The line between sports and entertainment is often blurry, but the Harlem Globetrotters have no illusions about their role: They’re entertainers first, last, and always. More specifically, they’re family entertainers. To that end, everyone associated with the team will insist in public, with a perfectly straight face, that their exhibitions against the New York Nationals—more than a hundred a year in dozens of countries, all victories—are “real games.” Even a moderately discerning nine-year-old, though, might be forgiven for wondering why the clock would be allowed to run for several minutes during a relatively close basketball game while a man dressed as an old lady dunks off of a trampoline.
New York Nationals coach John Ferrari has a subdued coaching style; he sits stoically on the bench and offers only a few quick words in the huddle between quarters, along with the occasional “good shot” or “you’ve got a mismatch, use the mismatch!” There were only six Nationals players at Madison Square Garden on February 16, and whoever wasn’t on the floor sat next to the coach and kept score. “Good idea,” Ferrari yelled encouragingly as one of his players’ passes flew out of bounds and into the crowd. Later he muttered about a missed goaltending call, but took it in stride when an opposing player spent four minutes of the fourth quarter dancing with audience members.
If you like underdogs, these are your guys: the Nationals, Wile E. Coyote to the Globetrotters’ Road Runner, were created in 1995 and have not won a single game since. Despite this, the team, made up mostly former Division II and III college players, isn’t half bad. They’ve got some solid three-point shooters, they pass well, and they always hustle on both ends—except of course when they stand back and, as contractually obligated, allow the Globetrotters to dazzle. When they’re permitted to play more or less all-out, as they do for several minutes three or four times a game, they make it a real contest (especially impressive given that the Globetrotters play much better defense than you’d expect).
The Nationals are something of a phantom entity. Like their predecessors, the Washington Generals, they are owned by the semi-legendary Louis “Red” Klotz (who played with the Generals well into his sixties), but ultimately controlled by the Globetrotters. Their records and statistics are not made public, and their contact information is hard to come by, aside from unanswered e-mail addresses. Their website does not appear to have been updated since 2005 and contains no player information—the team is designed to be as anonymous as possible, lest some innocent child should accidentally start rooting for them.
Like the Generals, the team owes its existence to the desegregation of the NBA. In the 1940s and ’50s, the Globetrotters were legitimately one of the best basketball teams on the planet, winning major international tournaments and twice defeating the then all-white NBA’s Minneapolis Lakers, a feat that helped bring down the Association’s color barrier in 1950. It was an enormous accomplishment, but also the undoing of the Globetrotters as a real sports franchise; the birth of the Generals in 1953 helped to facilitate their transition into athletic showmen and “Ambassadors of Goodwill.”
It’s difficult to know what the Nationals players think of any of this, because they’re not exactly encouraged to speak to the press. Before the February 16
show at Madison Square Garden, the Globetrotters’ PR reps insisted that “no one from the Nationals is here” up until 25 before game time (which, if true, might have explained their 12-year losing streak; everyone knows preparation is key). The line then switched to “we’re not authorized to allow you to speak with the Nationals.” So, who is authorized to? “No one.”
The Nationals are, by now, completely unfazed when the Globetrotters pinch their asses, run down-court with the ball tucked under their shirt (the ref may have missed a few traveling calls), or cede the floor to Globie, the globe-headed official mascot who, with his pair of disconcerting googly eyes, resembles Mr. Met’s developmentally disabled younger brother.
The Globetrotters are, of course, still excellent basketball players. Their dunks are the stuff Nate Robinson’s dreams are made of and their weaving passes are, literally, dizzying. In their straight-up games against college teams in the last few years, they’ve successfully defeated NCAA Division I and II teams—and have, on rare occasions, also lost.
Still, at the end of the week, their record (compiled over 80 years in 117 countries and counting) stood at 22,165 – 345. It’s a winning percentage unmatched in all of professional sports, for obvious reasons. On the rare occasions when they’re defeated, says 14-year Globetrotter veteran Paul “Showtime” Gaffney, “it’s like killing Santa Claus.” But, at the risk of disillusioning the young children who make up the Globetrotters’ target audience these days, I wouldn’t mind seeing the Nationals go for the glory just once. They would probably all be fired, but wouldn’t it be worth it to tie the Washington Generals’ franchise record?