Book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons
When the Minneapolis Lakers played the Harlem Globetrotters; Chicago, 1948
George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers and “Sweetwater” Clifton of the Harlem Globetrotters
by Ben Green
In 1948, George Mikan, the six-foot-ten center of the Minneapolis Lakers, was dominating the sport like no other big man ever had. When Mikan had first arrived at DePaul University in 1942, he was a clumsy, slow-footed freshman who was so blind (with 20/300 vision) that, even wearing Mr. Magoo glasses, he had to ask teammates to read the game clock. But first-year DePaul coach Ray Meyer recognized the youngster’s fierce competitiveness, and put him through a rigorous, unorthodox, training program: he made him shoot thousands of hook shots with either hand, hired a female dance instructor to improve his footwork, and engaged a boxing coach to develop better hand-eye coordination. Once Mikan mastered the hook shot, he was unstoppable. The foul lane was only six feet wide at the time, so he could camp out within easy range for his hook. During his college career, he led DePaul to a 81-17 record, was a three-time All-American, twice led the nation in scoring, and was selected as the National Player of the Year in 1946. His senior year, he carried DePaul to the NIT championship, averaging 40 points a game in the tournament, including a record 53 points in the semifinal game, in which he outscored the entire Rhode Island team. He was the charter member of an exclusive club (which later included Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Julius Erving) of ballplayers who single-handedly changed the sport. Mikan blocked so many shots that the NCAA instituted its first goaltending rule, and in 1951, the NBA widened its foul lane to twelve feet to neutralize his hook.
After graduating from DePaul, he played one year with the Chicago American Gears, then signed with the Minneapolis Lakers of the National Basketball League (NBL) in November 1947. The Lakers had recently signed another college All-American (and future NBA Hall-of-Famer), Jim Pollard, a six-foot-five slasher from Stanford University who, on any other team, would have been the franchise. Pollard was a more complete player than Mikan, as he could score inside or outside, had great improvisational skills, and was one of the first pros to play “above the rim,” as reflected in his nickname, the “Kangaroo Kid” (he once injured his elbow by hitting it on the backboard). Over the next seven years, Mikan and Pollard would carry the Lakers to six league titles (one in the NBL, one in the BAA, and four in the newly merged National Basketball Association) and establish the NBA’s first dynasty. In 1950, Mikan would be voted the Greatest Player in the First Half Century by the Associated Press.
In early 1948, however, all of that glory was in front of them. The Laker team was less than a year old and was looking to establish its credibility in the pro ranks. When Arch Ward, venerable sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, wrote that the Harlem Globetrotters were the best basketball team in the world, Max Winter, the general manager of the Lakers, took it as a personal affront. He called up Abe, who was a friend, and challenged him to a game.
Abe quickly agreed. He and Winter both recognized that a Lakers-Trotters match-up would be a sure moneymaker. Whatever symbolic questions of racial superiority might be settled, the game was sure to reap huge profits. They scheduled a one game showdown at Chicago Stadium on February 19, 1948. As Winter would recall years later, “Little did Abe, or I, or anyone else connected with it, realize that it would turn out to be one of the most memorable basketball games of all time.”
On the surface, it should have been just another big game. After all, the Globetrotters had been playing white pro teams for years, including other members of the National Basketball League. They had staged memorable battles with the Oshkosh All-Stars and other NBL teams in the World Pro Tournament in Chicago, had held preseason training camps with the Sheboygan Redskins, and had taken on the best white team in the East, the Philadelphia Sphas. Further, the NBL had already integrated in 1942-43, when the Chicago Studebakers played that season with current and former Globetrotters Sonny Boswell, Duke Cumberland, Hillary Brown, Bernie Price, and Roosevelt Hudson. In the 1946-47 season, four additional black players had played in the league, including Pop Gates and Willie King, who also played for the Globetrotters. And the New York Rens would actually join the league during the 1948-49 season, playing under the name of the Dayton Rens, thereby becoming the first black team in a white pro league.
What made this game special was George Mikan. He was the first dominating big man of the modern era in a basketball — a center who could take over a game, scoring at will and controlling the defensive end of the court. And the fact that he was a local boy, raised in nearby Joliet and graduated from DePaul, made a Lakers-Trotters showdown in Chicago even more sensational.
Although the racial dimension of the game were never explicitly mentioned in the white press, it was an all too obvious subtext: the best white team in the country versus the best black team. The fact that Jackie Robinson had just completed his first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in October added extra traction to the racial issue. Labeling George Mikan a “Great White Hope” would depreciate his impact on the game, as he was reshaping modern basketball on the basis of his size and skills, not his color, but he undoubtedly carried the weight of white assumptions of superiority on his shoulders. Indeed, the game was being characterized in the press as a “private duel” between Mikan and Goose Tatum, each of whom was revolutionizing the game in their own unique way. Simply put, there was no one else like Goose or Mikan — and now they would be going head to head. The Chicago Sun-Times predicted it would be the “toughest test of Mikan’s brilliant career.”
More broadly, the game would represent a showdown between two contrasting styles of play — the white style, of which the Lakers’ were the ultimate prototype, and the black style of hoops played by the Trotters. Conventional wisdom among white sportswriters was that the machinelike efficiency of the Lakers’ half-court offense and their structured man-to-man defense would triumph over the “undisciplined” school-yard style of the Trotters.
As game day approached, the bookies made the Lakers an 8-point favorite. The pregame hype for the contest was building not just in Chicago but in Minneapolis, where the Minneapolis Morning Tribune called it pro basketball’s “dream” and the “Game of the Year.”
Oddly enough, the players on both teams may have been paying less attention to the hype than anyone else, as they were playing a full schedule leading up to the game. The Globetrotters arrived in Chicago only the night before the game, after a three-week tour of California. They came to town riding a 103-game winning streak. The Lakers arrived with an 8-game winning streak but, more impressive, a 9 1/2-game lead in the NBL’s Western Division over the Tri-City Blackhawks, whom they had defeated two nights before the game against the Trotters.
George Mikan was eager to establish bragging rights in his hometown, and Marques Haynes was anxious to disprove the perception of the Lakers’ superiority, but not all the players on either team were looking forward to the game. Ermer Robinson, the Trotters’ sharpshooter from San Diego, couldn’t understand why Abe had scheduled a game against such a formidable opponent; and some of the Lakers felt they had nothing to gain and everything to lose from playing the Trotters. Years later, Jim Pollard would complain that the game was “for the owners, not the players. I didn’t take it seriously it was a pain in the neck.” And the Lakers’ coach, Johnny Kundla, who had played against the Trotters in the early 1930s, didn’t consider the Trotters a serious threat, but merely a show team.
Few sportswriters gave the Trotters a chance, and even Abe was having doubts. In public, he maintained his usual breezy optimism, but he admitted to his family that he was worried about the Lakers’ height advantage. The tallest Trotter was Goose Tatum, at six-foot-three-and-a-half, but Mikan was six-foot-ten, and Pollard was six-foot-five. In an effort to shore up his bench, Abe brought in the best players from the second unit, including center Sam Wheeler, Vertes Ziegler, and the diminutive shooter, Wilbert King.
Even though the game was held on a bitterly cold Thursday night, 17,823 fans showed up at Chicago Stadium. The crowd included more whites than blacks, but not many. “The whole South Side of Chicago came out for that ball game,” recalls Marques Haynes. The Lakers and Trotter matchup was actually the first game of a doubleheader, with the BAA.’s Chicago Stags and New York Knicks playing the nightcap, but there was no doubt which game the fans had come to see. In addition to those watching in the Stadium, thousands more were listening on radio, as the game was being broadcast back to Minneapolis.
In the Trotters’ locker room before the game, Abe gave a brief pep talk, then turned the floor over to player-coach Babe Pressley, who laid out the game plan. The Globetrotters realized that there was no way Goose could handle Mikan one-on-one, as he was giving up seven inches and fifty pounds, so other players were going to have to sag on the Lakers’ center, double-teaming him whenever he got the ball. Additionally, Pressley told them not to hesitate to foul Mikan hard and often. There was no “one-and-one” rule at that time, so a nonshooting foul drew only one shot.
The game plan , which had sounded plausible in the dressing room fell completely apart when the game began, however. Mikan was stronger and quicker than the Trotters had expected, and he was simply overwhelming Goose, who had never been noted for his defensive prowess, even with an opponent his own size. The Lakers jumped out to a 9-2 lead, and were threatening to run away with the game. Pressley, known as the “Blue Ox” because of his great strength (“He’d make Muhammad Ali look like a little boy,” teammate Sam Wheeler would say years later), was the Trotters’ best defender, so he began switching off his man to help Goose, trying to deny Mikan the ball. But then Pollard started hitting from the baseline, and the Trotters fell further behind.
At halftime, the Lakers held a 32-23 lead, and it would have been worse if Marques Haynes and Ermer Robinson had not been scoring from outside. Mikan had put on an awesome display, racking up 18 points and completely embarrassing Goose, who had yet to score.
In the locker room at halftime, the Globetrotters realized that their game plan had failed miserably and they would have to come up with a new strategy, or they were doomed. One problem in the first half was that Abe had insisted that they run their trademark Globetrotters offense, with three players running a weave out front and working the ball into Goose. But Mikan was smothering Goose in the pivot, and even when Goose managed to get off a shot, he was ice cold. Babe Pressley and Marques Haynes spoke up, insisting that the Trotters abandon their standard offense and start pushing the ball, to take advantage of their speed, and shooting from outside, instead of trying to work inside against the taller Lakers. “We had a lot of good outside shooters,” Marques says, “particularly Ermer Robinson, Wilbert King, and myself.”
They made one other halftime adjustment. For the rest of the game, they were going to hammer George Mikan every time he touched the ball. It was a risky tactic, as Mikan was a 78 percent lifetime free-throw shooter, but the Trotters gambled that he couldn’t hurt them any worse at the foul line than he was from the field.
Both strategies worked. The Trotters started fast-breaking every time they got the chance, and when fast-break opportunities weren’t there, Wilbert King, Ermer Robinson, and Marques Haynes started connecting from the outside. The Globetrotters began the third quarter with a 10-2 run, cutting the Lakers’ lead to 34-32.
On defense, the hack attack against Mikan was taking its toll. “We were doing everything,” Sam Wheeler recalled in a 1987 interview. “If we’d had hatchets in our hands, he would have had scars on him-they would have taken 100 stitches.” Once, Mikan got so frustrated with Goose’s pushing and shoving that he lost his temper. His old college coach, Ray Meyer, could see the explosion coming. “I was sitting at the scorer’s table and Goose was really roughing up Mikan,” he remembers. “I saw Mikan’s face get real white and I thought, ‘Omigod, here it comes,’ and Mikan leveled Tatum with a vicious elbow.”
The flagrant foul earned Mikan a technical, and the Trotters, sensing that they were getting to him, kept up the pressure. “When we fouled him, we fouled him hard,” recalls Vertes Ziegler, who played a reserve role. “We said, ‘If they’re gonna call a foul, be sure to make him bleed.’ And that’s what we did. We went to beating on him and slapping them glasses off him.” Ultimately, the Trotters rattled Mikan, and the usually reliable free throw shooter missed seven of eleven attempts from the line.
At the same time, Goose finally starting having success against Mikan on offense, hitting for 9 points in the second half and helping the Trotters take their first lead, 38-36. But their strategy of fouling Mikan was starting to cost them dearly, as Goose, Babe Pressley, and Ducky Moore were all in foul trouble.
Shortly before the end of the quarter, there was a frightening moment in the game. Mikan and Marques Haynes went up together for a rebound, and as they wrestled for the ball in midair, Marques’s hands slipped off and he fell hard to the floor, landing flat on his back. He was able to continue playing, but a few minutes later, the exact same thing happened again. This time, Marques hit the floor with a sickening thud , and Mikan landed on top of him. The two men lay sprawled in a heap on the floor. As Marques lay motionless on his back, not moving, the crowd fell silent, fearing a serious injury. Eventually, Marques was able to struggle to his feet and, despite being in obvious pain, refused to come out of the game.
The fourth quarter was a seesaw affair, with the lead repeatedly changing hands. The fans were on their feet for nearly the entire period, too excited to sit down. Marie Linehan, who was sitting at courtside, would say later, “I couldn’t talk for a week, I screamed so hard.”
With seven minutes to go, the Trotters led 50-48, but then Babe Pressley fouled out and was replaced by the old veteran Ted Strong, who was past his prime and too slow to contain Mikan. The Lakers surged back into the lead, 56-55, when Mikan hit another field goal, his twenty-third point of the night. Then, Wilbert King and Marques Haynes made consecutive baskets to send the Trotters back on top, 59-56. All night long, the outside shooting of Marques and Ermer Robinson, with 15 points apiece, and King, with 12, had kept the Trotters in the game.
There were two minutes left. Now, with the game on the line, the Lakers’ two stars responded. Pollard hit a bucket to make it a one point game, 59-58. The next time down the court, Mikan went up for one of his patented hook shots, and Goose hacked him; the shot was good, which would have given the Lakers the lead, but referee Bill Downes ruled that Goose had fouled Mikan before the shot. Fortunately, the big man’s woes continued at the foul line, as he missed the free throw, and the Trotters’ fragile one-point lead still stood.
That was Goose’s fifth foul, however, so he and Pressley were both out of the game, and now it was up to Sam Wheeler and Ted Strong to defend Mikan. Realizing they they had a mismatch, the Lakers went right back to Mikan the next time they had the ball, and Wheeler had no choice but to foul him. This time, Mikan hit the free throw to tie the game.
Now there was a minute left. There was complete bedlam in the Stadium, as fans for both teams were standing and screaming. The Trotters brought the ball up the court. Some of their fans began yelling “Freeze the ball!” — preferring to run out the clock and go to overtime rather than possibly missing a shot and giving the Lakers another chance to win. But with Goose and Babe Pressley already on the bench, the Trotters’ did not want to risk an overtime. They were going to play to win.
The clock ticked down to thirty seconds, then twenty-five, twenty, fifteen
In wartime, they say the first casualty in any battle is the truth, as the fog of war obscures what really happened. Today, fifty-seven years after this momentous battle in Chicago Stadium, there are at least three contradictory accounts of what transpired in the last few seconds. Not surprisingly, as the game has grown in significance over the years, some of the participants have placed themselves at the center of the action, and others now remember it differently than they once did.
In a 1987 interview, for instance, Sam Wheeler, who is now deceased, claimed that he had rebounded a missed shot, then passed the ball to Ermer Robinson, who “took two little pumps and let it go.” Vertes Ziegler, who also played in the game, claims today that he snared the final rebound and passed the ball the Robinson, who “took two little pumps and let it go.” Vertes Zieger, who also played in the game, claims today that he snared the final rebound and passed the ball to Robinson, who “wound up and turned it loose.” Big George Mikan has given two different accounts of the final play in two separate autobiographies. Even Marques Haynes, whose memory has proven remarkably accurate in many instances, has recounted slightly different versions of the last seconds. Today, his best recollection is that the final play began with him bringing the ball in on an out-of-bounds play under the Trotters’ basket. “I passed it in to Wilbert King, and he passed it back to me,” he says, “I dribbled around [the key], and Robbie [Ermer Robinson] and I made eye contact. I was going toward him and he was coming toward me, and I passed it to him, then set a fake screen on [Jim Pollard], who was defending him. And Robbie, as soon as he got the ball — Wham! — he let it go.”
The only point that all accounts agree on is that the ball ended up in the hands of Ermer Robinson, the slender forward who was known as “Shaky” because of his nervous chain-smoking habit and morbid fear of airplanes. Robinson was a finesse player who disliked rough play under the boards, preferring to launch rainbow shots from outside. He had the purest outside shot of any Globetrotter since another skinny-legged shooter named Sonny Boswell, whom he slightly resembled.
Accounts differ about how far out Robinson was, but he was at least twenty feet, and perhaps as far as the NBA three-point line. He barely had time to set his feet and then let fly with a one-hand push shot — a transition between the traditional two-hand set and the new jump shot that was beginning to come into vogue. Abe Saperstein had never liked Robinson’s one-hander, as Abe was a traditionalist who wanted his players to shoot the two-hand set he had grown up with. But now, in the last second of the most important game in the Trotters’ history, it all came down to Robbie’s one-hand push.
Robinson shot the ball on an incredibly high arc; it was a rainmaker that was still in the air when the final gun sounded. As the reverberation echoed across the Stadium, there was a sense that time was standing still, as if the moment had been frozen by a photo strobe. Seventeen thousand people watched, their mouths agape, as the ball slowly descended out of the spotlights, spinning on its axis, and slipped silently through the net.
Some Laker players and coaches thought the shot was no good, that Robinson had released it after the buzzer, but the referee raised his arms, signaling that it was good. The Trotters had won, 61-59.
For a brief moment, there was a hush in the arena, as if people could not really believe that the Globetrotters had won. Then, as the Herald-American described it, the place “went mildly insane.” People hugged complete strangers. The Trotters lifted Robinson onto their shoulders, carrying him off the court in triumph. “No story book game could have had any better finish,” the Chicago Defender reported.
Most basketball insiders were surprised by the outcome. “I was shocked, even though I knew the Trotters were a very good team,” says Ray Meyer. “I think the Lakers took them as a joke. Then they found out that they could play, and they took them serious [from then on].” The Lakers were stunned. “Our players couldn’t believe what had happened,” Max Winter later recalled. “They were devastated.”
In the Trotters’ locker room, there was jubilation and profound relief. The players hoised a beaming Abe into the air, and he showed his delight with the win by handing out cash bonuses. George Mikan showed his class by stopping by to congratulate the victors. “One hell of a game, guys,” he said.
Most of the Trotters were going out to celebrate, but Marques Haynes was in such pain from his two horrendous falls that he went back to the Trotters’ rooming house and went to bed. The next morning, he could barely move and decided to go to the hospital, where X-rays confirmed that he had fractured the fourth lumbar vertebrae. Amazingly, he had played the second half with a broken back. The doctors put him in a full body cast and he walked out of the hospital, but he was through for the season. He went home to Sand Springs, Oklahoma to recuperate.
That night, the celebration continued until the wee hours on the South Side. The Trotters were the guests of honor at a party in the Persian Hotel, where they ate lobster and listened to Lionel Hampton and his band. Timuel Black, a respected educator and author from Chicago, was at the game that night, and recalls the reaction in Bronzeville. “It was an event of great pleasure for those of us who had grown up on the South Side to see this all-black team playing this all-white team and winning,” he says. “It was a great evening. We went back to our various bars or taverns and talked about it. It was more than just a victory of the Trotters; it was also a victory of the black community over the hostile white community. It was not as big, or as universal, as when Joe Louis defeated Max Schmeling, but there was a feeling of elation that gave us a sense of achievement and pride.”
There had been other important games in the Globetrotters’ history, including the 1940 World Championship and the first College All-Star Classic, but this victory over the Minneapolis Lakers eclipsed them all. The Trotters’ earlier triumphs had established them as a legitimate basketball team and had cracked open the doors to big arenas in big cities, but the 1948 victory over the Lakers pushed the Trotters onto the national stage and blew open the doors to the biggest arenas in the biggest cities in the land. From this point on, there would be no stopping them. The Harlem Globetrotters could legitimately claim to be the best team in the world.
Ermer Robinson shoots a two-hand push over George Mikan
by Ben Green
Excerpted from the book, Amistad Press. All rights reserved.