Hot to Trot

Nobody likes a showoff. In fact, no one likes a winner if he wins too much. Something makes us want to tear down anyone or anything that becomes too successful. From politicians to pop stars, anyone who sits on top for too long eventually will be ousted.

The Harlem Globetrotters, who, at their inception, were neither from New York nor widely traveled, have enjoyed winning streaks that have lasted through thousands of games, but along the way, the team turned competition into comedy, and we have granted them longevity. Now the Globetrotters celebrate with a 75th anniversary tour, which is coming to Dallas on Friday.

The team began as the Savoy Big Five in 1926 to draw patrons into Chicago's Savoy Ballroom, but the idea was unsuccessful and eventually dropped. Some members stayed on to form part of a touring basketball team originally called the New York Globetrotters, which later changed to the Harlem Globetrotters.

Like any touring act, the team quickly figured out how to win over a crowd, performing its craft under all conditions to all sorts of audiences--some hateful or indifferent--and began to dominate all challengers. In 1939, during a game they were winning 112 to 5, the players began clowning around with the ball and showing off their skills. It went over so well with the audience that the coach and owner encouraged more shenanigans.

By the 1950s, the Globetrotters' clowning had become the attraction, which was enhanced by the team's preshow warm-ups to the tune of "Sweet Georgia Brown." By this time, they were no longer competing in genuine games. The team's reputation preceded it, so finding teams to compete against became increasingly difficult. Therefore, the shows became exhibitions "played" against collegiate all-star teams or the Washington Generals (now replaced by the New York Nationals), a team formed so the 'Trotters could have a permanent pushover.

The Harlem Globetrotters made it through the 1960s, despite accusations of enforcing racial stereotypes--and despite the wretched Hanna-Barbera cartoon show based on the team--reaching its heyday in the '70s, when its place in pop culture was cemented by regular appearances on Wide World of Sports and by the personalities of its two stars, Curly Neal and Meadowlark Lemon. While trouncing hosting national teams, the players somehow even became, as Gerald Ford called them, "America's ambassadors of good will."

The ability to win without incurring wrath or love for the underdog is a testament to the charm and humor that have been essential to the team's success. It's a lesson beyond ball-handling that the Olympic Dream Team was never quite able to master, coming across as an embarrassingly vulgar display of power instead of a national treasure.

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Mark Hughes