Tuesday 17th July

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The Harlem Globetrotters preview: “It’s like no other sporting event you’ll go to in your life.”

| Comedy, Kids, Sport | 16/05/2018

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Ian Cater, Chief Features Writer

The Harlem Globetrotters have long been one of the greatest brands in world sport, synonymous with entertainment, athleticism and the fight for equality.  And this travelling team of outrageously talented basketball players remain true to those principles, as London fans will see for themselves at the SSE Wembley Arena on Saturday night and at The O2 on Monday week.

Those attending the matches against their traditional stooges – the Washington Generals – will be treated to a spectacle they’re unlikely to forget: an exhibition of audacious team moves, trick shots and crowd interaction unrivalled in other sporting arenas.  With entertainment placed so firmly at the forefront, it’s no wonder the Globetrotters have dug such a deep well of affection over the course of their 92-year history.

Zeus_McClurkin_30_2016 TourThis global goodwill played a key role in recruiting one of their current superstars, Julian “Zeus” McClurkin (right).  “I must be one of the only people not really to have heard of the Globetrotters growing up,” he chuckles with a gentle Ohioan drawl.

“I’d seen them appear on a Scooby-Doo episode once, but didn’t realise they were a real thing.  Then when I joined the Washington Generals, I saw how much people loved the Globetrotters everywhere they went.  You could see people leaving their troubles at the door and afterwards feeling a little lighter.  That’s when I knew I wanted to be a Harlem Globetrotter more than anything in the world.”

The Globetrotters’ success isn’t solely down to their commitment to entertain; they’re also rightly revered for their social impact since forming in 1926.  Initially based in Chicago, the team provided a platform for African-American athletes – prevented by segregation rules from competing in the National Basketball Association (NBA) – to demonstrate their skills against white opponents.

Before long, the Harlem Globetrotters took great strides down the road towards integration: two stunning victories over reigning World Champions the Minneapolis Lakers (later to become the LA Lakers) in the late 1940s led to the NBA changing its rules.  In 1950, a leading member of that victorious team – Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton – became the first African-American to sign an NBA contract and sporting segregation was on its way out.

New world order

The team trotted beyond the borders of the United States for the first time that year, playing a brand of basketball that non-US audiences were unused to and mesmerised by.  Everywhere they went, they made friends: a record 75,000 crowd watched them win at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium; eight years later, in the midst of the Cold War, they were invited to play in Moscow and received the Athletic Order of Lenin.

The Globetrotters have toured far and wide ever since, performing in 123 different countries and territories.  “It’s no exaggeration to say we’ve introduced basketball to many places.  And a visit from the Globetrotters can occasionally achieve things politicians can’t,” McClurkin says, referring to the team’s 2013 trip to North Korea which defused some tension between the international community and pariah state.

“There’s also an amazing story about us playing in Cuba during their civil war,” he continues.  “Both sides put down their guns for four hours while the game took place and then they went back to fighting after we’d left.  That shows the power of sport and what people all over the world think of the Harlem Globetrotters.”

580700f76c927.imageThat sense of significance remains close to the hearts of the current crop of players.  “We’re known as goodwill ambassadors – it’s something we’re extremely proud of and take very seriously,” says McClurkin, sounding far removed from any closeted modern-day sports star.  The players chosen to represent the team in red, white and blue are a different breed to those competing in the NBA; not only more fixated with on-court flamboyance, but more rounded in their outlook.

McClurkin’s a case in point.  Now a fine player who holds the Guinness World Record for the most slam-dunks in a minute, it never crossed his mind as a boy that he could earn a living from basketball.  The turning point came in his early teens when his high school team overlooked him for the third time.  Stubbornness took over.  “Basketball was the only sport people said I was no good at, so I worked hard and improved.  I’ve always loved proving people wrong.  And it helped that I grew five inches over that summer, which I put down to drinking a lot of milk.”

Even then, success didn’t come easy.  McClurkin struggled to manage his asthma and took a circuitous route via Paraguay before signing for the Washington Generals where his eyes were opened.  “Once I saw how the Globetrotters were received, I did everything I could to get noticed by their management.  Eventually they got tired of me dunking on them so they signed me up to a contract.  It’s been the greatest move of my life.”

Slam-dunk the Trump

As with most Globetrotter legends – including Reece “Goose” Tatum, Fred “Curly” Neal and Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain – McClurkin’s a natural showman and model ambassador, as at ease sinking a shot from 120ft off the roof of Madison Square Garden as he is going into classrooms on anti-bullying initiatives.

“I like to entertain and also share my story with people, in case it can help them,” he says.  “I was never cut out for the NBA.  To get there, people want you to be this ‘killer guy’ who will do whatever it takes to win.  That’s fine, but it’s not who I am.  I’m a nice, laid back person and hopefully my success shows there’s a place in this world for everyone.  You don’t need to change.  You can be who you are and still find a home.  And the Globetrotters is my home.”

trump-liangelo-ball-theft-chinese-president-negotiation-1With this kind of level-headed outlook, it seems that the Globetrotters represent their country far better than those currently occupying the White House.  When I suggest this to McClurkin, he laughs with a hint of resignation.  “Yeah, I think it’s important for us to stick together and be good ambassadors for our country.  Especially at times like these.”

The Globetrotters continue to promote integration, after introducing their first female player in 1985.  Their current roster is notably diverse, featuring five women, as well as white and Hispanic players.

However, they’ve always been strongly aligned to the African-American community, which many consider to be left more vulnerable under the Trump administration.  Indeed, earlier this year, the President sparked outrage by calling for African-American NFL players to be sacked for ‘taking the knee’ during the national anthem in protest at perceived police mistreatment.

I ask McClurkin whether he supports political protest within sport, but he shows that his diplomatic credentials match his slam dunking skills.  “It’s tough,” he says, exhaling loudly.  “I think it’s a very interesting protest and of course I understand where it came from.  But I can tell you that the Globetrotters will be standing for the flag in our games.  We want to honour and respect what the American flag stands for as we’re lucky to be natives of the United States.”

London’s calling

McClurkin has played in London before and been impressed with our passion for what remains a minority sport on this side of the pond.  “The UK audiences are really interesting to see.  Some crowds around the world go crazy for audience interaction and the jokes, but you guys seem to prefer the little nuances of the game directly relating to basketball.  You love to watch a nice set play or a backdoor screen through to an alley-oop.  So we’ll be bringing lots of those really cool skills for you.  There’ll be a bunch of crazy trick shots and team moves.”

He’s also pleased to be renewing the rivalry with his former team, the Washington Generals.  “They’ve been on a hiatus for four years now, so we’re looking forward to doing our stuff against them again.  They haven’t beaten the Globetrotters since 1971 – before I was born – so we’re determined to bring our best moves.  We don’t want to be the team that ends that run.”

Once again, McClurkin masks his determination with a relaxed chuckle, before reiterating that entertainment is the name of the game.  “We’ve got some fantastic performers for you to see.  I think Hi-Lite Bruton in particular is one of the coolest Globetrotters ever.  He’s a great dunker and an amazing floor general.  But he’s also one of the big showmen in the team: he’ll have you laughing the whole game.  You guys need to look out for buckets of water and confetti whenever he’s around.

“But all of us want to entertain you.  So we’ll come into the crowd and drag people down to the court to spin a ball on their finger.  We might come to sit with you in the stand and eat your food, so watch out for your tea and crumpets,” he laughs.  “You’ll see that it’s like no other sporting event you’ll go to in your life.”

The Harlem Globetrotters are performing at the SSE Wembley Arena on Saturday 19th May (from 19.30) and at The O2 on Monday 28th May 2018 (from 18.00).  Tickets are available here.  For more information, head to the Globetrotters’ official website and follow them on Twitter @Globies.

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