By Tony McClean
Updated: December 15, 2004
NEW HAVEN, Ct. — During the early part of 1948 when Harry Truman was in the White House, the United States was undergoing several incidents of racial upheaval.
The Chicago Defender, one of the nation’s leading Black newspapers of that time, reported on the numerous race crimes of the day. There were incidents that involved a mob of six white men that had beaten a black man with a baseball bat on Halsted Street in the city.
Another incident had a black family of four living on Calumet Avenue being harassed by a mob of nearly 150 white residents. Those incidents were just a brief description of the sign of the times for African-Americans during that era.
Also that same year in February, the all-white Minneapolis Lakers of the then NBL (National Basketball League) were being touted as the greatest basketball team in America and favored to win the World Professional Basketball Tournament later that year.
In contrast, the Harlem Globetrotters, at the center of black basketball, were riding their own incredible 103-game winning streak. Best known to white audiences for their clowning and comedy, the Globetrotters were not even thought to be in the same league with the mighty Lakers.
So when these two hoop powerhouses met for the first time — on February 19, 1948, before an audience of over 18,000 fans in Chicago Stadium — basketball fans everywhere were in for an eye-opening performance.
In his book entitled, “Tricksters in The Madhouse”, author John Christgau tells the story of this pivotal meeting, a game that would encapsulate the growing racial tensions of the era, particularly the struggle of black Americans to gain legitimacy in the segregated world of sports.
Through play-by-play, Christgau recreates the heart-stopping game that would shock white basketball fans raised to view black athletes in separate and unequal terms. Through in-depth interviews and extensive research, Christgau brings this critical match-up to life.
Currently a lecturer at Saint Mary’s College of California, Christgau has authored many other books, including “The Origins of The Jumpshot: Eight Men Who Shook The World Of Basketball”.
Two of the main characters featured in “Tricksters” are the players of whom each franchise was most identified with during that era. The Lakers were led by 7-foot giant George Mikan. A future Hall of Famer, Mikan was a gangly youngster who went on to become one of the nation’s top college players while playing for Ray Meyer at DePaul University.
The Trotters were led by Reece “Goose” Tatum, another 6-11 giant of a ballplayer with a style of play that was ahead of his time. With his long arms and swooping offensive skills, “Goose” was Mikan’s equal in every aspect of the game.
However because of the Trotters’ clowning reputation and the racial climate of the day, many prominent sports reporters thought the game would be a total mis-match dominated by the “superior” Lakers.
By looking beyond the drama in the arena to the broader events of the day, Christgau also puts the game in its sociological context. He reveals how, even as it enacted the racial inequities of the time, this crucial game represented an important step toward equality.
In reading the book, it’s hard to say which is the more compelling story. The actual game or the social and racial climate of the country at that time. “Tricksters” is more than just a sports book, it’s a revealing look at a very painful time during the history of the United States.
In looking back, it also serves as an eye-opening account of the struggles of African-Americans on and off the playing field. Needless to say, but this is a part of American history that all Americans should re-examine as well.