Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky can dribble, but he usually wears a bib to keep it off his clothes.
"I'll tell you just why/You know I don't lie—not much/All those gifts those courters bring/To sweet Georgia Brown!"—"Sweet Georgia Brown," Louis Armstrong
When I was growing up in the 1970s, the Harlem Globetrotters were a bit of a joke. They teamed up with Scooby Doo. They visited Gilligan's Island. Don't even get me started on the horror that was the "Super Globetrotters." Curley Neal with a basketball for a head? I mean, I knew they were good basketball players. Everybody knew that. But the kids of my generation knew them more as clowns than princes of the court.
But those years were a low point for the Harlem Globetrotters, and it is not surprising that the laudatory documentary The Team That Changed the World skips them entirely. In fact, the documentary focuses mostly on the glory years of the 'Trotters, from their 1948 win over the top-rated Minneapolis Lakers (whose former owner remarks, "They got the people, the fans, to believe that they were athletes, not just black") to their triumphant world tour in 1951. In those few years, and the powerful celebrity they built around the globe, the team may have done more on the actual playing field to integrate professional sports than even Jackie Robinson.
They "played serious basketball," according to narrator Chuck D. And not only could they play, but they could—and would—play anywhere. In the stadium. In the street. In Spanish bullrings. The early NBA survived because of the popularity of the Globetrotters' exhibition matches. They starred in a Hollywood movie in 1951.
Let me repeat that. Black heroes in a Hollywood studio picture. In 1951.
It took a few years to get there though. Abe Saperstein was a tubby, white, Jewish guy who saw the Globetrotters as a potential entertainment commodity in a segregated, pre-World War II South hungry for fun. Those early 'Trotters may not have been allowed to sit at the lunch counter, but thanks to players like Marques Haynes and Goose Tatum, they could wipe the floor with any white team. They called it "The Show," and it was played for comedy. In later years, Sweetwater Clifton would get signed to a real NBA contract, breaking the basketball color line—and nobody was laughing any more.
The Team That Changed the World incorporates newsreel footage and recent interviews and testimonials tracking the years of struggle as the Globetrotters went from touring entertainment to serious competitors. It is fast moving, highly detailed, and always balanced between grave awareness of the times and a sharp humor. I know very little about the technical side of basketball, but I had no problem understanding what was going on throughout. The documentary shows more than tells, with plenty of crisply cut footage and knowledgeable descriptions by the witnesses as to what it all means. And it seems to consciously avoid the usual Globetrotter clichés, downplaying the clownishness for more conspicuous feats of athleticism. One clear sign that the documentary is trying to recast the Globetrotters is that the documentary never even plays the Globetrotters' famous theme song, "Sweet Georgia Brown."
On the downside, the documentary's focus on the team as a whole means that we really learn little about the individuals who made up the Globetrotters. How did Abe Saperstein get along with his players? Where did some of the more famous names come from? There is no mention of the great players I remember as a kid: Meadowlark Lemon, Curley Neal. Geese Ausbie is interviewed, but we never see him showcased in the movie, although he was on the team for a quarter century. How about the 'Trotters who went on to fame and fortune, like Wilt Chamberlain and Magic Johnson? Never mentioned.
The film's climax is the 1951 world tour, during which the Globetrotters visited Peronist Argentina and Cold War Berlin (with Jesse Owens, whose last visit to Berlin for the 1936 Olympics was legendary for the locals). The last few minutes spotlights the current incarnation of the team as an entertainment juggernaut, a circus in blue jerseys. Again, nothing on those ignominious years in between, when, like Louis Armstrong and other early black performers, the Globetrotters were accused of demeaning "Uncle Tom" behavior for their humor—a ridiculous charge in retrospect. Nor does the documentary discuss the team's change of ownership (former player and business tycoon Mannie Jackson) and successful resurrection. For a guy whose corporate bio says was born in a boxcar, Mannie Jackson has managed to save the Harlem Globetrotters from historical obscurity and make them fun again. I suspect that this documentary is part of his new marketing strategy, positioning the Globetrotters as black pioneers and as culturally vital to the contemporary American experience.
The Team That Changed the World makes a solid case at least for the first of those claims. Still, there are those nagging gaps in the history. The extras on the disc include a mock-doc featurette from the 70s on the Washington Generals, the Globetrotters' favorite whipping boys. But if you don't already know about the Generals (college kids whose job it was to lose to the 'Trotters for hundreds of touring games in a row), then the context of this featurette is going to be lost on you. Some of the other gaps in the story—Mannie Jackson's role in fixing the Globetrotters "brand," for example—are covered in outtakes. Other extras include Michael "Wild Thing" Wilson making a 12-foot slam dunk for a world record, the entire 28-minute newsreel from the 1951 Globetrotters world tour, highlights from the NCAA Championships from 2000-2005, during which the 'Trotters played the college all-stars and only lost twice. Kids will enjoy a basketball lesson from Michael Wilson and Otis "Mr OK" Key. Finally, you get to learn how to spin a ball on your fingertip.
The Team That Changed the World may not totally erase my childhood memories of the Globetrotters chasing after ghosts with Shaggy and Scooby, but I did gain a new appreciation for their historical relevance for a generation that had too few black heroes that could show both amazing athletic talent and inspiring humor. And the fact that the Globetrotters are the face of American entertainment for millions of kids outside the United States—well, that is one export we can be proud of.
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