Interviews » Biographers

Ben Green, author of Spinning the Globe: The Rise, Fall, and Return to Greatness of the Harlem Globetrotters

 

 

Before Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Julius Erving, or Michael Jordan — before Magic Johnson and Showtime — the Harlem Globetrotters revolutionized basketball and spread the game around the world. In Spinning the Globe: The Rise, Fall, and Return to Greatness of the Harlem Globetrotters, author Ben Green tells the story of this extraordinary franchise and iconic American institution.

 Green chronicles the Globetrotters’ rise from backwoods obscurity during the harsh years of the Great Depression to become the best basketball team in the country and, by the early 1950s, the most popular sports franchise in the world.

Through original research, Green also uncovers intriguing controversies about the Globetrotters’ origins, their image in the African American community, and how they were used as a propaganda weapon during the Cold War. Green renders captivating portraits of founder Abe Saperstein and the players who defined the Trotters’ legacy, including Inman Jackson, Goose Tatum, Marques Haynes, Meadowlark Lemon, and Curly Neal. He also describes the Trotters’ struggles to overcome racial discrimination and internal dissension on their long road to glory as well as details their fall from grace to the brink of bankruptcy in the early 1990s, and the ultimate rebirth under owner Mannie Jackson.#

Green talks about the Globetrotters with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita in a September 26, 2005 interview.

 

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A note about the theme song of the Harlem Globetrotters, from The Online Guide to Whistling Records

Brother Bones

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Brother Bones recorded one of the most instantly recognizable songs of the 20th century, yet remains a virtual unknown, overshadowed by his own hit record and the world famous basketball team that adopted it as their official theme. Born Freeman Davis in Montgomery, Alabama, Brother Bones was a one-time shoe shine boy, working at stands in the vestibules of local barber shops. While shining, he would whistle, snap his shoeshine rag and pop his brushes in rhythm to records being played on an old Victrola. Brother Bones became known around town as “Whistling Sam.” He would also tap dance and play the bones and knives, perfecting a style which used four bones in each hand whereas most bones players used only two. According to Tempo Records, Brother Bones was discovered by their president while playing in a Chinese restaurant in downtown Los Angeles and shortly after, “Sweet Georgia Brown” was playing on the radio across the nation.

“Sweet Georgia Brown” has been recorded by everyone from Bing Crosby to Louis Armstrong — even The Beatles!  But by far, the most famous variation was the whistling, bone-clacking version recorded by Brother Bones and his Shadows in the late 1940’s. Adopted in 1952 as the theme song of the Harlem Globetrotters, the catchy tune has been played during their pre-game warm-ups and throughout their games for decades. Millions around the world have heard it and it is probably in the top ten most listened to recordings in history. So important to the Harlem Globetrotters is “Sweet Georgia Brown” that it has become their aural trademark, much like MGM has it’s familiar lion’s roar.

Brother Bones went on to record over a dozen songs, appear in at least three movies, perform at Carnegie Hall and was on The Ed Sullivan Show. He died in 1974 at the age of 71 and was survived by his wife, Daisy, a daughter and two grandsons.

-From The Online Guide to Whistling Records

 

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Editors Note:

Because the Globetrotters are so associated with “Sweet Georgia Brown,” virtually all of the sound samples within this interview will be versions of the song, beginning with Bones’ complete recording, found at the beginning of the interview.  A Real Audio and Windows Media Player are required to hear the music.

 

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Goose Tatum

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“The Harlem Globetrotters were not just a great barnstorming team; they were a sociology class on wheels, bringing black hoops and black culture to a hundred Midwestern towns that had seen neither, and in the process transforming Dr. James Naismith’s stodgy, wearisome game – which was still sometimes played in chicken-wire cages by roughneck immigrants with flailing elbows and bloodied skulls, a sport more resembling rugby – into an orchestration of speed, fluidity, motion, dazzling skill, and most improbably, inspired comedy.”

– Ben Green

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Sweet Georgia Brown, by Brother Bones (Harlem Globetrotter Theme Song)

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JJMYou wrote, “Abe Saperstein is the most incongruous figure that one could conjure up to be the owner of this team. He and his players are a juxtaposition of opposites, as different as any human beings could be.” There are varying stories about how the Harlem Globetrotters began, aren’t there?

BG  That was the big mystery going into this book, and I think I have come the closest anyone has in answering this question. It became clear early on in my research that the official story Abe told for thirty years was complete nonsense. He claimed that the team grew out of Chicago’s Savoy Ballroom, but that couldn’t have possibly happened because the dates were all off — for example, the Savoy didn’t even exist at the time he said the team began playing.

There is a version that makes sense, however. There is no doubt that a black basketball team called the Globetrotters existed in Chicago, begun by a man named Tommy Brookins. The team was in fact listed in the Chicago Defender as “Tommy Brookins’s Globetrotters.” Brookins’ story, told years later, is that his team needed a white booking agent because they wanted to get out of town and play in places like Minnesota and Wisconsin. Since Saperstein had done bookings for Negro League Baseball, they hired him. It is at this point in the story where it gets a little controversial because Brookins claims that Abe, in essence, stole the team because he started double booking the team — the second team of which was being booked under his name. But since Brookins didn’t want to be a player on the road anymore, he reconciled with Abe, gave him his uniform, and went back to Chicago.

JJM Your book reminded me that the Harlem Globetrotters were not from New York, but from Chicago.

BG  When I started the book, I didn’t know any more about the Globetrotters than anyone else — all I knew was Meadowlark and Curly and, as a kid, watching them on CBS Sports Spectacular, Wide World of Sports, or Ed Sullivan. I just assumed they were from Harlem, and I also had no understanding about how long they had been around. I figured they were somewhat contemporary with my childhood, and was quite surprised to find out that they started in the late twenties.

JJM  Why did Saperstein choose to attach the name “Harlem” to them when they were actually from Chicago?

BG.  The most famous black barnstorming team at the time was the Harlem Rens, who were alternately known as the New York Rens. It is likely that Saperstein was trying to tag along on their glory a little bit. But more importantly, he wanted to be sure that when his team showed up in the little towns of Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Iowa and other states, everyone would know the Globetrotters were a team made up of black players. Because Harlem was the capitol of black America at the time, people would automatically know they were a black team.

JJM You wrote that in the early twentieth century, basketball was known as “the sport of Jews.” Talk a little bit about that, would you?

BG  That was another interesting thing I learned while writing the book. When the Globetrotters started in the late twenties, and all through the sixties, baseball was considered America’s national pastime, while basketball was probably the third or fourth most popular sport behind horse racing and boxing — at least during the thirties. Baseball had a rural, pastoral ethos that required a lot of land on which to play it. Basketball, on the other hand, was a city game, and when waves of Jewish immigrants began arriving in New York and Chicago, the Jewish settlement houses and community groups who wished to assimilate young Jewish boys and girls into America through sports did so by playing basketball. All you needed to play the game was a makeshift hoop and a round ball. The game quickly caught on in the urban neighborhoods, particularly where Jews lived. Jewish community groups promoted it as a sport that Jews could play because a participant didn’t have to be some hulking Bronco Nagurski type — a player could be short, fast and quick. They were also very deliberately trying to counter the stereotype of Jews being people of books, and as intellectuals who couldn’t play sports. As a result, basketball became very popular. It is interesting that the most famous of all the basketball teams during the twenties was the original Celtics from New York, on which all the players were Jews.

JJM  Did Abe Saperstein immediately see the business possibilities in basketball?

BG  I really give Abe a lot of credit — he may have been one of the best sports promoters in history. He had a vision to see way beyond this little team from the south side of Chicago that traveled around in his Model T, struggling to survive for years and years. I think he realized that there was money to be made out there in the heartland, and it is a reason why the Globetrotters got in to the showmanship — he understood the importance of having a marketing angle that distinguished his team from any other run-of-the-mill barnstorming team.

JJM  Given the era in which they began, it is pretty safe to assume the Trotters needed a white manager in order to set up games in rural America…

BG  Yes, I don’t think they could have ever survived in white America trying to book their own games. Abe was the front man who marketed and booked the team. In some sense, he was a one-man show for a long time as the team driver, promoter, and manager. For a while, he was even the sixth man off the bench when they needed him. An interesting thing about this is that from the time he started the team in 1928, and until 1934, the Globetrotters were not his team — it was a cooperative deal and they lived purely on the gate receipts that they split. The first big crisis in their history came in 1934, when Abe decided to make it his team, and make the ballplayers employees instead of partners.

JJM  As a result of this move, the players went from making about fifty dollars apiece per game to around eight…

BG  Yes, and the entire team blew up on him. His star quit, the players quit, and Abe was forced to fold their tour and return to Chicago to recruit new players before going back out.

JJM When they went to these small towns of the Dakotas and Minnesota and Iowa and Montana, who did they play against?

BG  The local team made up of guys from the local brake factory, the teacher’s school, the men from the Kiwanis Club. Whoever was there, the Globetrotters showed up to play them. The amount of territory this team covered is so very fascinating to me. I got an old United States highway map from the thirties just to see the back roads that they had to travel just to get to the towns in which they played. They played one hundred fifty games a year, non stop between November and April, traveling these back roads in an unheated Model T, in the dead of winter in the coldest part of the country. It is just unbelievable to think of how they lived, except when you put it in the context of the times — which was during the middle of the depression — and playing basketball seems like a pretty good way to try to survive. They could have been standing in some bread line instead.

JJM  It is amazing that they survived the economic challenges of the Depression, not to mention that era’s racism.

BG  That’s right. While they weren’t playing in the deep South, they still had incredible challenges. Where do they eat? Where do they sleep? There were not many hotels or restaurants to begin with in the middle of the wilderness in which they traveled, and quite often they couldn’t find a place to eat or sleep. They would have to find a grocery store, enter it through the back door, and quite often all they would get to eat was some cheese and crackers and sardines, and then get back out on the road. They called this way of life “living off the grocery.”

JJM  Add to that the challenges of finding dependable transportation. As you said, driving in the dead of winter couldn’t have been easy.

BG  I cant even imagine. Last October I went out to the Globetrotter training camp and asked five of the current players to simulate the experience of what it would be like for five of them — and a sixth in the form of Saperstein — to ride in a vehicle the size of a Model T. I measured out the dimensions and then stuffed them all basically into a chair. You can imagine the difficulty of that. The car’s top speed was about thirty-five miles per hour, there was no heat, no defroster, no shocks, no springs, and they were stuffed into it for hours and hours. When they finally got to their destination, they had to pile out of the car and play a basketball game, and when it was over, piled back in and take off to the next town. It was an incredible life.