From the New York Times, "'Spinning the Globe': Ball Hog Heaven," by Ira Berkow, on 24 July 2005 -- THE Harlem Globetrotters have sent more young would-be basketball players on the road to potential ruin than any other team in history. But by their legerdemain, the Globetrotters have also frequently given such huge pleasure and entertainment for some 80 years to millions upon millions of spectators of all ages around the world -- they have performed in more than 100 countries, drawing as many as 75,000 for one game (Olympic Stadium in Berlin, 1951) -- that one may commiserate with those youthful hoopsters who ignore textbook fundamentals by trying to imitate them.
And not just kids. When the Globetrotters were granted a private audience with Pope Pius XII in 1952, the pope, according to Ben Green in ''Spinning the Globe,'' watched in amazement their ''Magic Circle'' routine (in which the players stand in a circle and display their fancy ballhandling). '' 'My, how clever these men are,' the pontiff exclaimed when it was over. 'If I had not seen this with my own eyes, I would not have believed it could be done.' ''
As Green notes, the crowds so adored the Globetrotters that a referee was once booed for whistling the end of a game; the players were mobbed by smitten fans in places from Bangkok to Buenos Aires, and they were employed by the State Department as good-will ambassadors.
Though the Globetrotters simply have been called by some writers ''dinner with the Marx Brothers,'' or have been said to have ''Ringling Brothers beat 40 ways for Sunday,'' Green has other intentions. He places this team of black players and its complex founder and longtime owner, Abe Saperstein, in the context of various time periods, beginning with their emergence in 1927 (or 1929; there is some dispute) and then following them into the Depression and wartime and postwar America of the 1940's.
The Globetrotters proved they were very good basketball players and not strictly showmen by beating the premier professional team, the Minneapolis Lakers, two games in a row in 1948 and 1949 (they never won again, losing the next six games against them). The Globetrotters even helped keep the financially challenged young National Basketball Association franchises afloat by playing doubleheaders with them.
Then things began to change dramatically for the Globies. In 1950, the first black player, Chuck Cooper, was drafted by an N.B.A. team, the Boston Celtics. And soon the best black players -- like Sweetwater Clifton (who began with the Trotters), Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain (who played one year with them), Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson -- were forsaking the Trotters for the prestigious (and sometimes better-paying) N.B.A. While this was hardly in Saperstein's best interests, he was ''extremely cordial and supportive toward the players themselves,'' Green writes.
In the 1960's and 70's, the Globetrotters began to be perceived as heirs not to Joe Louis and Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson, but to Stepin Fetchit and Black Sambo -- dimwitted stereotypes, trying to do nothing more than give whitey a chance to laugh; ''Tomming for Abe'' was the derisive term. Jesse Jackson took another view: ''I think they've been a positive influence. . . . They did not show blacks as stupid. On the contrary, they were shown as superior.''
Saperstein was either a benign racist or a good man sometimes misunderstood -- Green is evenhanded -- but he was certainly a workaholic who, in the beginning, was coach, sixth man (if needed), chauffeur, booking agent, advance man -- and boss. He took the team -- five young men, most of whom had played at Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago (''Harlem'' was used in the team name because it said ''black'') -- from tank town to tank town in the Midwest in an unheated Model T Ford.
They went from playing local teams, for virtual peanuts (once pocketing receipts of $2.40 for a game), to flying on chartered airplanes with a staff. Saperstein became a multimillionaire. His stars were often paid well, though some not well enough by their lights (Goose Tatum and Marques Haynes among them), and they defected to clone their own Trotter-style teams. Other players remained intensely loyal and later earned administrative jobs in the Trotter organization.
Saperstein died in 1966, and the team was eventually purchased by a business conglomerate, Metromedia. The personal touch and concern of Saperstein were lost, and the Globetrotters went into decline. But the astute Mannie Jackson, a onetime Globetrotter turned successful businessman, bought the team in 1993 and revived it, eliminating some of the ''racially stereotyped gags.'' He also sought out better players and returned the team to basketball respectability. The team was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002.
Green, whose previous books include ''Before His Time'' and ''The Soldier of Fortune Murders,'' captures the drama and conflicts of this rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches story, and his descriptions of some of the important Globetrotter games (against their onetime black archrival, the New York Renaissance, and against college all-star teams) give the reader the sense of being there. However, Green never adequately explains the origins of the all-white ''stooge'' teams, like the Washington Generals, who traveled with the Trotters and were essentially paid to let the Globetrotters go through their ''reams,'' or bag of tricks.
On occasion, there is the overwrought phrase: Tatum's ''Arkansas drawl oozed like red clay.'' And there's the periodic generalization that goes awry: Saperstein depended on the ''network of grizzled, stogie-chewing sportswriters to spread the Globetrotters' fame across the land.'' I overlapped with a few of those scribes -- and I know for a fact that some of them smoked those cigars.
Green puts readers on the road with the Trotters, through good times and bad, and draws us into the Magic Circle. [source: New York Times, Ira Berkow is a sports columnist for The Times and the author, most recently, of ''The Minority Quarterback: And Other Lives in Sports.'']