NOW IS the moment you've all been waiting for," the baritone emcee bellows over a scratchy P.A. "They've spent eight decades entertaining billions and now they're here tonight. I need you on your feet and ready to greet the world famous... HAAAAARLEMMM GLOOOOOOBETROTTERS!"
With that, the roar of the crowd thickens, the lights dim, the fog machine belches, and eight men dribbling striped red-white-and-blue balls storm onto the court at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, N.J. Ant, Special K, Bam Bam, Bear, El Gato, Scooter, Rocket and a 7-footer with the obligatory nickname Tiny go through an elaborate five-man weave, a braid of beauty, before forming their ritual Magic Circle. As they show off their ball handling sorcery at midcourt, the air is pierced by the familiar strains of ... Madonna's 4 Minutes?
This is how it goes for the Globetrotters in 2009 A.D. So long, Sweet Georgia Brown; hello, hip-hop.
You remember the Globetrotters, right? Two or three decades ago they were among the hottest touring acts going, a troupe that not only filled the biggest arenas but also island-hopped with Gilligan, joked with Johnny Carson, showboated on Sesame Street and endorsed McDonald's. They had their own Saturday morning cartoon and, if you missed that, they often appeared later in the day on ABC's Wide World of Sports. "Man," recalls Curly Neal, the 67-year-old former Globies star who's now an advance publicity man for the team, "we were everywhere."
The Globetrotters never picked up their dribble, so to speak. But for a variety of reasons—the rise of the NBA; the decline in popularity of Wide World of Sports; the birth of And1 tours; and the availability on YouTube of countless monster dunks and crazy crossovers—the Globetrotters' brand started to collect some dust. The team flirted with bankruptcy in 1993 and a few years later made the tone-deaf decision to face college teams in competitive games, disappointing fans who had come for the slapstick and got matchup zones instead.
Now they're back, serially drubbing the Washington Generals on three tours simultaneously. As they barnstorm from Dubai to Dubuque, they're negotiating the challenge of contemporizing a classic brand, blending elements familiar and new. At a Trotters show you still get the ball-on-the-string gag, the buckets of confetti, the half-court hook shots and eventually Sweet Georgia Brown. You'll also get references to Terrell Owens and the Wii, a cellphone routine and a chance to text your vote on whether the opposing coach should wear a tutu or a hot-dog costume if his team loses. It's all part of an act that a comedy writer has "punched up." The goal: Make sure the kids watching the Globetrotters today will want to take their kids to a game in the future.
It seems to be working. The myth that sports are recession-proof has eroded in the past few months, but the Globetrotters are thriving. SI boarded their bus last week, accompanied them for five games on the current Spinning the Globe tour and watched them play before sold-out crowds ranging from 2,000 to 12,000 fans. The Trotters, owned since 2005 by Shamrock Holdings, a private Burbank, Calif., investment fund, report that revenues are up 18% from last year and record profits are expected in 2009. It helps that the average ticket price is $25, which barely covers parking at an NBA game. There's no violence or profanity. And the good guys always win. It's the sports equivalent of comfort food. "I say we work in the smile factory," says Kevin Daley, a.k.a. Special K. "And people need all the smiles they can get these days."
WHEN THE Harlem Globetrotters were founded in 1926, the players were neither Harlemites nor world travelers. The founder, Abe Saperstein, thought that Harlem connoted entertainment; the team actually was made up of the best African-American players in Chicago. They played "real games," mostly in Illinois and the midwest, before eventually traveling around the country. During a 1939 game the Globetrotters were clinging to a 112--5 lead and began goofing around. The crowd ate it up. Before long the antics became their calling card and the Trotters gave new zest to the term court jesters.
There was also a subtle challenge to the status quo in the act. Here was a team of African-Americans putting one over on the Man, the predominantly white opponents whose very name, the Washington Generals, implied establishment power. As Barack Obama put it during a documentary interview, "Whenever the Globetrotters came into town it was just a wonderful, fun-filled afternoon, but it had, I think, some deeper meaning to it."
Today, with an African-American in the White House—and town houses in parts of Harlem going for $3 million—the cultural dynamic has changed. The Globetrotters' 29-man roster is entirely black or Hispanic, the Generals' an even mix of black and white. As such, a Globetrotters game feels less like sports-as-social-commentary than simply well-choreographed entertainment. Yes, the Trotters are exceptionally talented players, but to a man they are also performers, improv specialists with irrepressible personalities, smiles all but carved onto their faces.