At some point the Harlem Globetrotters ceased being anything in particular. The question of whether they really were a basketball team became cloudy long ago and, mercifully, it has been years since they were forced upon us as Ambassadors of Goodwill. Nowadays the Globetrotters refer to themselves as "family entertainment," but that merely informs us that they perform in clothes. They are part show biz, part sporting event and part Jack Benny; they are too spontaneous and sprightly to be an institution, too organized and profitable to be an NBA. Years ago, of course, they became a legend in their own time.
Definition has always been an intramural problem. Abe Saperstein, who owned the Globies until his death in 1966, wasn't satisfied that they brought him riches and fame.
He yearned after both a New York Yankee respectability for his team and a Hollywood acceptance for himself. Now that the Globetrotters are a fancy corporation and more successful than ever, the management is hung up on the irrelevant matter of how good the team is—which is about as germane as wondering if Victor Borge could outplay Van Cliburn in straight piano. Moreover, while the Globies provided pride and opportunity for blacks for decades, they now labor in the shadow of Uncle Tom; they are paid, as ever, by white bosses—once immigrant Jewish, now old money country club—to make white audiences laugh.
While none of these contradictions may be easily resolved, there is one absolute in the equation, and that is children. Seeing the Harlem Globetrotters is part of growing up, and that is quite different from just being family entertainment. The Globies are something every father wants every child to see—for the child, and for memories of his own childhood, and in that way a Globetrotter game is perhaps a rite more than anything else.
Since changelessness is such a large part of the attraction, Marques Haynes holds a special position. He has recently returned to the organization, folding his own Fabulous Magicians in the deal, and the fathers are especially anxious to bring their children to meet him. It is some kind of communion for the father and the child to know that the father saw Marques dribble in a Globetrotter uniform 25 years ago, just as the child did this night. Marques has to encourage the fathers to speak up. "They want their children to be aware of this," he says, "but they're reluctant to say it right out for fear that the years will embarrass me."
Marques is now 46 or 51 or something or other; he played organized basketball when a center jump was still required after every basket. Marie Linehan, Saperstein's clever assistant, joined the organization before Marques, and perhaps only she understands the mystique as well as he does. "I think what it is with the Globetrotters is that the kids have to believe in something," she says, "and they don't believe in Santa Claus anymore. The Globetrotters give them the myth with reality. They win every game, so they are miracle men, which means the kids don't have to make a decision about them. And the kids know what's going to happen in every game, they know the whole scenario. But you see, this doesn't disturb them. On the contrary, it makes the kids more a part of it."
It is rather astonishing how often the word "love" pops up in children's letters to the Globetrotters.
Wouldn't it be to some advantage if the Globies lost just occasionally now and then? No big slump, you understand, but isn't it just a wee bit piggy to run off 2,495 wins in a row?
"Why?" replies Meadowlark Lemon, dead serious. "Nobody likes a loser."
Yes, of course. But 2,495?