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Globetrotters, set to appear in Rio Rancho, still a crowd favorite

March 4, 2019

Perhaps no corporation or candidate can match the Harlem Globetrotters for marketing wizardry.

The Globetrotters were founded in 1926, but they didn’t play a game in Harlem until 1968. They were no more rooted in New York City than the Alamo or Lincoln’s log cabin.

A segregated America gave us the Trotters. Most college basketball teams in the 1920s wouldn’t allow a black player on the roster. Entrepreneur Abe Saperstein decided to create a team with such extraordinary black talent that white customers would pay to see it.

His club started in Chicago as the Savoy Big Five, named after a ballroom. The proprietors hoped basketball games would attract more dancers. That idea flopped.

But Saperstein, then just 24, had an innate understanding of show biz. He sewed “New York” on his players’ jerseys and sent them on the road as the Harlem Globetrotters.

“Anything synonymous with black entertainment was thought to be better if it was coming out of Harlem,” former Trotter Orlando Antigua once told me.

The Trotters initially played a serious brand of basketball but would mix in comedy to quell racial tensions in the bleachers. Not everyone rooted for them then. As the years rolled by, the team set aside competition for pure entertainment.

Now in their 93rd year, the Trotters have three units on tour. One will play Friday night and Saturday afternoon at the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho.

The Trotters’ foil is still the Washington Generals. These Generals command no respect.

Have they ever beaten the Globetrotters?

“The last time was in 1971, on a buzzer beater,” Globetrotter Orlando Meléndez said in a phone interview.

Team records show the Generals played that game under their pseudonym, the New Jersey Reds. They ended the Trotters’ winning streak at 2,495 games.

Meléndez played basketball at the University of North Carolina, a member of teams that twice reached the Final Four. He went on to play for professional teams in Europe and Puerto Rico before becoming a Trotter seven years ago.

He is the first Puerto Rican on the Trotters. Antigua, who was born in the Dominican Republican and played at the University of Pittsburgh, was the first Hispanic member of the team.

Nicknames have long been a trademark of the Trotters.

George Meadow Lemon became Meadowlark Lemon, one of the more famous players in team history for his comedic talent. Hubert “Geese” Ausbie and Fred “Curly” Neal were equally skilled showmen.

Today’s Trotters all go by nicknames, usually limited to one word. “Money” Merriweather, “Ice” Hrynko and “Firefly” Fisher are among them.

Meléndez is “El Gato.” Now 40, he received the nickname as a boy.

He would run a couple of miles to the preferred basketball court in his area, cutting through a sugar cane field. Stray cats began following him, he said, because he would eat a ham sandwich along the way. By the time he arrived, he had an entourage of cats.

Meléndez used to play some 200 games a year as a Trotter. The relentless schedule was painful.

“When you’re dunking all the time, your knees start to go,” he said.

Now his role is different. He’s cut back his playing time to 25 or 30 games a year. His primary role for the team centers on visiting hospitals, schools and community centers.

“I’m actually a lot more busy focusing on the youth programs than playing every night,” he said.

The first Globetrotters’ game that Meléndez saw was one he played in. Until then, his familiarity with the team had been been its portrayal in an animated Scooby Doo movie.

Now he knows the team’s rich history.

Saperstein in 1942 signed the first white Trotter, Bob Karstens. He created the Magic Circle, a pregame exhibition of ornate ball-handling with “Sweet Georgia Brown” resounding through the arena.

The Trotters began hiring women players in 1985, but they didn’t have another non-black player until Antigua 10 years after that.

Black athletes, including several with world-class talent, defined the Trotters for generations.

Bob Gibson was a member of the team in 1957-58 before devoting himself to baseball. He became a hall-of-fame pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Wilt Chamberlain and Connie Hawkins also played for the Trotters while exiled from the National Basketball Association.

Chamberlain left the University of Kansas after his junior year. The NBA wouldn’t give him a contract until his college class had graduated. The Trotters had no such inhibitions about hiring a 7-footer with skills and charisma.

Hawkins’ story was sadder.

Blacklisted from the NBA after being falsely linked to a college point-shaving scandal, he spent four years as a Globetrotter to scratch out a living. Lawyers who befriended Hawkins helped him sue the NBA, and the league eventually admitted him.

Saperstein’s creation has outlasted him by more than half a century. He died in 1966. An entertainment company now owns the team.

And the Harlem Globetrotters, headquartered in Georgia, are the undisputed champions of Americana.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.