Sweet Georgia Beyonce

Pub date April 27, 2010


SPORTS You’d be hard-pressed not to like Handles Franklin. The spunky Harlem Globetrotter and I stood in a basement hallway of UC Berkeley’s Haas Pavilion on April 24, shortly before his team took on the Washington Generals. (The Globetrotters beat them handily, just like they’ve beaten almost every other team they’ve gone up against since 1926.)

“This is what I want to do in life. Everything prior to this was working my way to the Globetrotters,” said Franklin, holding his head up like the noble star of an action film. “When I was a kid I saw the Globetrotters on Scooby-Doo, and I knew I either wanted to solve mysteries or play basketball,” he told me, smiling. This is how the Globetrotters enter many of our lives, a fond childhood memory of red, white, blue, and orange blurs.

Jewish B-ball enthusiast Abe Saperstein created the team in Chicago more than 80 years ago. He chose the Harlem moniker to invoke the epicenter of African American culture, and for the Globetrotters to appear worldly. The all-black Globetrotters adopted a more dynamic style of play than acceptable in the NBA, which was gripped by Jim Crow segregation at the time. The team played exhibition games all over the country, often scheduled in double- headers with NBA teams to give the professional league’s ticket sales a boost. In 1948 and ’49, the all-black Trotters defeated the all-white Minneapolis Lakers, commonly assumed to be the best basketball team in the world. Two years later, the first black players were drafted into the NBA. Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, a two-year Globetrotter alum, was one. Although continuing, unofficial racial quotas in the league meant that some players still Globetrotted while waiting to be called up (Wilt Chamberlin among them) the gradual dissolution of the color line led to the exodus of many of “Harlem’s” stars.

Which, in a way, freed the Globetrooters to do their thing. To date, they’ve played more than 20,000 games in more than 120 countries. “We’ve been able to cross generations using the international language of basketball, in regard to race, nationality, everything,” Handles said. “It’s important that we travel the globe spreading smiles.”

Off-court, community service is a big deal for the Trotters. Despite playing roughly 269 games a year, the players regularly carve out time for hospital visits and other charitable forays. During this last Bay appearance, the team dribbled across the Golden Gate Bridge, and Moo Moo Evans handed out free game passes to Earth Day volunteers in the Presidio. “It’s hectic,” Handles told me. “But there’s nothing like doing something you love. You sticking around for the game?”

Who misses the Globetrotters? Only suckers, I decided, watching the pregame show in which Globie, “the world’s most famous mascot,” slapped giant stunna shades onto his Earth-shaped head for a musical turn as Kanye, then donned a blonde wig to become Taylor Swift, and finally ripped off his Trotter uniform to reveal a black dress that left little of his blue-limbed body to the imagination. Globie had become Beyonce! The crowd goes wild for “Single Ladies.”

Then came the “magic circle,” the team’s traditional spinning and passing ritual done to the whistling strains of “Sweet Georgia Brown.” It soon became clear that it is Handles who will be running things tonight. As the Globetrotter showman, he was miked throughout the game, wandering off court to heckle late arrivals, sit in the laps of men’s wives, and jokingly steal purses — to the absolute delight of all those selected for harassment.

On the court, playfulness and showmanship were in ever-revolving focus. Most of the Globetrotters have competed in the upper echelons of the game. Current team member Hi Lite Bruton, before he started making appearances in ball-handling contests against trained sea lions, played for the Chicago Bulls. And through the clowning, they still ran plays that thrill, even in their occasional predictability. Dunks abound, as do no-look passes and — a Globetrotter specialty — a braided passing play in which the hapless Generals were forced to run behind the Globetrotters as they exchanged the ball in an endless figure eight.

Around me, children’s eyes lit up. “How many laughs do you have in your belly?” one tow-headed tyke squeezed out to his dad between chuckles. Handles is in the thick of it all, living his dream. He busts out a Fonz-like thumbs-up and hip waggle to punctuate his jibes and baskets. Sure, there wasn’t any doubt about the outcome. But forget tension, forget winning, it’s all about reliving that fuzzy, fleet-footed feeling.