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Billy Reed: In a world in which everything changes, I fervently hope the Harlem Globetrotters never do

The experts tell us that nothing will be quite the same when the Coronavirus pandemic is finally under control. I have no idea what that means for the basketball world, but I do hope there still will be a place for the Harlem Globetrotters.

Going back to the 1940s, when they became nationally prominent, the Globetrotters have been unparalleled ambassadors for their sport, their African-American race, and their nation. They have brought laughter and fun to all 50 of our states and 124 foreign nations.

Even now, I can’t hear their theme song, “Sweet Georgia Brown” by Brother Bones, without wanting to grab a basketball and try to twirl it on my forefinger (I never could). And it’s impossible to get bored with their “Circle of Magic,” a pregame passing exhibition in which they make a ball do everything except sing opera.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon.

The names of the players have changed many times over the years, but the act never does. They do clown routines during games, but nobody should ever make the mistake of thinking they are just entertainers. When they get serious, the Globies can hold their own with almost any pro team, as the great George Mikan and his Minneapolis (now Los Angeles) Lakers learned in the late 1948.

I checked their website to see what’s going on with them now, but apparently the Coronavirus pandemic forced them to shut down both their American and European tours. No date is listed for their return. Like the rest of us in these scary times, all they can do is wait and see.

I got hooked on the Globetrotters in 1954, when my grandfather took me to see a low-budget movie titled “Go, Man, Go!” at the Trimble Theater in Mt. Sterling, Ky. It was about how a Jewish businessman named Abe Saperstein bought the team and eventually changed its name.

He picked “Harlem” because that neighborhood in New York City then was the capital of black culture in America.

Interestingly, the Globetrotters never played a game in Harlem until 1968.

As I recall, many of the principal characters played themselves in “Go, Man, Go!.” That’s how I came to know Reece “Goose” Tatum, the “Clown Prince of Basketball,” and Marques Haynes, the world’s best dribbler. At my backyard basket, I often pretended I was Haynes, making fools of opponents who tried to knock the ball away from me.

Over the years, the Globies never had the money to compete with the NBA for the best black players. However, every now and then, circumstances enabled them to pick up a big-time player for at least a season.

In 1957-’58, for example, Wilt Chamberlain decided to forego his senior year at Kansas. He had no place to go except the Globetrotters. The NBA rules in effect at the time prohibited him from being drafted until his college class had graduated.

And there were others. In 1950, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton became the first Globetrotter to sign with the NBA after Saperstein sold his contract to the New York Knicks for $12,500.

Connie Hawkins, the Dr. J or Michael Jordan of his day, played for the Globetrotters until joining the fledgling American Basketball Association, which was founded in the mid-1960s to compete against the NBA.

Other prominent Globetrotters are Hallie Bryant, who led the Indiana Hoosiers to the Big Ten title in 1957; Junius Kellogg, a 6-foot-10 center from Manhattan College who blew the whistle on the 1951 point-shaving scandal; Meadowlark Lemon, who succeeded Tatum; Bobby Joe Mason, an All-American from Bradley; and Fred “Curley” Neal, a successor to Haynes.

In 1985, Lynette Woodward signed with the Globies and became the first woman to ever play for a men’s pro team. She had been an All-American at Kansas and a member of the gold-medal 1984 U.S. Olympic team.

The only Globetrotter I’ve personally known is Dallas Thornton of Louisville Male High and Kentucky Wesleyan College. Had he been a better student, Dallas could have played for anybody in NCAA D-I. At 6-3, he could slash to the hoop with the best and also was a ballhawk on defense.

He played with the team in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement was dividing the nation. Although some activists called the players “Uncle Toms” and worse, the Globetrotters never allowed themselves to be drug into the dark waters of politics. They ignored the critics and kept on trying to bring laughter and smiles to an angry nation.

As the team’s worldwide popularity grew, some interesting individuals joined its fan base. The list of “Honorary Globetrotters” includes Henry Kissinger, Bob Hope, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Whoopi Goldberg, Nelson Mandella, Jackie Joyce-Kersee, Pope John Paul II, Jesse Jackson, Pope Francis, and Robin Roberts. Big-league baseball stars Ernie Banks, Bob Gibson, and Ferguson Jenkins made at least a cameo appearance with the team.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Red Klotz. He was hired in 1952 to put together a team that would travel with the Globetrotters and serve as the butt of their jokes. Usually known as the Washington Generals, they are still looking for their first win over the Globetrotters.

I’ve seen the Globies play a couple of times, but it’s now on my bucket list to see them once more when they’re up and running (and dunking) again. If they are changed by the Coronavirus Pandemic, I hope it’s not visible to the naked eye.

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