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Take Daley, a 6'5" slasher who played with Baron Davis at UCLA in the late '90s. He is a longtime member of the Panamanian national team and—talk about globe-trotting—pinballed among pro teams in Costa Rica, Taiwan, Iceland, Australia and Turkey. He joined the Globetrotters in 2005 and has graduated to the role of Showman, tasked with controlling the performance. He's the closest approximation to Meadowlark Lemon that the Globies have today.
While Daley, 32, grew up idolizing Michael Jordan—and played a 23-year-old Jordan going one-on-one against the 39-year-old real thing in a memorable 2002 Gatorade commercial—he now includes Martin Lawrence and Chris Tucker among his inspirations. "To do this job, you have to love basketball, but you really have to love entertaining," he says. "If you're not outgoing or don't like interacting with people, you may as well not know how to dribble."
The other occupational requirement is a high threshold for travel. The current North American tour—on which two teams are wending their way through 210 cities while another unit tours Europe—began the day after Christmas and ends the last week in April. After that, half of the players, who can earn up to the mid-six figures depending on their experience, will get a few days off before going to Europe for a month.
On Friday night, March 13, the Globetrotters played in Hershey, Pa. By the time they had wrapped up the standard 30-minute postgame autograph session, showered and hopped aboard the bus, it was nearly 11 p.m. Slowed by an accident on the highway, the bus didn't roll into Washington, D.C., until 2 a.m. The players were up at eight for a shootaround and a game before a crowd of 12,350 at the Verizon Center that afternoon. (The team tends to play small venues during the week and large arenas on weekends.)
After the show there were no groupies outside, no Saturday night out at a D.C. club awaiting. The team reboarded the bus—a vessel painted bright blue with giant images of the players arrayed on the sides—and headed for Fairfax, Va., and a night game on George Mason's campus.
Each Globetrotter treats his row of seats like a private hotel room, icing his knees, catching some shut-eye or curling into a fetal position to use his iPhone. While the players started with basketball aspirations recalled by the ACC tournament games and March Madness discussion shows that played on an overhead TV, more TVs were tuned to Martin Lawrence videos.
"As a kid you might dream of playing [in the NBA], but ... now I can't imagine playing anywhere else," says Anthony (Ant) Atkinson, a former Division II star at Barton College in Wilson, N.C. "You're making people happy, entertaining every night, maybe changing their outlook a little bit. You see the world, you see the kids and you get their e-mails, and you think, This is what I was meant to do."
THE GLOBETROTTERS travel in style compared with the Generals, a separate business entity, subcontracted to play the collective role of straight man. The Generals are still owned by 88-year-old Red Klotz, who retired as a player at age 63 and as coach 12 years later. They travel independently in a plain bus and stayed two to a room at the Comfort Inn in Towson, Md., while their opponents were in singles at the Sheraton. This mirrors a larger disparity between the two teams. Consisting mostly of former Division II and Division III players—capable ballers, but ultimately not threatening—the Generals insist the outcomes aren't fixed and that they play to win. Yet Washington hasn't done so since 1971. "We know our role," says Ammer Johnson, a longtime Generals player, once a starter at Idaho State. "Let's put it that way."
That means getting mocked, dunked on and, on occasion, divorced from their shorts. The Generals' coach, Reggie Harrison, is particularly game, an irascible sort who talks a lot of (sanitized) trash during games, flecks of spit flying from the corners of his mouth. He goes to great lengths to cheat and, of course, gets what's coming to him in the end.
If this resembles the pageantry of professional wrestling, it's no coincidence: The Globetrotters' CEO, Kurt Schneider, is a former WWE executive. When Schneider took over the Trotters in 2007, he replaced nearly half the roster with players possessing superior showbiz chops. And since good-guyness is so central to the Globetrotters' image, Schneider went so far as to hire a consultant to provide background checks on players before signing them to one-year deals.