The Harlem Globetrotters are from another era, a throwback to the original days of basketball, of barnstorming teams like the Original Celtics and the New York Rens. The show even feels old: The Globetrotters’ jokes are almost vaudevillian — some of them could have been ended with a giant hook pulling them off the court. It’s carnival entertainment — the circus combined with professional wrestling.
C’mon, kids! Abe Saperstein’s globe trottin’ basketball team has come into town! Only now Abe Saperstein is Herschend Family Entertainment, who acquired Harlem Globetrotters International, Inc. from Shamrock Capital Advisors in October. Herschend also owns the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, Ride the Ducks, and Dollywood.
The Globetrotters make an annual pilgrimage to Philadelphia in early March every year, hitting the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia twice yesterday. (Another Globetrotter squad was in Estero, Florida, at an arena that usually hosts the Florida Everblades — get it?) To get attention in a crowded entertainment market, the Globetrotters pull a lot of stunts: The team drafted Usain Bolt, a player ran into Dave Matthews, and two Globetrotters competed on the Amazing Race. In 2009, the team actually played on the roof of the Spectrum; the next year two players did tricks on the top of the Comcast Center.
Talking to Globetrotters about basketball is like talking to wrestlers about their craft: They're always cutting a promo. (Globetrotters CEO Kurt Schneider used to work for WWE.) “For me, it’s what I always wanted to do,” Handles Franklin says in the tunnel at halftime of Sunday’s game. “I saw the Harlem Globetrotters when I was 6 years old on the cartoon Scooby-Doo, and I knew I either wanted to solve mysteries or play for the Globetrotters." Franklin, from Harrisburg — he says Shady McCoy is a “real good friend” — played college hoops at Lock Haven. He called his role the “showman” of this Trotters squad. He’s essentially the captain/emcee, directing the action on-court and addressing the crowd throughout the game with a clip-on mic.
“So I’m actually living a dream,” he says. “I sent them a tape, and it didn’t quite work out. But then I became known as one of the best ball handlers in the world, and they came looking for me. That’s why it’s always important for me to tell kids that you can do anything in the world with hard work.” There’s a reason he’s the emcee: His meticulously rehearsed, on-message spiel promoting the Globetrotter brand is nonetheless endearing. It's also true: He was in the Nike freestyle dribbling TV commercial series — which included appearances by Vince Carter, Rasheed Wallace and Dawn Staley — that became a hit in 2001. This American Life called it "the world's greatest sneaker commercial."
But Sunday afternoon's chief attraction is an attention-grabbing gimmick. The Flyers' Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds are suiting up for the Globetrotters' opponents, the World All Stars. Scott Hartnell, Steve Mason and Jake Voráček watched from the sidelines — and jokingly complained that the two Flyers did not start in the game. Still, at least they got to suit up. "He wants to say he's good enough to play," Giroux says of Hartnell, "but he's not. He's horrible at basketball."
Although in 2009 Schneider told the New York Times "the Globetrotters have to play the Washington Generals," recently they've taken on a new identity of the World All Stars. (The Generals evolved out of the Philadelphia SPHAs, a South Philadelphia powerhouse in early pro basketball leagues. They were more successful against the Globetrotters, who once played legitimate games, than the Generals — who have beaten the Trotters just once officially.)
Simmonds says he warms up before home games with Giroux, Voráček and Matt Read by playing HORSE on the hoop screwed into the cinderblock walls in the bowels of the Wells Fargo Center. Simmonds last played organized basketball in 10th grade, when he says he was just 5-foot-9, but the now 6-foot-2 Simmonds can throw it down:
The two Flyers check in at the end of the first quarter, after the Globetrotters have already done a Blue Man Group-style bit where they embarrass a late-arriving fan, checked the referee for illegal foreign objects — "We are in Philadelphia, we have to check him," says Handles — and taken a "time out for Emma," a little girl who the Globetrottters skipped across the court with. The lone white dude on the court for the World All Stars is the butt of most of the early Globetrotters' pranks. He is expressionless as he takes it, as are all the All Stars throughout the game. They are merely props; there's barely any mention of them on the Globetrotters website. (The World All Stars' players all suspiciously appear to be American; perhaps this why the two Canadian Flyers had to join the team.)
Giroux appears to be having a good time playing for the World team ("I don't think I can touch the rim," the 5-foot-11 Giroux says after the first quarter.) Simmonds appears to be in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The Globetrotters must notice this; they go at Simmonds twice consecutively. What follows is a little theater for those paying attention: The ultra-competitive, tremendously athletic pro hockey player trying to defend professional basketball players who practice two hours before every game. Good basketball players love to embarrass good athletes, and the second time down the court Handles throws a pass right by Simmonds to a teammate who lays it in.
The Trotters have had a 35-foot 4-point shot since 2011 — an idea the NBA has theorized about, sort of — but also allow fans to vote on other new rules. The best of these was the Trick Shot Challenge, where the coach of the All Stars got to challenge the Globetrotters to a 5-point stunt shot of his choosing. "Use a puck and score a basket," the coach challenges. Handles has better grip on the bit: "Use a stick you mean?"
The shot requires Giroux to bounce the basketball off a stick and pass it to Simmonds for the alley-oop. They came up with it before the game. "We were literally doing it just five minutes before, and G's a great setup man," Simmonds says afterward. Simmonds and Giroux take three attempts for their trick shot, landing it the third time. (This is fair. Similar to X Games rules.) "I can play hockey in front of 20,000 people but I can’t try to dunk a ball in front of probably 10,000," Simmonds says. "My hands started sweating, I dropped the ball a couple of times on the trick shot."
"I remember, me and my cousin, we always used to stay up late when we were younger and we used to catch Globetrotter games... at 2 or 3 in the morning," Simmonds says. Even Simmonds is on-brand promoting the Globetrotters! Before you dismiss his tale as mere marketing, remember: Canada is the country that brought us The Littlest Hobo; the TV options aren't quite what we have here in the States.
The rest of the game proceeds as Globetrotters game generally do: Players do a take on the old bit with a bucket of water and the referee, the game stopped so Handles could dance with a woman from the front row, the game stopped so the Globetrotters could attempt complicated trick shots, the game stopped so players could throw t-shirts to a screaming crowd — which filled the lower bowl slightly better than Sixers games. The game even stopped so everyone could dance to "Gangnam Style" (though several players still did the Apache/Jump On It dance, which was a previous Globetrotters bit).
Playing what seemed like almost the entire second half was Bensalem High School's Kevin Grow, a senior with Down syndrome who went viral after hitting four-three pointers in a Senior Day game. "Grow will join Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to join the Sixers and the Globetrotters," the Globetrotters said in a typically clever release. At one point he hit an NBA-distance three to give the Globetrotters the lead and the Wells Fargo Center erupted.
Suddenly there's less than a minute left and — wait, the Globetrotters are losing!
Even though the Globetrotters trailed with fewer than 50 seconds to go and had a child on the court doing a bit, they managed to score the final six points of the game to win, 95-90. "When Wayne and I left we had the lead, so it's not our fault," Giroux says. They will be back next March. And, as we're reminded throughout the evening, they're down the shore in Wildwood this summer. Maybe the next stunt can be winning a giant stuffed animal from a rigged boardwalk basketball game. If anyone can do it, it's a Globetrotter.
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