Ambassador Class

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

There was a time, long ago, when the Harlem Globetrotters were a great basketball team—one of the best, all kidding aside. They got their start 80 years ago, built from the ruins of a Chicago team called the Savoy Big Five—a jazzy name for a jazzy team made up of shooters and showmen. By the late '20s, a man named Abe Saperstein took control of the team and had them touring all over the Midwest, delighting children and their parents alike. And there were good players on those early Trotters teams: Inman Jackson, Albert "Runt" Pullins, Toots Wright, Kid Oliver and others. In 1940, the Globetrotters won the world Pro Championship and played a team of college all-stars in front of a then-record crowd of 22,000. They were clowns, all right, but they were just as happy to shove the ball down your throat as make you smile.

For all their eye-popping talent, it wasn't till Haynes showed up in Chicago in 1946—dribbling circles around Saperstein in a hotel hallway at two in the morning—that the Globetrotters became more than a regional phenomenon. In time Haynes proved himself the greatest ball-handler in the entire world, and one of the best who ever played the game.

Only two years ago, Sports Illustrated named Haynes the 10th-best point guard of all time, behind the likes of Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Bob Cousy, Isiah Thomas and other household names. Many have cited Haynes as an influence, because nobody had better handles than Haynes. And he was a superb shooter as well: Legend has it he scored more than 250,000 points in his career, though few official records exist from the era. NBA legends think enough of Haynes to invite him to play in their seniors All-Star games.

As S.I.'s Jack McCallum wrote, "For five decades he entertained millions of fans around the world as the game's first dribbling and passing wizard, and, further, on two occasions captained a 'Trotter team that beat the George Mikan-led Minneapolis Lakers."

Hard to believe, but, yes, there was a time when teams feared the Harlem Globetrotters.

Only, Haynes isn't a 'Trotter now. He hasn't been since leaving the team, for a second time, in 1979, when he would have been 53, give or take. (Haynes and his family insist they don't know his true age—"He tells me he's old enough to be my dad," says daughter Martha—but the Hall of Fame's Web site insists he was born in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, on October 3, 1926.) In fact Haynes has no official relationship with the Globetrotters at all and has not for years—not as a coach or consultant or goodwill ambassador. He's a consultant instead for a small rival based out of New York: the Harlem MagicMasters, now in its fourth year.

The closest Haynes and the 'Trotters have been recently was in 2005—in a lawyer's office, taking a deposition in a federal lawsuit brought against his old team. It was but one of a handful of suits involving Haynes and the Globetrotters over the last five decades, but it was the one that might have finally severed a long relationship.

"They used him," says Oscar Robertson, a longtime friend of Haynes who is widely regarded as one of the greatest players in NBA history. "The Globetrotters were nothing but an attraction to make their owners money. It's sinful how they were treated."

A word before continuing: This is not another story about a broke, broken-down athlete eking out a few bucks after making his masters rich during his days of legal showbiz slavery. Though Haynes often clashed with Abe Saperstein, a white man who made his fortune off the sweat of poorly paid black men, he would shudder at the thought of seeing himself as a victim.

"Basketball owes me nothing," he often says.

And Haynes has, on more than one occasion, chosen to sit on the sidelines when the spotlight was readily available: He declined to appear in the made-for-PBS documentary The Team That Changed the World, some say, because Haynes received bad advice from an attorney who thought he should be paid for the appearance.

Regardless, his friends would like him to have more—all the recognition and reward due a man who influenced NBA greats Bob Cousy and Magic Johnson, who inspired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who actually coached a young "Pistol" Pete Maravich. Oscar Robertson—who says Haynes wasn't an influence, "because it was impossible to copy what he did"—believes Haynes should be made U.S.A. Basketball's official ambassador. "He should be an ambassador—a paid ambassador—for basketball all over the world."

His friends in Plano—among them, a former U.S. attorney, a sports memorabilia dealer and an ex-Texas Tech bigwig who believe Haynes hasn't been rewarded enough for his contributions to the game—think he ought to be the Dallas Mavericks' goodwill ambassador. They dream of a day when Haynes' highlights are broadcast from the American Airlines Center's JumboTrons and the audience cheers the great man.

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