When the Harlem Globetrotters and the Minneapolis Lakers played an exhibition game in Chicago in 1948, critics dismissed the contest as a publicity stunt. 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.
At the time, basketball was in trouble. Despite their winning record, the Lakers, like all teams playing in the NBL, had trouble drawing an audience. The league itself was losing money.
Not so for the Harlem Globetrotters, whose antics always drew a crowd, especially in their hometown of Chicago. (The “Harlem” in their name was only a way of telling audiences the team was Black.) The matchup was the result of a friendly argument between Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein and Lakers co-owner Max Winters about who had the best team. Around 17,000 people, Black and White, packed into Chicago Stadium on the day of the game — an unheard-of audience for the Lakers.
It’s unclear how many were there to see a serious contest. Globetrotters games were as much about comedy as about basketball. Players hid balls under their shirts, bounced trick passes between their teammates’ legs, traveled with hugely exaggerated steps down the length of the court without even pretending to dribble, and mimicked referees. The bits were meant to win over hostile small-town White audiences, and it earned them at least as many fans as their undeniable athletic skills.
That night, the audience waited for characteristic shenanigans from the Globetrotters, but the team was all about basketball. Goose Tatum, the Globetrotters’ best physical comedian, faced Lakers star George Mikan for the tip-off. Instead of a trick, Tatum used his comically long arms to reach over the 6-foot-10-inch Mikan and tap the ball to the ’Trotters — without so much as a smile.
Tatum wasn’t kidding about this game. Neither was Babe Pressley, who grabbed the tip-off and dribbled down the court before using a shovel pass to get the ball into the hands of teammate Ermer Robinson, who took the first shot and missed.
Like most cultural institutions in the United States, basketball had a long tradition of racial tension. At the time of the matchup, teams were nearly always all White or all Black, but that wasn’t always the case. The sport had been integrated in 1942, five years before Jackie Robinson did the same for major-league baseball — but that didn’t mean the effort was going well. In one instance, a Black player lost his temper and threw a punch at a White player who’d been shoving him throughout the game; White fans swarmed the court, and the National Guard had to be called in to prevent a riot. “That scared all of the basketball promoters,” the late sports writer Frank Deford explained in the 2005 PBS documentary The Harlem Globetrotters: The Team That Changed the World. There were just four Black players in the league at the time, and all of them were cut by the end of the year.
Cementing the segregation of the league were typical racist arguments — Black athletes did not have the intellect needed to win in a fast-paced sport like basketball; they had small lungs and heavy bones and an inability to jump; they weren’t coachable. (Writer John Christgau, author of Tricksters in the Madhouse, a seminal book about the game, also appeared in The Team That Changed the World, and marveled at the thought. “Can you imagine?” he asked. “They couldn’t jump.”)
The Globetrotters, who traveled the United States playing anyone who challenged them, had won more than 100 consecutive games by the time they arrived in Chicago for the showdown with the Lakers. Still, they struggled in the first half. The Lakers were great players, and Mikan topped Tatum, the Trotters’ big man, by seven inches. (As Phil Jackson once explained, Mikan was “basically Shaquille O’Neal.”) The hometown team’s shots would not fall. Even Robinson’s opening shot, graceful as it was, hit the rim. At halftime, the Lakers led 32–23.
What had been a relatively monotonous game of men running up and down a court became a game of showmanship, cleverness, and a newer, nimbler brand of sport.
It wasn’t until the third quarter that the Globetrotters started to shine. They started double-teaming Mikan, holding the scoring machine to nine points in the second half. With 90 seconds left in the game, the score was tied at 59–59. Globetrotter Marques Haynes dribbled for the next minute and 29 seconds. (The shot clock wouldn’t be introduced until 1954.) He quickly passed to Robinson, who fired the ball from what seemed like an impossible distance of 30 feet from the basket. The shot fell at the buzzer, and fans in the multiracial crowd screamed with joy.
Although it was an exhibition game, it proved to be the beginning of the end for segregation in basketball. “All of the racist arguments for keeping [Black athletes] out of basketball began to be undone with that game,” Christgau said in The Team That Changed the Game.
The sport integrated for good two years after the Globetrotters/Lakers game, when the NBA was formed. League officials and team owners were influenced not just by the talent they would otherwise miss out on, but also by the White crowds that had turned out to see the all-Black Globetrotters in 1948, and again in a second matchup in 1949. The Globetrotters won that game, too. So it was only fitting that Globetrotter Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton became the first Black athlete to sign with an NBA team when he joined the New York Knicks in 1950.
The Globetrotters went on to become a worldwide sensation, making an appearance behind the Iron Curtain in 1959, and even starring in their own cartoon series in the ’70s before their popularity finally waned.
Some argue that the Globetrotters saved the sport. Their popularity drew a cross-section of America to basketball and provided a fan base for the newly developed NBA. What had been a relatively monotonous game of men running up and down a court became a game of showmanship, cleverness, and a newer, nimbler brand of sport. The Globetrotters’ flair with the ball eventually became part of the fabric of basketball. In their hands, basketball became a sport where Black and White fans alike could cheer together for a common team.