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The Harlem Globetrotters Are Not From Harlem

By Gustavo Solis | October 28, 2015 5:01pm
 The Harlem Globetrotters show off their skills with Governor Andrew Cuomo during the Columbus Day Parade.
The Harlem Globetrotters show off their skills with Governor Andrew Cuomo during the Columbus Day Parade.
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DNAinfo/Ben Fractenberg

HARLEM — This week, the Harlem Globetrotters went to Greenwhich Village to shoot a promo of their players making “basketball music” with cast members of STOMP for their 90th anniversary.

They’ll come back to the city in December to perform in Madison Square Garden and again in January to play at Brooklyn’s Barclay Center. 

One place the Harlem Globetrotters will not play during their world tour is Harlem.

The Globetrotters are from Chicago. They were created as the Savoy Big Five in 1926 and changed their name to the "New York Harlem Globetrotters," three years later.

"In the '20s and '30s — this is during the Jim Crow era, African-American teams were traveling around visiting white towns in the middle of nowhere so they had to signal ahead somehow to tell people they were an all-black team," said basketball historian Claude Johnson.

"If you said Harlem Globetrotters you didn't have to say 'colored' because Harlem was considered the Black capital of America. If you said Harlem that meant Black."

The Harlem Globetrotters didn't actually play in Harlem until 1968, according to the team’s history. They've played a total of five games in Harlem — 1987, 2007, 2008, and 2009.

While the Globetrotters weren't from Harlem, several teams were.

The first organized all-black basketball team was the Alpha Physical Culture Club formed in 1904. They called themselves Alpha because they were the first.

Another popular team was the New York Renaissance, which was the first team to give players contracts to play exclusively for them, said Johnson, founder of the Black Fives Foundation, which showcases pre-NBA basketball history.

During the 1920's all-Black teams around the city would play each other in tournaments that would attract thousands of people. But after the Great Depression, they started traveling around the country. 

In 1939 Harlem's most popular team, the New York Renaissance, played the Harlem Globetrotters in a 12-team "World Championship" tournament, Johnson said.

"The two African-American teams, the Rens and the Globetrotters, were put in the same bracket," he said. "The Rens defeated the Globetrotters and went on to win the tournament. They beat the Oshkosh All Stars."

The last time the Harlem Globetrotters played in Harlem was in 2009. Their last appearance in the neighborhood was last Thanksgiving when they handed out turkeys at the Dunlevy Milbank Center on West 118th Street.

Despite not playing in Harlem, the Globetrotters became the unofficial ambassadors of the neighborhood by sharing their athleticism and comedy routine with the world.

"While our beginnings are rooted in Chicago, we are proud to have Harlem as our namesake over the past 90 years,” said Harlem Globetrotters Legend Sweet Lou Dunbar, who currently serves as the team’s Director of Player Personnel. 

“Our founder, Abe Saperstein, wanted the world to know the Globetrotters were an all African-American team. And at the time of the Harlem Renaissance, he wanted the team to be associated with the culture, music and pride of Harlem. We’ve tried to represent the people of Harlem in the best possible way ever since, as we’ve played in 122 countries and territories since 1926.”

In 1955 they recorded their 5,000th victory in Lebanon. Four years later the Russian Prime Minister greeted them in the Kremlin during their USSR tour. They’ve played in front of heads of state and the Pope, according to their website.

During the early '50s they were featured in “Go Man Go” a move starring Dane Clark and Sidney Poitier. By the 1980’s the became the first sports team to be honored with a star in Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

In a way, the Globetrotters set a precedent for professional sports teams naming themselves after New York but not actually playing in the five boroughs. The football Giant and Jets both play in New Jersey, as do the New York Red Bulls. The New York Cosmos play in Long Island but occasionally schedule games in Brooklyn.