It's weird to consider now, but the National Basketball Association was not formally integrated until 1950. Even for several years after that date, African Americans who wanted to play professional ball dealt with racism that excluded large numbers of qualified blacks from NBA squads. White Americans often forget how pervasive the most blatant forms of prejudice were until the civil rights reforms of the 1960s began rectifying wrongs.
But not all of American basketball's early history was so bleak. The Harlem Globetrotters were established in 1926 (as the "Savoy Big Five"), and they quickly became ambassadors of light. Owned by founder Abe Saperstein until his death in 1966, the team was one of the most reliable conduits from street courts and high school gyms to the pro ranks for talented black players during the 1950s. As the NBA slowly loosened its segregationist chokehold, more and more African-American players were able to go for it at the top; consequently, the Globetrotters had a harder time signing and keeping the best prospects. The Harlem m.o. gradually shifted from really good hoops to pretty good hoops with a fat side of showmanship, and in 1970 the Globetrotters became cartoon figures -- literally. By the '80s the team continued to be beloved worldwide, but the 'Trotters were a mild disappointment to many of their older fans, who remembered them as a genuinely first-tier crew.
Edwardsville native Mannie Jackson, the current 'Trotters owner (and former team member), has turned the organization around: The Globetrotters are once again running a mean game of b-ball, having a good time doing it and, as always, spreading the love. At 7 p.m. on Friday, January 7, catch the venerable hoops institution on the St. Louis stop of its 2005 tour at the Savvis Center (14th Street and Clark Avenue). Tickets range from $15 to $115 and can be purchased through all Ticketmaster outlets (314-241-1888 or www.ticketmaster.com).