a basketball team," says Jackson, "that's when we were in trouble."
In 1991 the Globetrotters' previous owners, the International Broadcasting Corporation, filed for bankruptcy protection. Two years later Jackson bought the team for the bargain-basement price of $5.5 million, putting up only $50,000 of his own money. He's now the sole owner of an enterprise that's worth more than $50 million, according to Jackson. Ticket revenues are up 195% since '93, and attendance has grown by 18% annually over the same period. Some of the turnaround came from changing business procedures. Jackson, who was a senior vice president at Honeywell Inc. before he took over the Globetrotters, overhauled an organization that was as outdated as the set shot Red Klotz used to launch for the Washington Generals. Still, Jackson says the biggest change was reinventing the Trotters as a top-flight team and scheduling some bona fide opponents.
Wun (pronounced Juan) Versher, now in his seventh year as a Globetrotter, came to the first tryout camp under Jackson and was flabbergasted. "They picked players totally on the basis of basketball skills," says Versher, who played two seasons at Arizona State from 1991-93. "I mean, we never heard Sweet Georgia Brown? Camps are still run that way. "The tricks will come," says Versher. "You can learn to be a Globetrotter."
Even the most optimistic member of the Globetrotters—and that would be the inimitable Charles (Tex) Harrison, 68, a Globies coach who has been with the organization almost continuously since he signed on as a player in 1954—knows sports fans aren't perusing the morning papers to find out how the Globies did. (If you're scoring, through Sunday their 75-year record in all games stands at 20,583-333.) The effects of becoming a "real" basketball team on a part-time basis have been mostly internal. "We had lost a whole generation of fans," says Harrison. "We were a tired act. Now, with these things that Mannie has reinaugurated, we're charged up. Energized."
Energized because the season is no longer an endless fish-in-a-barrel assault on the New York Nationals, who succeeded the Generals as the Globetrotters' traveling stooges. There are goals beyond banking in a layup with a ball launched from the back of the neck, as Herbert (Flight Time) Lang does. The parts of the Globetrotters-Nationals exhibitions that are competitive—generally the first four or five minutes of each 10-minute quarter—are now played with intensity, because the players on the Globies' three touring teams are auditioning for spots on the competitive team. To identify the top Globetrotters, the touring teams practice an hour or two a day, including game days, and the teams each play close to 100 games in 100 nights, a schedule Versher labels as "grueling and gruesome."
The Globetrotters, who make between $50,000 and $400,000 a year, typically arrive at the arena between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., practice, drub the Nationals, and don't leave until almost every autograph is signed, about 10 o'clock. Then they bus to another city and do it again the next night. Globies coach Joby Wright, who played for Bob Knight at Indiana and was the coach at Wyoming for four years, is scheduled to take 19 Globetrotters into camp in River Falls, Wis., on March 25 to choose a squad of 12 to play the college seniors at the Final Four.
Jackson's goal is to make the Globetrotters the ultimate challenge team, contractually tied each year to play the NBA champion, the NCAA champion, the champion of every country that plays high-caliber hoops. They have no such deals now. That Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and Purdue coach Gene Keady schedule them because they respect the Globetrotters' legacy and because they want a stiff preseason test doesn't mean NBA commissioner David Stern is going to come running out with a contract. "Within two years we want to be one of the top 20 teams in the world," says Jackson, setting a goal that seems far from reality, "but until I can schedule enough games against great competition, it's just conversation. Everybody knows this, though: We're ready to play. That's always been the Globetrotter way."