Ambassador Class

Marques Haynes should be wealthy and celebrated. He was always content just to be the best.

In the 1940s, he was famous enough to sell Coca-Cola. Thirty years later, it was Contac cold medicine—because "dribblers need us," said the advertisement for the runny-nose curative in which he was prominently featured, bouncing a basketball. Bouncing a ball is what he did professionally, and he did it for 51 years. Up and down. High and low. This way and that. Over here—now, look, over there. "As much hummingbird as he was rabbit," wrote historian John Christgau three years ago in his book Tricksters in the Madhouse, "he would seem to hang in the air over the floor, beating his dribbling wings, then flit sideways or backward."

For as long as anyone can remember—since the year after World War II until Bill Clinton was in his second term, to be precise—he would soar and flutter in front of enthralled crowds that included world leaders, movie stars, sports heroes and even a pope, for whom he put on a dribbling exhibition the pontiff surely thought miraculous even by his high standards. Five decades ago, when professional basketball was more a sideshow than a main attraction, he played in front of 75,000 people in Germany—the largest crowd ever to see a basketball game, anywhere.

Once, when no one was paying much attention, he and his teammates shocked the hell out of one of the most renowned teams ever to play on hardwood, George Mikan's Minneapolis Lakers. And he is in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts—the first of his teammates to be allowed into the shrine. The first, because he was the best.

"I'd never heard of him till today," says the woman holding the photo of Marques Haynes, taken during his first tenure with the Harlem Globetrotters. She is nearly shouting over the yee-hard-rock blasting from the speakers at the Fox Sports Grill in Plano, only a few miles from where Haynes has lived since 1994. In the photo she's holding, Haynes is trim and taut, dribbling the ball with his left hand, bent over so far he looks half of his 5-foot-11 frame. He has written on it her name and inscribed it from "a friend." He also writes "H.O.F. '98" beneath his name: He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame that year, exactly 50 years after he first put on the uniform of the most famous team in basketball.

"I mean, I've heard of the Harlem Globetrotters, sure," says the woman, white and middle-aged and a couple of beers into a happy hour getting happier with every refill. "But I've never heard of...what's his name?...Marques Haynes?...till today. My dad, though, he'll be excited. He'll know who he is."

She smiles and turns to one of the two men at the table. He grins and says, "I knew the name, but I wouldn't have ever recognized him." He too has a signed photo. He tells a buddy, "He was an original Globetrotter."

Not exactly. Off by about 20 years. Close, though.

The man and the woman have paid $25 apiece for the photos, with a portion going toward City House, a Collin County nonprofit charged with tending to homeless children approaching their teens. Haynes will also get some of that money as though it were any other autograph session, and he does as many as five a month, figures his wife, Joan. There is nothing at all wrong with Haynes collecting a few bucks in Plano on a Friday night. Every modern-day superstar has some exclusive signature deal with a card company; in May of this year, a month before entering the NBA, University of Texas star Kevin Durant signed an exclusive autograph deal with Upper Deck Trading Cards. For it, he will make exponentially more than Haynes did during his two tenures with the Globetrotters—his first contract, in 1948, offered him no more than $400 a season, a pittance even then. (He initially signed in 1946 with the 'Trotters farm team, the Kansas City Stars.)

"I saw you play once," says a man named Buddy, who looks to be in his 50s—though it's hard to tell behind the thick gray beard. "It was in the early '60s, in Decatur, Illinois." Over the roar of Lynyrd Skynyrd, it sounds like Buddy says, "I saw you play in a barn."

"Sure that wasn't my dad?" Haynes says, his demeanor deadly serious. Or maybe that's just how it looks when said by a man in his 80s who looks like he's in his 60s and sports a suit like he's in his 30s. Or maybe that's how good he is at the other part of his job—Marques Haynes the kidder, the comedian, the trickster, the clown. Buddy looks a little confused, maybe even mortified.

"Ah, I'm just kidding," says Haynes, like he probably has a thousand times before when young men tell Haynes they saw him, jeez, it musta been forever ago. Buddy laughs, because that's what Haynes has always done—made people laugh. He was, after all, a Globetrotter—no, the Globetrotter.

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