Harlem Globetrotters have been visiting Northern Nevada for 75 years | NevadaAppeal.com
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Harlem Globetrotters have been visiting Northern Nevada for 75 years

By Joe Santoro For the Nevada Appeal

The Harlem Globetrotters were once Northern Nevada’s favorite basketball team for decades.

The barnstorming men’s basketball team, created by Abe Saperstein in Chicago in 1927, gave sold-out local audiences a thrilling brand of basketball it had never seen before.

“They average six-feet in height and are the pick of the nation’s outstanding negro athletes,” the Reno Evening Gazette reported in anticipation of the Globetrotters’ first appearance in Reno near the end of World War II.

“Comic Cagers Coming,” screamed a Reno Evening Gazette headline in 1945. “World-famed basketeers will oppose local flyers.”

The Globetrotters, an all-black team, combined showmanship, comedy and elite athletic ability starting in the era before the NBA and television.

“Those dusky comedians of the court pin the ball on their fingertips, roll it down their arms and legs and pass it between the legs of their bewildered opponents and set it on top of their heads,” the Nevada State Journal wrote in 1945. “The colored wizards of the court can do almost everything with a basketball except make it talk.”

The Globetrotters’ first game in Northern Nevada, against a Reno Army Air Base team at the RAAB gym, was won by the Globetrotters 38-31 on Feb. 13, 1945.

“For three quarters the tricky negro cagers played it straight,” the Journal wrote. “But the closing minutes of the game were more fun to watch than a three-ring circus.”

Only RAAB soldiers and personnel were allowed into the tiny (500 capacity) gym.

“Soldiers occupied every seat in the local flying division base’s gymnasium, sat on the floors and crammed the doorways to watch the famous colored clowns strut their stuff,” the Nevada State Journal reported.

Duke Cumberland led the Trotters with 13 points. Bob Karstens, the Trotters’ only white player that evening in Reno, wowed the crowd with a comic routine.

“Karstens pinned an eye chart on his chest and handed the referee a pair of eyeglasses,” the Journal reported. “He also rolled the ball over his body, up and down his legs and arms, passed the ball through his legs and caught it on the back of his neck.”

The Globetrotters’ first visit to Northern Nevada was a huge success. The Globetrotters’ brand of basketball, after all, was not something the community could see by attending a Wolf Pack or high school game.

“The Negro hoop stars presented one of the finest exhibitions of basketball seen locally in years,” the Gazette wrote.

The Globetrotters baseball team, using an entirely different set of athletes, also made its Northern Nevada debut in August 1945, playing two games in two days against the House of David, an all-white team of players that wore long hair and beards.

The highlight of the two days, though, was not the Globetrotters’ baseball team, which won both games. The memorable events of the two days were by former Olympic hero Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in track and field in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Owens, in one of the most historic moments in Northern Nevada sports history, ran a 100-yard race between innings of the Globetrotters-House of David first game and won by 15 yards, despite giving one player from each of the teams a 10-yard head start. On the second night at Moana Stadium he ran a 100-yard race against a horse but lost.

“He flashed across Moana Ballpark with the same panther-like strides he used at the 1936 Olympics,” the Nevada State Journal reported.

Owens, then 31 years old, spoke to the crowd after losing to the horse and “pleaded for tolerance toward minorities in America,” according to the Journal.

The Globetrotters were certainly the most famous basketball team to ever play in Northern Nevada by 1945 and would became even more popular throughout the world in the coming decades. But the Globetrotters weren’t the first all-black team to combine basketball and comedy to ever play in Northern Nevada. The Iowa Colored Ghosts, an all-black traveling team won a basketball game at Lovelock in 1935.

“The Ghosts displayed the most remarkable and fascinating basketball that has ever been seen on the local court,” the Reno Gazette reported after the game.

The Iowa Colored Ghosts were frequent visitors to Northern Nevada for more than four decades, from the 1930s throughout the 1960s. They played in Ely in 1936 and at Billinghurst Junior High in 1939 against a team from the Reno YMCA. The Ghosts also played a basketball game in Gardnerville in 1939 in front of 400 fans.

The Ghosts featured the 6-foot-7 “Suitcase” Sullinger and 19-year-old Lo Clark, who was known for his fancy dribbling.

“They were capable of doing just about everything with a basketball, even down to making it disappear,” the Journal reported.

The Ghosts differed from the Globetrotters because they would play local athletes. After the first Northern Nevada appearance when they played the Reno Army Air Base team, the Globetrotters would always bring along their handpicked opponent when they came to Nevada.

Over 1,600 fans packed the University of Nevada gym in 1949 to see the Ghosts beat a team of Northern Nevada players that included Wally Graf, Ted Johnson and Elmo DeRicco. The Ghosts sold out Sparks High in 1952 and beat a local City Rec team (Western Mercantile). In 1948 the Ghosts beat Roy’s Clothiers (32-29) and players such as Jimmy Melarkey, Grant Davis, Orsie Graves, John Subda, Max Dodge and DeRicco in front of 4,000 fans at the Wolf Pack’s gym. Two years later, with Reno High star Roy Larralde playing for the Reno City All-Stars, the Ghosts lost 39-36 in front of 2,000 fans after arriving at the Pack gym just minutes before tip-off because of a snowstorm over Donner Summit. In 1961 the Ghosts played a game at Carson High after a women’s game that featured the Harlem Chicks.

It was the Globetrotters, though, that captured the imagination of Northern Nevada in the 1940s and 1950s. The Globetrotters thrived because they were always perfected the art of self promotion. Their players became more famous — and more rich — than those in the NBA at the time.

NBA players in the late 1940s and early 1950s, after all, weren’t spinning the ball on their fingertips, tossing in shots from halfcourt, signing autographs during the game, dribbling the ball between the legs of their opponents, hiding the ball from the referees in their shirts or spinning it on top of their heads.

The Globetrotters basketball team returned to Northern Nevada in 1949 at the Wolf Pack’s gym and beat a team called the New York Nationals, 54-42. That Globetrotters team in 1949 was one of the best in its now nearly 100 years of existence, featuring players such as Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, Marques Haynes, Goose Tatum and Elmer Robinson. The Globetrotters would later beat the 1949 NBA champion Minneapolis Lakers in a legitimate game at Chicago Stadium in front of 20,000 fans.

Clifton, who was the first black player to sign a NBA contract in 1950, scored 22 points in the Reno game. The Chicago native was 6-foot-8 and noted for his “suitcase hands that could handle a basketball like it was a baseball,” the Journal wrote. “He would grab rebounds with one big paw.”

Haynes, with his phenomenal ball handling skills, “keeps the casaba bouncing steadily at heights of between one inch and seven feet above the floor,” the Reno Gazette wrote. “He does it at slow and fast tempos, between his legs and behind his back.”

Just as in 1945 with Jesse Owens, the Globetrotters combined their basketball games with performances by other artists. In 1949 in Reno the show also included a table tennis match and a unicyclist. The evening, which was witnessed by a packed Wolf Pack gym of 3,500 spectators, also featured a “normal” basketball game, void of comedy and theatrics, between the House of David and the Kansas City Stars.

The 1949 performance at the university’s gym was further proof that the Globetrotters had become Northern Nevada’s favorite basketball team. The crowds at the Globetrotters games consistently attracted more fans than the Wolf Pack or the area high school teams.

“Having grown up on the idea that competition is the essence of sports, we have long wondered at the local situation (sold-out crowds) with these barnstorming teams,” the Nevada State Journal wrote in 1949. “If the town prefers even a poor barnstorming show to a good game with a local angle, it just shows it is a bush town.”

Reno, like many small towns across America in the 1940s and 1950s, was simply a bush town anxious to see something unique and entertaining. And an all-black basketball team that was as entertaining and certainly more family-oriented than any lounge act on Virginia Street, was clearly unique and entertaining.

“A performance by any barnstorming team is apparently more worth one’s admission dollar than the best offered here in sports competition between local teams,” the Journal continued.

The Globetrotters returned to the area in 1950 at the Nevada gym as Tatum scored 24 points and Clifton had 26 in the first of two games. In the second game Tatum had 29 and Clifton had 21. Nobody, though, paid much attention to the statistics of the game. This was, after all, basketball’s answer to professional wrestling. Everyone was there for the show.

Tatum “after one nifty basket remained at that end of the court, glad-handing spectators and signing autographs,” the Journal reported.

The Globetrotters’ games in Reno in 1950 also included games by a team called the Indiana Clark Twins. The Clark Twins were made up of three different sets of twins in the Clark family named Bob, Ross, Don, Dale, Joe and Tim. The Clarks lost to the New York Celtics 78-59 (former Trotter Karstens played for the Celtics) and beat the Philadelphia Sphas (South Philadelphia Hebrew Athletic Society), 52-50.

The Globetrotters appeared at the Wolf Pack gym and also at Reno High throughout the 1950s, led by Tatum and Haynes. Both the Wolf Pack and Reno High, though, had financial issues with the barnstorming team.

“It appears that Reno has had its fill of barnstorming athletic teams,” the Journal’s Ty Cobb wrote in 1951.

Cobb’s claim that Reno was tired of the Globetrotters act in 1951, of course, would prove to be nowhere close to the truth. The Globetrotters, after all, have appeared in Northern Nevada practically every year since 1951 to this day.

Cobb, though, seemingly had grown tired of promoting Globetrotters games, basically printing every word the Globetrotters’ press agent fed him, even though he would routinely do the same thing for the Wolf Pack and other events in the area without hesitation.

“We’ve always given these outfits good press because their shows have always given a slice of the gate to the university scholarship fund,” Cobb continued. “But we could never stomach the extravagant publicity which preceded these teams. The last time Marques Haynes appeared for only a few minutes. Goose Tatum and Elmer Robinson didn’t show up at all. (Major league baseball player) Luke Easter just took a bow. And there was nothing new in a shopworn act.”

There was, however, a genuine problem during the 1953 Globetrotters’ appearance at the Wolf Pack’s gym. All pre-game ticket sales, as was the custom, were handled by the Wolf Pack and local merchants but on game night the Globetrotters took over the ticket office and sold general admission tickets.

The Globetrotters personnel, according to newspaper reports, oversold the events causing an estimated 1,000 fans who had tickets to be turned away at the gate because the gym was already filled to capacity.

That angered the locked out fans as well as the Wolf Pack, even though the university benefited financially.

The Trotters, though, continued to play before sold-out crowds in Reno throughout the 1950s. Over 3,000 fans showed up at Reno High in 1954 to see Tatum score 21 points in a 55-48 win over the Toledo Mercurys.

By 1958, though, the Globetrotters also wore out their welcome at Reno High. The Globetrotters oversold general admission tickets once again and Huskies athletic director Bud Beasley recommended to the Washoe County School Board that the team never play at Reno High again.

The Trotters, though, seemingly could do no wrong as the 1950s turned into the 1960s. The organization was more popular than ever as Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal joined the team

Meadowlark, arguably the most popular Trotter in history, thrilled a Reno crowd in 1958 in a 74-60 win over the Washington Generals, scoring 22 points and “doing about everything on the court except an old soft shoe (dance),” the Gazette-reported.

In 1960 the Globetrotters with Meadowlark beat the Baltimore Rockets 80-62 but the evening’s memorable moment came before the basketball.

Northern Nevada witnessed a tennis exhibition that evening for their $2 ticket by one of the greatest and most important players in the history of the sport. Althea Gibson, the first black athlete to win the Australian Open (1957), French Open (1956), Wimbledon and the U.S. Open (both in 1957, 1958), played an exhibition against Karol Fageros at the Wolf Pack’s gym. Fageros, who had finished fourth at Wimbledon in 1957, also gained fame by wearing gold panties at the French Open. That bold move initially got her banned from Wimbledon in 1958, though she was later reinstated.

Gibson, then 33 years old, beat the 26-year-old Fageros 8-3. The two played each other before Globetrotters games all over the country with Gibson winning 90 percent of the matches.

Seeing historic athletes like Owens and Gibson were a bonus at the Globetrotters shows. But the team‘s players, namely Haynes, Tatum, Clifton, Neal, Lemon and Geese Ausbie, were becoming celebrities in their own right.

‘“Goose makes about $60,000 a year,’ a coffee-colored player gushed in the locker room,” wrote the Nevada State Journal in 1953. ‘“Where else could an old man like him get a job like that.’”

Neal and Lemon led the Globetrotters in front of 6,000 fans at Reno’s Centennial Coliseum in 1973 in an 87-77 win over the Boston Shamrocks. They headlined in 1976 in front of 4,000 fans at the Coliseum in a 98-87 win over the New Jersey Reds. Ausbie was with the Globetrotters in 1979 at the Coliseum in an 89-77 win over the Washington Generals.

The Globetrotters’ players would change but the act stayed the same. And that was fine with Northern Nevada audiences. By the late 1970s most everyone could predict what the Globetrotters would do next. There was the bucket of confetti, the ball on the rubber band, the ball with the weight inside, the football and baseball acts. But that was part of the Globetrotters’ charm. They always gave the crowd what it wanted. Basketball fans could go to a Wolf Pack game and had a very real chance of going home sad and dejected after another Pack loss. But hardly anyone left a Globetrotters’ event without a smile.

“We have certain things the fans have liked to see for the last 50 years,” Ausbie told the Reno Gazette-Journal in 1979. “People want to see those things, the ball on a string, the water bucket.”

The Globetrotters, though, also tried to keep their appearances fresh by inviting special guests to take part in the show.

Arguably the best Globetrotters show in Northern Nevada took place in front of 5,000 fans at the Centennial Coliseum in January 1966.

Meadowlark Lemon, Curly Neal and Connie Hawkins led the Globetrotters past the Washington Generals and Red Klotz 86-80 but that was only half of the evening’s thrills. Baseball legend Satchel Paige took part in the Globetrotters baseball routine, tossing a basketball as if he was a baseball pitcher. The evening also featured two performances by the Bratislava Slovakian Dancers, a group of female dancers and singers that got just as much applause as Meadowlark, Curly, Hawkins and Paige.

Wilt Chamberlain played with the Globetrotters briefly in 1957-58 in between his college and NBA career but there is no record of Chamberlain ever playing in Reno. The same was true of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson. Cardinals outfielder Lou Brock, coming off a 1967 World Series victory over the Boston Red Sox, was supposed to appear in Reno with the Globetrotters in January 1968. Brock’s plane, though, arrived late to Reno the night of the performance at the Coliseum and didn’t play. Chicago Cubs pitcher Fergie Jenkins was scheduled to play with the Globetrotters in 1969 in Reno but there is no media record of him actually playing.

The biggest crowd to see a Globetrotters performance in Northern Nevada came at Lawlor Events Center in 1986. A crowd of 8,650, almost double the average attendance of the Wolf Pack in the 1985-86 season, showed up at Lawlor to see the Globetrotters and their first female player, Lynette Woodard. Woodard, the captain of the United States 1984 Olympic team and a former star at Kansas, helped the Globetrotters and Sweet Lou Dunbar, Twiggy Sanders and others beat the Washington Generals. Just the year before, without Woodard, the Globetrotters show at Lawlor attracted just 3,000 people.

“It’s good that it’s positive,” Woodard told the Gazette-Journal. “There are so many negative things in the world.”

The Globetrotters continue to perform in Northern Nevada almost every year. The event doesn’t attract as much attention as it used to in the 1940s through the 1980s for a lot of reasons. An all-black basketball team is certainly not a rarity in this country anymore. And fans can see amazing things done with a basketball nightly now on their television sets. The Globetrotters, too, are now basically a group of unknown players without the appeal, charm and star power of a Meadowlark Lemon, Curly Neal, Marques Haynes, Goose Tatum and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton. Former Wolf Pack players Eathan O’Bryant, for example, once played for the Globetrotters. And you also won’t ever see a Serena Williams playing an exhibition against Anna Kournikova before a Globetrotters game these days.

But fans still show up and the Globetrotters are approaching their 100th season. The “shopworn act” still works.

That is because the message of the Globetrotters has always gone beyond basketball. And that message still rings true even today, maybe even more so.

“With all of the trouble in the world, sometimes I wish that all of those problems could be rolled up in a Globetrotter game and settled out there on the floor,” Meadowlark Lemon told the Gazette after a 1971 performance at the Centennial Coliseum. “The laughter and applause are like listening to a good symphony. Playing with the Globetrotters is everything I ever dreamed. It is satisfaction and happiness.”