There’s something irresistible about the Harlem Globetrotters. Denis Sullivan felt it as a 12-year-old growing up in Cork, Ireland, when he and 800 others from the town watched the team’s ball handling acrobatics and unique brand of basketball.
Today he’s in charge of the team’s world tours and is proud to note that the visit to Uzbekistan in April of TNT Lister, a female Globetrotter who plays as a guard, and Julian “Zeus” McClurkin, a forward, marked the 124th country in which team members have visited.
The trip was organized in partnership with the U.S. Department of State‘s Sports Diplomacy Division, the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, and the Uzbeck Ministry of Education to reach out to youth through basketball and displays of teamwork.
Mr. Sullivan organizes performances on six continents. As an integral part of the performances, an announcer serves as the master of ceremonies and among Mr. Sullivan’s favorite recollections is attending games in China where the Globetrotters play against their traditional competitors the Washington Generals. On tour, the two teams travel together accompanied by support and medical staffs.
When the announcer explains in Mandarin the activities on the court, the onlookers are ecstatic, he said. “The Chinese love basketball,” he added, as most people do when they are watching the Globetrotters. From every corner of the world, this passiion for the sport and the theatrical aspects unique to the Harlem Globetrotters carries over, he said, even to Eskimos who have been entertained by them in the farthest most reaches of Alaska.
Brett Meister, the team’s senior communications executive based in its Norcross headquarters, told Global Atlanta that individual members often are sent out to countries where the team’s play is being introduced for the first time to provide basketball clinics and develop relationships.
Ms. Lister and Mr. McClurkin presented clinics along with anti-bullying school programs in six cities across the country, including Tashkent. Also on the agenda was the theme of women’s empowerment, which Ms. Lister embodies beautifully with her dribbling and playing skills as well as the fact that just a year earlier she had given birth to a child.
Mr. Meister, who accompanied the teammates, recalled how they were greeted at each stop with music, dance and traditional round loaves of bread known as non. “The people were warm and welcoming,” he added. “It was the first time that they met Americans and African Americans and they greeted them like they were rock stars.”
They shared local foods though Mr. Meister said he politely declined the horse meat that was offered but had plenty of ‘plov’ consisting of rice, carrots and to the best of his knowledge a variety of other meats.
“TNT Lister and Zeus McClurkin won the hearts and minds of the people of Uzbekistan, proving that people-to-people diplomacy is the most effective way to develop partnership and cooperation,” is how Alan Meltzer, charge d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, recalled their visit in a news release.
The Uzbekistan visit was similar to an earlier foray two years ago to the Baltic states of Lithuania and Estonia in cooperation with the U.S. State Department reminiscent of programs promoting goodwill that go back to 1950 and the Cold War era.
Program officer Trina Bolton of the State Department’s Sports Diplomacy Division underscored that “We are proud to have rekindled our State Department relationship with the legendary Harlem Globetrotters in 2017 after so many years as we work together to build bridges between Americans and people around the world through sports.”
The Globetrotters have had an uncanny ability to leap over cultural barriers dating back to their very origins as a former Chicago high school team that upon graduation moved over to play at an American legion post. Shortly afterwards they performed at the newly opened Savoy Ballroom in Chicago as the opening act for some of the most famous jazz musicians the U.S. has ever produced.
At its beginning, they were able to do so as the “Savoy Big Five” but a few of the members became angry enough during a pay dispute to form a new team titled the “Globe Trotters”.
Their fame grew rapidly under the management of Abe Saperstein, a master promoter and manager from their native Chicago who rechristened the team the “Harlem Globe Trotters” because the new name would give them more luster in Chicago as an all-black basketball club at the height of the Harlem Renaissance.
Once they started including tricks in their games in the 1930s, they weren’t taken seriously as competitors, but regained respect when they defeated an all-white Minneapolis, Minn., team belonging to the league that eventually became the National Basketball Association. They underscored that victory with another against the same team the following year.
The popularity of the Globetrotters survived even after the NBA was integrated in 1950. But the salaries that the professional league could offer peeled off legendary players such as Wilt Chamberlain, who had gone with the Globetrotters on its historic 1959 tour of the Soviet Union.
The magnetism of the Globetrotters also attracted a number of baseball legends such as Saint Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson, who could have qualified as professional basketball players as well as baseball heroes.
The full history of the Globetrotters is on display at the team’s new headquarters on Triangle Parkway in Norcross including its work alongside the U.S. State Department serving as ambassadors of goodwill around the globe.
As an example of a diplomatic coup as the Cold War was heating up, Jesse Owens accompanied the team to Berlin in 1951 when it played before 75,000 onlookers in the same stadium where he had won four metals and broke the world’s record in the 100 meters, resulting in Hitler’s quitting the premises.
Herschend Family Entertainment Corp. acquired the Harlem Globetrotters in October 2013 as the latest member of its properties including theme parks, aquariums, hospitality businesses and tours. It is the operating partner of Stone Mountain Park outside of Atlanta.
Mr. Meister says that the team’s move to the Atlanta area provides them with two home facilities, the Infinite Energy Arena in Gwinnett County and the State Farm Arena downtown.
Some things, however, never change attests Mr. Sullivan who is scheduling more than 115 commitments overseas for the team that will play an even larger number in the United States including several venues in Georgia stretching from Augusta to Valdosta.
For a video of the Harlem Globetrotters’ background, click here. The video was produced by Daniel Wright, a ninth grade student journalist, who has placed in regional, state and national competitions to the National History Day program sponsored by the Georgia Humanities Council. He earned first place honors for his film documentary “An Unpeaceful Treaty: How the Paris Compromise Ignited Conflict” and was chosen as one of two student ambassadors to participate in events with the National World War I Centennial Commission in Washington.