Since they've more or less evolved into a traveling comedy troupe since the early '70s, filling small arenas with their signature hoop antics, it's easy to forget that the Harlem Globetrotters were once the world's greatest basketball team, and even easier to forget their pivotal role in race relations. Through nearly eight decades on the court, the Globetrotters have been both a force for social change and a bellwether of the times, champions and goodwill ambassadors for black America, but also its regressive stereotypes. These contradictions and many others are revealed with gripping detail in Spinning The Globe, a sprawling, ambitious Globetrotters history that asserts their pioneering role both inside and outside the sporting world. In Green's hands, their story becomes the story of a nation.
In the complicated figure of Abe Saperstein, the brilliant entrepreneur/huckster who founded the Trotters and eventually led them to glory, Green finds someone who embodies the spirit of racial progress and discrimination that swirled around the team. Decades before the civil-rights movement, Saperstein and an assemblage of black hoopsters originating in Chicago went on barnstorming tours across the country, entertaining small "tank towns" where many citizens had never encountered a black man before. During these humble beginnings, when the players piled into his Model T, Saperstein ran the team with an egalitarian spirit that was rare among white businessmen: Though he was the team's sole owner, coach, and shameless promoter, he split the gate receipts with his players (taking a second share for expenses), shared cramped hotel rooms, and fought for equal access. But as the team's popularity grew, there were also times when his greed, egotism, and opportunism surfaced, and his views on race relations fell drastically behind the times.
Though Saperstein's vision opened new doors across the world, the team's legacy in basketball and comedy belongs to the players, whom Green renders through evocative biographies and exploits that read like tall tales. There's Inman Jackson, the oldest and most devoted Trotter, who developed the ball-handling tricks that sparked hilarious vaudeville routines for years to come; Goose Tatum, the "Clown Prince Of Basketball," a natural entertainer whose volatility was as potent as his genius; Marques Haynes, the greatest dribbler in basketball history; and Meadowlark Lemon, a rote performer who personified the creative draught that drove the team to ruin in the '70s and '80s. Their team was built on mythmaking, but Spinning The Globe parses out the truth from the legend. Still, it really comes to life through stirring anecdotes of events like Jesse Owens' 1951 return to Berlin's Olympic Stadium, where he addressed 75,000 fans during a Globetrotters exhibition's halftime break. Fifteen years after taking four gold medals in front of an irate Hitler, Owens—and an electrified crowd—showed sports' power to break down barriers, and it's no coincidence that the Trotters were in the house.