The official history contains several details which seem contradictory, such as the team being organized in 1926 in Chicago's Savoy Ballroom, which opened in 1927. What is clear is that the genesis of the Globetrotters took place on the south side of Chicago, Illinois, in the 1920s, where all the original players grew up. Most of the players also attended Wendell Phillips High School. When the Savoy Ballroom opened in November 1927, one of the premier attractions was the Savoy Big Five, a basketball team that played exhibitions before dances. Hinckley, Illinois, was home to the first Harlem Globetrotters game on January 7, 1927. In 1928, several players left the team in a dispute over bringing back other players who had left the team. That fall, several players led by Tommy Brookins formed a team called the "Globe Trotters" that toured Southern Illinois that spring. Abe Saperstein became involved with the team, though exactly to what extent is unclear. In any event, by 1929 Saperstein was touring Illinois and Iowa with his basketball team called the "New York Harlem Globe Trotters." Saperstein decided to pick Harlem as their home city, since Harlem was considered the center of African-American culture at the time and an out-of-town team name would give the team more of a mystique. After four decades, the Globetrotters played their first "home" game in Harlem in 1968.
In 1959, the Globetrotters played nine games in Moscow after Saperstein received an invitation from Vasily Gricorevich, the director of Lenin Central Stadium. The team, which included Wilt Chamberlain, was welcomed enthusiastically by spectators and authorities; they met Premier Nikita Khrushchev and collectively received the Athletic Order of Lenin medal. (However, according to one report, spectators were initially confused: "A Soviet audience of 14,000 sat almost silently, as if in awe, through the first half of the game. It warmed up slightly in the second half when it realized the Trotters are more show than competition.") The Globetrotters brought their own opponent—not the Washington Generals, but the San Francisco Chinese Basketeers. A review in Pravda stated, "This is not basketball; it is too full of tricks" but praised the Globetrotters' skills and suggested that "they have some techniques to show us."
The American press—particularly Drew Pearson—made note of the fact that the Globetrotters were paid (per game) the equivalent of $4000, which could be spent only in Moscow. The games were used as evidence that U.S.–Soviet relations were improving, that Moscow was backing off its criticism of race relations inside America, and that the USSR was becoming more capitalist (Pearson suggested that the games were held because Lenin Stadium needed money).
The Globetrotters were perennial participants in the World Professional Basketball Tournament, winning it in 1940. Once one of the best teams in the country, the Globetrotters were eclipsed by the rise of the National Basketball Association, particularly when NBA teams began fielding African-American players in the 1950s. The Globetrotters gradually worked comic routines into their act until they became known more for entertainment than sports. The Globetrotters' acts often feature incredible coordination and skillful handling of one or more basketballs, such as passing or juggling balls between players, balancing or spinning balls on their fingertips, and making unusual, difficult shots.
Because almost all of its players have been African American, and because of the buffoonery involved in many of the Globetrotters' skits, they drew some criticism in the Civil Rights era. The players were derisively accused[by whom?] of "Tomming for Abe," a reference to Uncle Tom and white owner Abe Saperstein. However, prominent civil rights activist Jesse Jackson (who would later be named an Honorary Globetrotter) came to their defense by stating, "I think they've been a positive influence... They did not show blacks as stupid. On the contrary, they were shown as superior." In 1995, Orlando Antigua became the first Hispanic and the first nonblack on the Globetrotters' roster since Bob Karstens played with the squad in 1942–43.
Winning streaks and rare defeats
Globetrotters playing with spectators
One of the original losses for the Globetrotters was to the Sheldon Orabs, who were led by William DeKraai in the 1940s. In January 1952, the Harlem Globetrotters lost to the Seattle UniversityChieftains (now Redhawks) in an upset, 84–81. After a loss to the Washington Generals in 1962 alleged by Generals owner Red Klotz, the Harlem Globetrotters lost only three more games in the next 50 years (5,983 games). Usually they played a "stooge" team owned by Red Klotz, which also appeared as the Boston Shamrocks, New Jersey Reds, Baltimore Rockets, or Atlantic City Seagulls. On January 5, 1971, they lost in Martin, Tennessee, to the New Jersey Reds 100–99 in overtime; that ended an alleged 2,495-game winning streak (which would mean that the Globetrotters were playing 277 games per year up until that date). Another loss came against the Elmwood Yellow Jackets. The Globetrotters ended up losing after three over-times 36–34.
In addition to their hundreds of exhibition games, the Globetrotters slowly returned to competitive basketball after 1993 under the new ownership of former player Mannie Jackson. On September 12, 1995, they lost 91–85 to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's All Star Team in Vienna, Austria, ending an alleged run of 8,829 straight victories going back to 1971. The 48-year-old Abdul-Jabbar scored 34 points. The 8,829 games in twenty-four years would mean the Globetrotters were playing nearly 368 games per year, or more than one game a day some days, for twenty-four years. This is because multiple team lineups tour as The Globetrotters to allow for a greater number of exhibitions. The Globetrotters won the other 10 games during that European tour. Five years later, following another 1,270 wins, they lost 72–68 to Michigan State University, the reigning men's collegiate champions, on November 13, 2000.
Two years later, they "set aside the hallmarks" for a "three-week, no-nonsense tour against college teams" from men's Division One. "There are no ballhandling displays to the tune of "Sweet Georgia Brown," no buckets of water or confetti thrown, and no Washington Generals to act as their inept foils." On November 10 and 11 at Vanderbilt University and the University of Maryland, another defending champion, they lost close games to both teams, their first consecutive defeats since 1961. Yet the tour probably marked a decade of improvement as a competitive team. On November 3, 2003, the Globetrotters had a streak of 288 consecutive victories snapped after suffering an 89–88 loss to the UTEP Miners, who had just six victories the season before. It was their only loss during an eight-game college tour wherein the Globetrotters had defeated Michigan State (97–83), UMass (77–68), and defending national champion Syracuse (83–70).
On February 27, 2006, the Globetrotters extended their overall record to exactly 22,000 wins. Their most recent loss came on March 31, 2006, when they went down 87–83 to the NABC College All-Stars to bring their loss tally to just 345, a losing percentage of 1.5%.
Starting in 2007, the Globetrotters have conducted an annual "draft" a few days before the NBA draft, in which they select players and invite them to join the team. The team does not speak beforehand to the players they select (some of whom are not even known as basketball players, such as soccer stars Lionel Messi and Tim Howard), and only a few of the selected players eventually agree to join the Globetrotters.
The Harlem Globetrotters have been featured in several of their own films and television series:
The Harlem Globetrotters, a 1951 feature film starring Marques Haynes and other Globetrotters, also featuring Thomas Gomez, Dorothy Dandridge, Bill Walker, and Angela Clarke. Young Bill Townsend drops out of college to join the famous independent Trotter team. He also finds romance along the way. "Goose" Tatum and fancy dribbler Haynes were the star players of the Globetrotters at the time and Saperstein was the owner. Tatum, Haynes, Babe Presley, Ermer Robinson, Duke Cumberland, Clarence Wilson, Pop Gates, Frank Washington, Ted Strong, and other current team members appear in the film as themselves. Also featured is a lot of actual game footage (three times against the Celtics with Tony Lavelli and Big Bob Hahn), including the "Sweet Georgia Brown" warmup routine. (Along with making the film, the team toured Major League Baseball stadiums that year and went on their first tour of South America.)
On December 30, 1956, twelve members of the Globetrotters appeared as guest challengers on the TV panel show What's My Line?. Clarence Wilson acted as the spokesman and was accompanied by members George "Meadowlark" Lemon, Charlie Hoxie, Roman Turmon, Andy Johnson, Woodrow "Woody" Sauldsberry, Carl Green, Leon Hillard, Willie Gardner, and others.
The Globetrotters appeared in an episode of the 1970s TV show The White Shadow wherein Coach Reeves convinces the team to help him send his High school Basketball team a reality check about overconfidence and underestimating their opponents as a result of a winning streak that got to his players heads. The Team agrees and plays against the high school team wearing ordinary T-shirts and sports trunks for the first half of the game. The Globetrotters easily outscored their opponents during this first half of the game. This is notable being somewhat a rarity in Globetrotter film appearances as they generally lose or do poorly during the first half and make a flashy and dramatic comeback in the second half. The High school team fails to realize at-first that they are losing against the world famous Globetrotters. That is until the second half of the game when the team dons their traditionally famous Globetrotter jerseys.
The Globetrotters return to the show in season 3 of The White Shadow when star player Warren Coolidge, convinced that his basketball ability would preclude his need to finish high school, considers dropping out of school and trying out for the Globetrotters. After failing miserably in his tryout, Coolidge is persuaded to finish his education before giving any thought to a basketball career. The Globetrotters reinforce his decision by introducing themselves to him by name and adding their college alma maters to their introductions.
The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine, a 1974 live-action Saturday morning variety show starring the Globetrotters that featured comedy skits, blackout gags, and educational segments. The show was produced by Funhouse Productions and Yongestreet Productions for CBS.
The Super Globetrotters, a second animated series created by Hanna-Barbera for NBC in 1979. It featured the Globetrotters (now including new squad members James "Twiggy" Sanders, Nate Branch, and Louis "Sweet Lou" Dunbar) as undercover superheroes who would transform themselves by entering magic portable lockers carried in "Sweet Lou" Dunbar's afro or in a basketball-shaped medallion. Although the Super Globetrotters would first attempt to take on the villain with standard comical heroics, things would almost always be settled with a basketball game.
The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island, a 1981 made-for-TV film featured the Globetrotters alongside Bob (Gilligan) Denver and the rest of the cast of Gilligan's Island. The film's plot follows the first animated series' formula to a degree with a conflict that ends with an unusual basketball game against an opposing team made up of robots. The Globetrotters decide to play with standard moves in the first half, which the robots are able to counter, until Gilligan unwittingly comments that they have not done any fancy tricks. This makes the Professor advise the team to use their comedic style of play to win, which hopelessly confuses the machines. However, a couple of Globetrotters suffer injuries, and the team needs the help of Gilligan and Skipper to substitute.
The Love Boat "Hoopla." The Globetrotters were on a cruise and challenged the crew to a game in the dining room.
The animated television series Futurama features several episodes in which the Harlem Globetrotters appear as brilliant scientists as well as basketball players living on another planet, The Globetrotter Homeworld. Ironically, the Harlem Globetrotters react harshly to anyone who "laughs at their antics" as evidenced in the episode "Time Keeps On Slippin'."
On September 27, 2009, Herbert "Flight Time" Lang and Nathaniel "Big Easy" Lofton participated in the 15th season of The Amazing Race, finishing fourth out of twelve teams, having forfeited a task in the penultimate leg. They returned for the show's 18th season, which is subtitled "Unfinished Business," featuring fan favorite teams who lost the competition because of various circumstances. The pair finished second overall, narrowly failing first place. The pair will return for the 24th season, dubbed an "All Star" season, featuring some of the shows fan favorites, marking their third appearance on the show.
As part of the cross-promotion of the show, Lang and Lofton also appeared on CBS Daytime's game show The Price Is Right to model prizes (a Sport Court basketball court) and present a showcase.
On an episode of the television show 30 Rock, Tracy Morgan's character lies to other characters that the Globetrotters will make an appearance at a party. Despite the fact that it was a lie, apparently one Globetrotter does indeed attend the party.
In October 2009 it was announced that a new Harlem Globetrotters animated series was to be produced, but as of this writing no deal has been made.
In 2009 and 2010, members of the Harlem Globetrotters appeared on the nationally-televised McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade in Chicago, IL.
On December 5, 2010, in a game televised on ESPN2 against the Washington Generals from HP Field House at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, the game saw several landmark events occur. A four-point shot may be scored from the four-point circle 35 feet away from the basket, with three minutes or less to go in any quarter. A penalty box was introduced as the price to be paid for any 'funny business' by a player. The Globetrotters made the first, and most, of the four-point shots in the game. All of the penalties in this game were assessed to the Globetrotters. The visiting Globetrotters went on to beat the Generals 104–98 in this historical game of firsts.
The Globetrotters appeared in the second episode of the ninth season of Family Guy.
Three members of the Globetrotters appear in the Harlem episode of Man v. Food Nation, in which they have to defeat a spicy two-pound barbecue sandwich in 15 minutes.
Special K Daley, Ant Atkinson, and Blenda Rodriguez of the Globetrotters made a guest appearance in the October 18, 2011, episode of Sesame Street, in which they and Elmo talk about the number 3.
Three members of the Globetrotters appeared in a February 28, 2012, episode of the Blendtec online video series Will It Blend?, wherein they help Blendtec CEO Tom Dickson and his Uncle Floyd blend miniature basketballs, glitter dust, a whistle, and a bottle of Gatorade. The team then pour the mixture into a bucket, magically turning it into confetti, which they throw on Dickson.
Globetrotter Bull Bullard competed on the fourth season of American Ninja Warrior. He advanced to the finals but timed out on the first stage of the finals.
Three members of the Harlem Globetrotters visited North Korea in 2013 along with Dennis Rodman and the VICE news team. It is seen in the HBO TV series, Vice.
Wilt Chamberlain was the first Harlem Globetrotters player to have his jersey number retired.
In addition, Bill Cosby (in 1972) and Magic Johnson (in 2003) have been signed to $1 a year lifetime contracts with the Globetrotters. Cosby's was increased to $1.05 in 1986. In 2009, the Globetrotters drafted Tim Howard, the goalkeeper for the U.S. national soccer team and a former basketball player, to be an ambassador for the club.
Summer Skills Clinics
In 2012, the Globetrotters introduced their version of summer basketball camp called Summer Skills Clinics. Clinics are available for boys and girls (age 6–12) and are designed so that no experience is required. At clinics, kids get the opportunity to get coached by actual players on the team, learn tricks, drills, fundamentals and learn some important character-building messages delivered by the team. Their clinics have grown nationally every year and are located at 24 Hour Fitness centers across the country.