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The Debunker: What City Gave Us the Harlem Globetrotters?

by Ken Jennings

It's October and, sports fans, basketball is back. The NBA tips off this month, and college ball is just a few weeks away. To celebrate the return of America's greatest invention (even if Dr. James Naismith, who dreamed up the game in 1891, was Canadian-born) we’ve invited Jeopardy! all-star Ken Jennings to join our team. He'll be on the court here all month blowing the whistle on a lot of hoops hoodoo that may fool a lot of fans. Is your basketball knowledge a slam-dunk or an alley-oops?

The Debunker: What City Gave Us the Harlem Globetrotters?

In the 1920s, a Jewish sports agent named Abe Saperstein decided to bail on his dad's tailor shop and devote his life to basketball. Wandering the city parks where he worked as a playground supervisor, Saperstein watched local kids shooting hoops, and dreamed of managing a team of his own. In those pre-NBA days, there was no elite level of organized professional basketball. The best players were on informal traveling teams that "barnstormed" around the country. In 1928, after a pay dispute, the starting lineup of one talented team, the Savoy Big Five, defected to Saperstein, who used them as the core of his new barnstorming team, the Harlem Globetrotters. And where did this all take place? The South Side of Chicago!

The Debunker

Why did Saperstein dub his Midwestern team the "Harlem" Globetrotters? Because his ex-Savoy stars were black, something of a novelty in the basketball world at the time. Harlem was famous as the center of African-American community and culture, and seeing that neighborhood named on a poster or playbill would clue a (*cough* racist) small-town audience in on who they were about to see. And so the "Harlem" Globetrotters were actually based in Chicago for their first fifty years. They didn't even play a game in their nominal home base of Harlem until 1968!

Today the Globetrotters are mostly associated with (cue catchy whistling) their stunts and clowning in exhibition games against jinxed, hapless opponents like the Washington Generals. But in Saperstein's day, the Globetrotters were legitimately one of the best basketball teams in America, and mostly played it straight. In 1948, the Minneapolis Lakers, the champions of the still-segregated NBA (then called the National Basketball League, actually) faced off against the Globetrotters in Chicago Stadium—and the Globetrotters won 61-59 at the buzzer. How did this elite team become the audience-pleasing tricksters of today, the ones who got to hang out with Scooby Doo and Gilligan? It was a result of their remarkable talent. The Globetrotters of the 1940s and 1950s were actually too good, so good that their games got boring. To avoid running up the score too early, the Globetrotters started introducing some comedy elements to their game—and changed American sports forever.

Quick Quiz: Today the Globetrotters have their corporate offices in what U.S. city, associated with NBA greats like Dominique Wilkins and Dikembe Mutombo?

Ken Jennings is the author of twelve books, most recently Planet Funny and co-hosts the most important podcast in human history, Omnibus. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.