Ambassador Class
Mark Graham

Ambassador Class

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.


Marques Haynes

"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.

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.

Bobby Knight would like to get Haynes on Oprah Winfrey's show, so Haynes can receive his just due as one of the greatest players of all time. In May, the Texas Tech basketball coach and Tech Chancellor Kent Hance co-signed a letter to Winfrey, which ends with their insisting that the 1948 Globetrotters' story "needs to be told." Both men also insist Haynes is the only man left to tell it.

"If you asked me when I started my book, I would have said I heard the name Marques Haynes, but all I knew were Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal," says Ben Green, author of the 2005 definitive history, Spinning the Globe: The Rise, Fall, and Return to Greatness of the Harlem Globetrotters. "But he and the 'Trotters played in front of 19,000 at Madison Square Garden, almost causing a mass riot, and 50 years later nobody knows who they are. Nobody makes the connection between where did Magic Johnson and 'Showtime' and playing above the rim come from. But they are a black ball team, and America just doesn't care that much. They always just saw the Globetrotters are clowns, a cartoon."

So what does Marques Haynes want?

After a few silent seconds, Haynes says, "I don't know." His wife, sitting beside him in a friend's kitchen, laughs.

"We've been together 30 years, and what people don't understand about Marques is that Marques operates from the inside out, not from the outside in," she says. "So his values are above the average human being out there. I get the question all the time: 'How come he's not affected by this?' Because he's so self-reliant and self-confident and secure in himself."

He should be. He's Marques Haynes.

In a perfect world, no one would need to be reminded of Haynes' statistics or skills; no one would need to be told he changed the game, that he and his teammates were throwing down showtime ball long before the Los Angeles Lakers brought their razzle-dazzle to prime time. His are merely the impressive statistics of a life spent on the outskirts of legend. Marques Haynes was important, like Jackie Robinson. And he was good, like Michael Jordan. Important and good—that's enough for most people to remember who you are, even if they don't quite know your age.

So, maybe he was born in 1926; some figure it could have been '23. No doubt about one thing: He was born in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, a suburb of Tulsa divided by racial lines formed by all towns' trusty train tracks: whites on the north side, blacks on the south.

"All the industry was on our side of the tracks," Haynes says. "There was a steel mill between our high school and the Arkansas River." When he was 3, Marques' father took off—for Texas, it turned out, though Marques wouldn't know his father until he was a grown man—which meant Mom would be at work during the day, cleaning the houses of white families, so "much older sister" Cecil had no choice but to drag Marques along to basketball practice. He was 4, maybe 4 1/2, he insists. He'd thought the big basketball was "amazing," and he wanted to know how to bounce it. So he learned.

And for years he did nothing with his talent. He barely played any ball at all. In seventh grade at Booker T. Washington he was the basketball team's "mascot," what today you'd call team manager. But he liked it because it meant he could watch practice when no other students were allowed. So he watched. And he bounced.

"The three of us had this little rubber ball, and we'd go out to the railroad track on a regular basis and bounce it on the cross ties," he says. "It was like a contest to see who could bounce it the farthest. So one day, we found a tennis ball, and we decided to take it out there and try to bounce it on the cross ties. We found it to be easy, so we decided to try to bounce it on the railroad track, and you talk about something difficult, it discouraged us. We started to quit, but it became kind of funny. It was a challenge. Eventually, we were able to do it, and that was the beginning of a whole lot of stuff. Then we found out in practice, especially from watching my brother, that you could do a whole lot with that basketball." To this day, Haynes insists all he ever learned about dribbling a basketball came from that tennis ball and that train track.

Haynes didn't play ball until his last two years in high school, and the coaches wouldn't allow them to showboat in games (they only did it in practice and only if the coach wasn't around). He went to nearby Langston University—founded in 1897 and still the westernmost all-black college in the country—from which two older brothers had graduated. He would attend on a scholarship from his church in the amount of $25. To get there, he hitchhiked the 84 miles from Sand Springs to Langston.

"I had to catch 16 rides," he says. "The last ride was on a horse and wagon, two miles from Langston."

And, finally, people got some idea of what Marques Haynes could do with a basketball. From 1942 to 1946, under Coach Felton "Zip" Gayles, the Langston men's basketball team went 112-3, including a 54-game winning streak and two straight Southwestern Athletic Conference titles. Haynes was the all-black SWAC's high scorer from '42 through '46.

He recalls seeing the Harlem Globetrotters for the first time around 1945. The Langston Lions were playing in Oklahoma City against the Kansas City Stars, a Globetrotters farm team, and the 'Trotters were headlining the double-header. After Langston annihilated the Stars—Haynes had 23 points alone—he stuck around to see the 'Trotters.

"Really, I wasn't impressed," Haynes says. "I might have been, had we stayed for the whole ball game. But we just stayed until about the half, and to me, it was just another ball game. And I hadn't heard of them prior to that time, but I'd heard of a team called the New York Rens. I heard about them in the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier. And I saw where 'Pop' Gates had gotten a contract from the New York Rens for $350 a month. And I said to myself, 'My God! I had no idea anybody ever got paid for playing basketball!' So that was the first time I had a thought of maybe playing professional basketball."

As Haynes continued to play basketball, word of his skills spread. There was, for instance, the 1945 SWAC tournament in Baton Rouge—the night Haynes took it upon himself to embarrass home team Southern University, which had just run all over poor ol' Sam Houston College from Austin. Not only did Southern destroy Sam Houston, by a score of 55-21, but they also razzle-dazzled 'em to death—"passing the ball behind the back, all that stuff," Haynes says. Haynes felt bad for one of Sam Houston's assistant coaches—a guy he'd talked to on the sidelines for a while, a young man just out of the Army whose name was Jackie Robinson.

As Ben Green wrote in his 2005 book, Haynes took control of the last three minutes of the game—"he dribbled behind his back and between his legs, dribbled the ball two inches off the ground and higher than his head," ran so fast and stopped so quickly other players would "slide right past him"—that it soon became out of control. Fans threw money, Green writes, and their hats and "even their tribute." Eventually, Coach Zip Gayles could stand no more and ran onto the court, to chase down his scrawny showoff and shut him down for the night.

"Then all at once, one of my teammates said, 'Haynes! Zip is after you!' I figured he was on the bench hollering at me to stop because he didn't allow all that stuff, but another one said, 'He's behind you, Haynes!' I looked up, and Zip in fact was behind me—out on the court, chasing me! So I dribbled up and stopped real quick, and Zip tried to stop, and he had leather shoes on, and—screeeeeech!—he went right on by me. And, boy, you woulda thought that building was going to fall in with that crowd laughing."

Then, on March 4, 1946, the Langston Lions played the Harlem Globetrotters in Oklahoma City. The 'Trotters regularly played college teams and annihilated them. Most college teams just wanted to compete with the 'Trotters. But with Haynes, the Langston Lions didn't just compete, they actually won by a score of 74-70. "Haynes didn't just beat the 'Trotters, which was surprising," writes Ben Green, "he destroyed them, scoring 26 points—the second greatest performance by an opposition player in Globetrotter history."

No way the 'Trotters were letting the kid from Sand Springs get away.

There ought to be a movie about the next part of this story—and there almost was a few years back. Penny Marshall was attached to direct a screenplay about how Marques Haynes, Goose Tatum, Sweetwater Clifton, Ermer Robinson and Babe Pressley beat the mighty Minneapolis Lakers in 1948 and '49—a Lakers team that would win the first-ever NBA championship in 1950. The team featured the massive George Mikan, who could best be described as a bespectacled cross between Babe Ruth and Shaquille O'Neal.

A handful of screenplays are said to exist, and on paper, at least, it's a no-brainer—better than that Hoosiers hokum, more glorious than Glory Road. The game took place in Chicago on February 19, 1948—one of the greatest games of all time, and one of the most forgotten turning points in sports history. No one filmed it, because everyone thought it'd be a walk—Lakers by 50, give or take. No one, except maybe the 'Trotters, thought Abe Saperstein's team would beat the Lakers. But they did. By two. At the buzzer.

"It was just like all the other games," Haynes says. "99.5 percent of the public felt that the Lakers would win that. They probably thought the Lakers would destroy us. Now, we had one player on our team—my roommate, Ermer Robinson—who asked me, 'I wonder why Abe would put us against these guys. They're the champions.' And I said, 'Heck, Ermer, they can only put five guys out there at a time. They'll just have to try to shoot their best shot.' And it ends up, Ermer's the one who made the winning basket."

The doubters, who thought the victory was a fluke, were shut up again one year later when the 'Trotters once more beat the Lakers. When the Lakers finally beat the 'Trotters, in February 1950 in Chicago in front of 21,866 fans, the 6-foot-10 Mikan told Time, "This is the next best thing to winning the national championship."

But one of the greatest of all David-and-Goliath basketball stories is little more than a stack of scripts gathering dust on the Sony Pictures lot.

There was almost a Broadway musical, as well: Eight years ago, The New York Times mentioned that choreographer Savion Glover was preparing for Disney's theatrical arm a musical called Hoops, which he described as the studio's attempt "to bring some of the Harlem Globetrotters points of views and lifestyles to the stage." In 1999, it was called Hoops; two years later, it was Ball; in 2004, when a Broadway trade paper reported that it was "still in development," it was called Hoopz. Today, it too is a phantom of a memory.

Haynes actually appeared in two movies: 1951's The Harlem Globetrotters Story and 1954's Go, Man, Go! Dorothy Dandridge made an early screen appearance in the former; Sidney Poitier, in the latter. And, sure, maybe more folks would know Haynes' name if those recent projects had taken root, but he's far from the forgotten man. That would be his teammate Goose Tatum, from whom Meadowlark Lemon stole the whole bag of tricks. If Marques was the Paul McCartney of the 'Trotters in the '40s, all brilliance and finesse, Goose was the team's John Lennon, a force of anger and comedy. At least Haynes is in the Hall, which he revisits each year for the induction ceremonies. Tatum's family has been begging for his induction; Robertson calls Tatum's omission "tragic."

Also tragic, though perhaps less so, is Haynes' lack of a relationship with the 'Trotters, which, Ben Green figures, stems from the little-reported-about 2004 federal lawsuit Haynes, Meadowlark Lemon, Curly Neal and a few other famous 'Trotters brought against the team. They accused then-owner Manny Jackson of profiting off jerseys bearing their names and numbers without their authorization and without a single cent in compensation. Jackson, who many say heavily promoted Haynes' longtime association with the team, was stung by the lawsuit and lengthy legal battle (the 'Trotters countersued Lemon) and jury trial in February of this year, after which Lemon was awarded close to $800,000.

Haynes received a small fraction of that— "very, very little," says a friend. No one could deny he was owed something for the use of his name—after all he'd done, after so little he'd received.

"He was raised in a time when they didn't make much money," says friend Donald Boucher, who met Haynes through a mutual acquaintance during his tenure in the Tech president's office. "And he's finding out his lifetime is outliving his income."

Haynes and Saperstein, who died in 1966, used to sue each other all the time, way back when—like in 1953, when Haynes went off and started his own comedy ball club, the Marques Haynes All-Stars. Saperstein had people go to tiny Roy, Utah, one night to seize the $300 Haynes made at the gate.

"This guy [Saperstein] sued me five times," Haynes says. "The judges dismissed it back then and told him, 'Haynes can do what he wants to do.' I told Saperstein a long time ago that he was his own worst enemy. The last time I told him that, he wanted to know why. And I said, 'You made promises to all of us, and you didn't come anywhere close to fulfilling them.'"

So he left to form his own team—the All-Stars, then the Magicians. And he came back for a while in the early '70s. He lived in Las Vegas and New York, where he met his second wife, Joan, a model. He started his own clothing line too—"I was the first black to have a showroom on 7th Avenue"—but says the Mob put him out of business. He was on TV most every Saturday morning, as part of CBS' Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine sketch-comedy variety show, and he lasted till the decade's end. Then he went back to running the Magicians, till he retired and moved to North Texas in 1994 and got into the air filtration business.

Now, he spends his days leisurely—golfing, though not as much as he used to even six months ago; drinking tea; trying to write a book; spending time with his friends. Several years ago, he and Joan also took in her brother's daughter, who will turn 13 in the fall. He still has plenty to keep him occupied—no time for the what-was, not yet.

In the end, perhaps, Haynes' life has only one question mark: What would have happened in 1950 if Saperstein had allowed Haynes to go to the NBA? During his tenure with the 'Trotters, they often played NBA teams—and they drew far more than their white counterparts, then a shadow of a shadow of the league as it exists now. But Saperstein refused to let him go 57 years ago, leaving the door open for the Boston Celtics to draft Duquesne's Charles Cooper, the first black man in the NBA.

"I don't think it would have been that big a deal for me," Haynes says about losing that asterisk. "You see, I had played against at least two of the top players who were drafted into the NBA—maybe even three or four. A guy asked me a long time ago if I ever thought I'd get into the NBA Hall of Fame. You know what my answer was at that time? This was just four or five years before I retired. My answer was: 'The world is my Hall of Fame.' Because I played all over the world—106 countries, if you count the United States, Mexico and Canada. As far as ability was concerned, I never doubted my ability against any of them. I never had any reason to."

He shouldn't. He's Marques Haynes.


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