Harlem Globetrotters/Minn.
Lakers, a social change

Feb 7, 2006 5:33 AM

No one — not even the wildest Pittsburgh Steeler fan — should have had to suffer though the grotesque gyrations of Mick Jagger and his sixty-something crew at halftime. They looked like some Halloween gig, with masks on, preening and prancing and parading around their multi-million dollar stage. And the mosh pit that was assembled to hoop and holler was just as bad. Thank heavens for that golden opportunity to hit the rest room.

The football game turned out to be a good one, with desperate smashmouth play from the opening kickoff to the very last futile Seahawk surge. One had to be happy for the Rooney clan, if for no other reason than the code of loyalty that patriarch Art endowed to his five sons, Art Jr., Dan, Tim, Pat and John. Their faith in Bill Cowher is a good example.

Switching to hoops, a column appeared last week, by New York sportswriter William C. Rhoden, on the cultural significance of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game against the Philadelphia Warriors 44 years ago. To attach cultural significance to anything in professional sports is silly on its face, but to attribute cultural significance and social change to Chamberlain’s game is a long stretch, almost bordering on nonsense.

Rhoden quoted Gary Pomerantz, whose book on that basketball game, called rather grandiosely "Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era." In the book, Pomerantz referred to the 100-point game as "a revolutionary act and a social statement."

The revolutionary act and social statement, if there was such a thing in professional basketball, came a dozen years before Wilt Chamberlain’s scoring orgy. I know because I was there.

I spent five years of my callow youth as announcer for the Harlem Globetrotters, when they not only were a show team but a basketball unit good enough to play the Lakers, at the time the Minneapolis Lakers.

If there were any social statements made, it was when Chuck Cooper from Duquesne went to the Boston Celtics and Sweetwater Clifton from the Globetrotters went to the New York Knicks 56 years ago. That was when the color line was broken, and what followed was inevitable. The black athletes’ natural talents and skills were, and are, so exceptional that it was merely a matter of time before they earned their deserved place on the professional football and basketball and baseball stage.

If one wants to measure by social change, I’ll be happy to recite chapter and verse of the Globetrotters emergence from a traveling roadshow to the hottest ticket in sports, which they were half a century ago, when police had to be called to keep crowds from trying to break in to see them in four straight nights of basketball at the old Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles.

When the first Globetrotters crossed the line in the sand and entered white professional sports, that was Jackie Robinson day in basketball, and Chamberlain’s100 points had nothing to do with it. Pomerantz talks about "the first generation of African-American superstars," of the 1960s and says it’s hard to compare them on a social level.

Talk to the guys in the Globertrotter bus, who couldn’t get served in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and couldn’t stay in first class hotels in Birmingham and Chattanooga, but who went out just the same and played their hearts out. Ask the few who are left about developments on the social level.

Until they endured those indignities and played on, black basketball players were clown acts, wearing the star-spangled red, white and blue of the Globetrotters. When they played the Minneapolis Lakers with George Mikan, fresh out of DePaul, and Jim Pollard, fresh out of Stanford, and Slater Martin and the rest of the Lakers in Chicago Stadium, and beat them, that was social change.

There were black basketball superstars long before Wilt Chamberlain, just as there were black baseball superstars before Jackie Robinson. Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige were two of them. Whites just didn’t get to see them in major league settings. When they finally did, that — and not Wilt’s 100 points — began the "new era."