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Abe would chuckle at the player's plight, wire the money and then notify the coach to make sure that the fellow made the team again—so he could get the $500 back out of his salary.
Curiously, while he was so penurious with his players, Saperstein was frequently scatterbrained when it came to money. He is supposed to have once left a paper bag containing $40,000 in gate receipts in a restaurant and while that tale may be apocryphal, Saperstein ran the operation so haphazardly that few people had a clear idea of its true value when he died. But he was a scrupulously honest man, and tremendously loyal. In many cities he stuck with bad promoters who were old friends, and to this day arena officials snicker that the Globies still give local promoters too big a cut and waste money on needless advertising and promotional expenditures.
Saperstein was never much celebrated in his hometown, Chicago, and yearned for the day when the NBA moved to California; it was his understanding that he would be granted the Los Angeles (read Hollywood) franchise as tribute for his years of devotion to the league; the Globies often performed on the same bill with struggling NBA teams to swell the gate. When Bob Short was permitted to shift the Minneapolis Lakers to L.A., Abe was shattered by what he regarded as a double cross. In return, he literally refused to utter a word to some of his dearest NBA friends, and in retaliation he went out and invented the American Basketball League. Unfortunately, it lasted but one and a half seasons; not even the Harlem Globetrotters could play on enough twin bills to save the likes of the Pittsburgh Rens and the Hawaii Chiefs.
Perhaps because of that bitter experience, Saperstein's heart appeared to go out of basketball in his last years. Bob Ashley, whose clever table-tennis exhibitions were featured on the Globie show bill for two years, recalls: "Abe wanted somebody else to take care of the Globetrotters. The other acts became his real babies." At one time or other, Cab Callaway, Peg Leg Bates, Tony Lavelli and Althea Gibson (vs. Karol Fageros) appeared with the team, but near the end Saperstein got a Sol Hurok complex and stiffed his own shows with Culture. Though he was only 5'3" and roly-poly, Abe was a great womanizer, and at the height of his Hurok phase he brought over a Czechoslovakian dance troupe, 30 or 40 strong, because he was chasing one of the ballerinas.
Saperstein's enchantment with show biz did not materially affect the players, though, at least not their wallets. For that matter, nothing much changed for them even after his death, so in 1971 they went on strike. To the public, it was as if Santa Claus' elves had gone out. The strike lasted about three weeks, but the players finally settled, in large part because Lemon sided with management and was, near the end, out recruiting for a replacement team.
Potter Palmer says he was "personally hurt" by the strike and blames much of it on a communications gap, but surely, after four years of ownership, he must have been aware of the residual Saperstein inequities. Larry Lindberg, a film director who traveled with the team for a month shortly before the strike, felt obliged to buy meals for the players because many of them did not have enough money to eat. "It was hard to expect people to be funny for a camera when they were hungry," he says.
The strike was complicated emotionally, too, because for the first time the charge was being circulated that the Globetrotters were Uncle Toms. Haynes swears that he was in the business for a quarter of a century before that possibility was even hinted to him (by Arthur Ashe, the tennis player), but David Wolf's biography of Connie Hawkins and a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal gave the notion widespread currency. No black organization has ever taken the Globetrotters to task, however, and many black celebrities—notably Bill Cosby, who has a dollar-a-year contract with the team—clearly endorse what the Globetrotters stand for by playing in their games.
Predictably, the players do not feel they are degrading their race, and most of them say the matter never comes up anymore, anyway. John Smith, a quiet junior high school teacher whose father is chairman of the Arizona Civil Rights Commission, says simply, "How can you Uncle Tom when you're making money?" Lemon argues, "Look, if I'm Tomming by making people laugh, then all comedians, white or black, are Uncle Toms."
The stereotype character that both Lemon and Ausbie (and Tatum before them) feature does not appear racial but effeminate: falsetto voice, mincing steps, a lot of goosing and tickling. If anybody has a right to be offended, it is a member of the Gay Liberation Front. Besides, it is the whites in the show who are cast as buffoons, though black critics, among them Lacy J. Banks, a Chicago columnist, suggest that this "implausible" situation is a "sedative" employed to placate blacks who are "taking a beating in housing, employment, health and education...."
Obviously, the solution to the dilemma is to integrate the Harlem Globetrotters. This may sound mad on the face of it, like working donkeys in with Lipizzans, but it wouldn't be unprecedented. In recent years the Globies considered signing two whites—Rick Barry and Pete Maravich—and three whites have actually appeared in the Globetrotter lineup: Saperstein himself; a free-throw shooting specialist named Bunny Levitt; and Bob Karstens, a big pivot man who starred for about 18 months in 1942-43.