January has the big college bowl games, and March has its madness. But when it comes to sports, February is no slouch either. Since 2004, the Super Bowl’s been a February game. There’s the NBA All-Star weekend. Every four years, there’s even a February Olympics. There’s no Winter Olympics this year to brighten your February, so we’ve asked Jeopardy! mega-champ Ken Jennings to show off his jock side and throw a flag on some deeply cherished sports facts you thought you knew. Nobody takes more pride than sports fans in knowing their stuff—but as we’ll see, they’re not always right.
Sports Myth #4: The Harlem Globetrotters were from New York.
Sweet Georgia Brown! We’ve been lied to. The Harlem Globetrotters, founded around 1926, never even played a game in Harlem until 1968, nearly forty years later.
In fact, the Globetrotters’ origins lie firmly on Chicago’s South Side, the home of all the original players. Their earliest gigs were exhibition basketball games before dances at the Savoy Ballroom, where they played as the Savoy Big Five. When a white promoter named Abe Saperstein began bankrolling the team in the late 1920s, he dreamed big, and renamed them the “Harlem Globe Trotters.” Harlem was the center of 1920s African American culture, and Saperstein felt the ’Trotters would get more bookings if they seemed like a prestigious out-of-town team. In fact, both parts of the name were a lie, since the team’s “globe-trotting” back then amounted to some barnstorming tours of southern Illinois and maybe Indiana.
For the next several decades, Chicago remained the team's base throughout their ascendancy to iconic status (and animated cartoon heroes). In 1976, the Globetrotters finally left Chicago — but for Los Angeles, not for Harlem. They’d been sold to a nationwide entertainment company, and today their corporate office is in Phoenix, Arizona. The Harlem Globetrotters been based out of Gilligan’s Island and The Love Boat longer than they’ve ever been based out of Harlem. By the way, the ’Trotters longtime foils, the Washington Generals, are a geographic lie as well. The Generals have lost to the Globetrotters as the “Boston Shamrocks,” the “New Jersey Reds,” the “New York Nationals,” and several other phony teams, changing their name but not their lineup from night to night. For much of their history, they’ve actually been based out of New Jersey.
Quick Quiz: In 2009, two Globetrotter veterans nicknamed “Flight Time” and “Big Easy” came agonizingly close to winning what TV show’s $1 million prize?
Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.
Title card from Harlem Globetrotters animated TV series (1970-1973) permitted under fair use for purposes of identification and critical commentary.