By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus NEW HAVEN (BASN) —...
The Battle Of The Century???
CHICAGO — It looked like a desperation shot, the kind that rarely falls.
But long before the ball left his hands 30 feet from the basket with the game on the line, Ermer Robinson had spent hours alone on a San Diego playground taking this same shot by the dozens for days on end.
As the horn sounded, the more than 18,000 fans packed into the Chicago Stadium and the players on the court watched the ball arcing through the air.
Robinson stood still as a statue, his right arm in the air, a signal the ball was about to find the bottom of the net. It did, and on Feb. 19, 1948, the Harlem Globetrotters had put their gags away and beat the best white team in the nation, 61-59.
It’s been almost 62 years since the Globetrotters topped the Minneapolis Lakers and their legendary big man, George Mikan. With only a few of the players still alive and just a handful of photographs remaining, the game has been largely lost to history.
But for those who remember the win and what the country was like, this game — played seven years before a black seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus — stands as a moment of hope.
“It just revitalized so many of us, from the fact that [it showed] what we can be, could be, but we needed a chance,” said John Chaney, the former Temple coach who was then a black teenager in deeply segregated Jacksonville, Fla.
The game was the brainchild of Abe Saperstein, the Chicago entrepreneur who founded the Globetrotters a couple decades earlier, and Max Winter, an owner of the Lakers.
Saperstein’s team had vastly improved over the years. By the late 1940s, the Globetrotters were taking on and beating anyone who would play them: YMCA teams, industrial league squads and a team from the NBL, the NBA’s precursor.
The crowds were getting bigger, and by 1948 Saperstein was boasting his team had won more than 100 straight games.
Some, including Chicago Tribune sports writer Arch Ward, proclaimed the Globetrotters the world’s best team — a view the Globetrotters shared.
“We just felt we could beat anybody we played against,” said Marques Haynes, one of the Globetrotters’ stars and a master ballhandler.
Winter’s Lakers were in their first year, but with Mikan and another future Hall of Famer, Jim Pollard, they were on their way to winning the NBL. In Minneapolis, John Christgau could not fathom anyone beating his Lakers, least of all the showy Globetrotters, as a black acquaintance of his father had suggested.
“I thought, this guy’s nuts,” said Christgau, whose 2004 book “Tricksters in the Madhouse” is about the game. “The Globetrotters, they’re clowns, they’re comedians, I said to myself. They’re not ballplayers in the same category as the Lakers.”
Saperstein and Winter decided to settle the matter and what better way than filling Chicago Stadium and maybe walking away with a whole lot of money?
No one remembers any mention of race by either man. There were no references, for example, to Jackie Robinson, who just a year earlier broke Major League Baseball’s color line.
“I’m positive that he didn’t see it as a racial game,” said Gerald Saperstein, a cousin of Abe Saperstein who worked for him and attended the game.
The Globetrotters didn’t give race much thought, Haynes recalled. Though the strongest team the Globetrotters faced up to that point, the Lakers were also just the latest white team they’d taken on.
As for the Lakers, they’d seen the Globetrotters play and knew that along with being funny they were immensely talented. If they didn’t, their coach, Johnny Kundla, had played the Globetrotters and could tell his team just how good they were.
Besides, Kundla said, “It was just an exhibition game.”
Still, there was no escaping the shadow that race cast over the game. Chicago was a city of deep racial divides. The Globetrotters may have been a huge draw, but they knew better than to try to stay anywhere other than a black rooming house when they came to town.
Though it didn’t occur to him until later, part of Christgau’s confidence in the Lakers stemmed from widely held fallacies about blacks. They were lazy and clumsy.
They weren’t smart enough to play a team game as intricate as basketball. Though they had plenty of brute strength, their bodies were all wrong for a skill as refined as shooting a basketball. And they would fold under the pressure of a real game against a real team.
“That was the prevailing theory,” Christgau said.
Perhaps just as significantly, were fears about the potential for violence — both among the players and the fans — if blacks and whites played together.
Just the year before, a fight between a white player and a black player in an NBL game in Syracuse triggered a riot in the stands. And though the NBL owners didn’t openly worry about the possibility that such a thing might happen in their arenas, by the end of the season, Christgau said, the NBL’s four black players were no longer in the league.
Mikan and the Globetrotters’ Goose Tatum took their spots in the center circle, crouching for the tip-off. Fans got ready to laugh, knowing Tatum started games with gags like pulling down the opposing center’s pants.
Instead, the game started as any other – a sign the Globetrotters were serious about this game and opponent.
The Lakers took a 13-4 lead, but the game was tied at 15 by the end of the first quarter.
The Trotters did slip into a comedy routine, what Tatum called a “reem,” with the referees ignoring his blatant traveling at one point. Laughter filled the stadium as Tatum, the ball safe in hands described as big as toilet seats, teased the Lakers, showing them the ball and pulling it back when they got too close.
Until, Christgau recalled, Tatum suddenly fired a pass past Mikan’s head to a cutting Robinson for an easy layup. The Lakers got the message and later, when Haynes put on a dribbling exhibition, they simply stood and watched along with everyone else. At halftime, the Lakers led 32-23.
The pace quickened in the second half as the Globetrotters pushed the ball to wear out the Lakers.
The Globetrotters cut the lead to six, then two, and then tied the game at 38. Then it was back and forth, the Globetrotters up by two, the Lakers by three, tied again, Globetrotters by one.
Late in the increasingly physical game, the largest player on the court and the smallest slammed into each other. Mikan crumpled to the floor. Haynes slammed to the court hard enough that he later learned he had broken a vertebrae. Robinson angrily pointed a finger at Mikan.
If there was to be violence, this was the time.
Instead, Haynes rose and the fans started to clap.
“And the cheering, which continues to rise, is in celebration now of the fact that the game will continue as high drama, not as low street fight,” Christgau wrote.
Mikan hit a foul shot with 90 seconds to play to tie the game at 59. After a timeout, the Globetrotters inbounded the ball. Haynes dribbled, waiting for a last-second shot that would either win the game or send it to overtime.
With two seconds to go, Haynes found Robinson near half court and whipped him a bounce pass. By the time Robinson shot from 30 feet out, the Lakers will say, the game was over.
But the referee ruled the ball was in the air when the horn sounded.
“The ball didn’t even touch the rim,” Gerald Saperstein said.
The Globetrotters’ win was big news in Chicago and made big headlines in both the black and white newspapers. But while the black Chicago Defender trumpeted the victory in its headline, not all the white papers did.
“Mikan, Trotters Thrill 17,823″ read the Chicago Daily News. And the Daily Sun and Times focused on the individual scoring battle with a headline that read: “Mikan Cooks Tatum’s Goose.”
“You can’t tell by the story that the Globetrotters won,” Christgau said.
But fans, both black and white, knew the score. “Damn right we bragged about that,” Chaney said. Up in Minneapolis, the game shook up more than Christgau’s confidence in his Lakers.
“Unless you were just a die-hard racist, which I wasn’t, you had to re-examine your premises and begin to take a look at what it was that black players could do on a basketball court,” he said.
It got others thinking, too — particularly after the Globetrotters played the Lakers again and beat them again, this time with Movietone news cameras capturing the action.
“You know what happened?” Haynes asked. “Well, they started taking black ballplayers into the league.”
In fact, in 1950, the NBA drafted its first black player, Chuck Cooper, who went to the Boston Celtics. Saperstein sold the contract of one of his stars, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, to the New York Knickerbockers.
The Globetrotters had not only shown they could play with white teams, they’d also shown that fans — white and black — would watch them. At a time when white teams were drawing small crowds and losing money, it wasn’t lost on the owners that the crowd was the largest ever to see a professional game in Chicago.
John Chaney knew nothing about any of that. As a boy whose only connection to whites was the $3.50 a week his mother made each week cleaning their houses, he didn’t think there was any way that basketball could take him or any of his friends out of Jacksonville.
“We almost always assigned ourselves to playing sports in a local area,” he said. “That was as far as you could go.”
But this game, he said, helped change all that.
“It gave rise to access and opportunity,” he said. “That was a start in the right direction.”
NOTE: For more on John Christgau’s book, “Tricksters In The Madhouse”, check out BASN’s book review at www.blackathlete.net /artman2/publish/Book_Reviews _13/BASN_Book_Reviews_Trickster s_In_The_Madhouse_240.shtml.