The Globetrotters: Playing Hard And Working Poor
The Harlem Globetrotters have attracted huge audiences, including one with the Pope. They’ve campaigned to reduce child poverty. Yet players faced discrimination and a life of poverty, some even living and dying on the street.
From their theme song – Sweet Georgia Brown by Brothers Bones – to their big plays and bigger personas, everything about the Harlem Globetrotters was created to entertain, to put a smile on your face. Still, there are little known facts about the franchise that leave fans frowning.
Most have experienced the hype of the Harlem Globetrotters, matched by their superior skills on the court, but few know of the racism and the poverty that players endured throughout their careers.
The Harlem Globetrotters have attracted huge audiences, including an audience with the Pope. They appeared in front of the United Nations. And one of the world’s largest humanitarian organizations, World Vision, partnered with the Globetrotters on an initiative to improve the lives of children living in poverty. Yet, one of the most popular franchises in sport saw its world-class talent mistreated, living in poverty and some, eventually, even living on the street.
For a while, Globetrotters forward Johnny Kline was homeless. Another forward, Ruben Bolen died homeless. Bolen was stabbed to death on the streets of San Francisco.
On and off the court, players were often victims, mostly of racism. In an article entitled, ‘The Harlem (Actually Chicago) Globetrotters’, Daniel Hautzinger of PBS television station WTTW in Chicago wrote, “Those same audiences, surprised and delighted by the Globetrotters’ fast-break style, often shunned the black players after the game, despite the joy they got from watching them play.”
In a story in ‘The Undefeated’, journalist Sharon Brown reports, “The players provided entertainment, but they were often reminded that they were black men and suffered experiences that plagued other African-Americans.” The article continues, “Once the basketball games were over, they were prohibited from eating at certain restaurants, turned away from hotels because many were designated as “whites-only” and were even falsely accused of robbery.”
“The early days of the Globetrotters” writes Brown, “were filled with various trials that the players had to overcome.”
Hallie Bryant, who spent 27 years with the Globetrotters as a player and an official spokesperson recalled, “When the team played in a Nebraska town that only had ‘white hotels,’ the team had to sleep in the county jail.”
Sweet Lou Dunbar, who joined the Globetrotters as a forward in 1977, said black families would often house the team when they couldn’t find a hotel.
One of the most recognized and much loved players, Curly Neal, who was with the team until 1985, penned an op-ed for USA Today in which he recalled one of the multiple racial incidents: “The Harlem Globetrotters had just played in front of 18,000 fans in northern Florida — most of them white — and tried to grab a bite to eat at a restaurant. The restaurant wouldn’t let the team in. Wouldn’t serve them. They went to a hotel next. They were turned away. Later, they found out that a performing chimpanzee sponsored by a local bowling alley got a big fancy suite.”
Though not given due credit, for many years the Globetrotters were one of the best basketball teams featuring some of the best ballers. They won a world title and not long after, they defeated the Lakers, now of Los Angeles, during a one-off event at Chicago.
When the Harlem Globetrotters and the Minneapolis Lakers played at Chicago Stadium, critics dismissed the exhibition game as nothing more than a publicity stunt. Of the occasion, journalist Heather Gilligan wrote, “There was no way the all-Black Globetrotters — a comedy team of sorts — could beat the Lakers, the reigning champions of the all-White National Basketball League, a precursor to today’s NBA. Instead, the match changed basketball forever.”
Not long after this watershed moment, the NBA signed the first African-American player. He happened to be from the Harlem Globetrotters. Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton was now a New York Knick.
A newly formed league, the NBA struggled to stay afloat. Drawing only a few thousand fans to its games, the league turned to the Globetrotters for help. To drum up interest in the new league, NBA teams scheduled doubleheaders that featured the Globetrotters who were playing to sellout crowds.
As the NBA grew in stature, it could pay higher salaries than the Globetrotters, and the best African American players began to opt for the NBA.
Johnny Kline was another Globetrotter attempting to make a move to the NBA. Kline tried out for the Detroit Pistons but was cut before the season started. He continued to play for the Globetrotters earning $400 a month; about $4,400 today. The lowest paid player in the NBA in 2021 will earn almost 20 times that amount.
The Globetrotters have developed several stars, among them Meadowlark Lemon, Marques Haynes, and, briefly, Wilt Chamberlain. But many others who played for the Globetrotters fell into obscurity and poverty.
Motivated by the death of Ruben Bolen, Johnny Kline formed the Black Legends of Professional Basketball Foundation, a small organization dedicated to bringing recognition to the game’s often-forgotten pioneers, raising money for them through annual banquets and lobbying the NBA and the Globetrotters to establish pensions for them.
“None of these guys who started professional basketball were being recognized and given any dignity or respect for their contributions,” Kline told The Williamson Herald in 2009.
Not only did the Globetrotters break the colour barrier in the NBA, they also broke the gender barrier. Olympic gold medalist Lynette Woodard joined the team in 1985, becoming the first female to ever play on a men's pro basketball team. This helped pave the way for the WNBA.
In June of 2013, the Globetrotters were sold for upwards of US$100 million, as reported by Reuters. That same year, the Lakers were evaluated at US$1 billion, second highest in the league. The lowest ranked team at the time was the Milwaukee Bucks, valued at US$312 million.
Prior to the pandemic, the Bucks played 72 regular season games per year and the Globetrotters were doing 400+ live events annually in more than 30 countries.