It might be hard to envision today, with the nine-figure salaries and lavish television deals, but not too many generations ago, the Harlem Globetrotters were once the best basketball team in the world.
The team was founded in 1926, two decades before the color barrier was even broken in the NBA, and brought together some of the best Black players in the country. According to the team, their name pays homage to Harlem—then considered the center of Black American culture—and “Globetrotters” for how they toured around the world, dazzling crowds with their patented tricks, athleticism and humor.
Now, approaching their 100 year anniversary, the team continues that history of excellence, albeit with some minor updates to accommodate the modern hoops fan.
“For starters, the jerseys are black now,” Cherrell “Torch” George quipped at a recent sit-down in Oakland with The Standard as the team prepared for its first Northern California tour since the pandemic.
On top of shows in Stockton, Sacramento, Oakland and San Jose, the Globetrotters will make their return to the Chase Center in San Francisco on Jan. 15.
The 5'3" guard from Reading, Pennsylvania, aka the “Queen of the Crossover,” made history in 2018 when she became the first female Globetrotter to set a Guinness World Record (for most basketball under the leg tumbles in one minute). This will be her first time playing at the Chase Center.
“Representing the famous red, white and blue is not something I take for granted,” George said. “Everytime I step on that court, I know I’m representing women empowerment.”
On Thursday, she and two teammates met The Standard at the Lincoln Square Park basketball courts near Chinatown and Lake Merritt. In between filming segments with us, they were swarmed by star-struck 10-year-olds who asked for autographs on their sneakers, shirts and even blank sheets of white paper.
Some exclaimed, “I’m never washing this hand again;” while others remarked, “This is the best day of my life!”
While fans might know them for their jaw-dropping tricks and near perfect win-loss record, it’s a misconception to equate a Globetrotters game to, say, a professional wrestling match which is scripted and fixed.
“People don’t realize that we can really hoop,” said Latif “Jet” Rivers, an eight-year veteran of the team. Originally from the New York/New Jersey basketball scene, Rivers said he was discovered by a Globetrotters scout after dropping 30 points in a game at a popular pick-up league.
Before then, he was an all-conference player at Wagner College. Next to him, his teammate, Angelo “Spider” Sharpless played professionally in Germany and spent time with the Indiana Pacers summer league team before joining the Globetrotters in 2014.
“It’s still basketball at the end of the day,” said Sharpless, a North Carolina native. “It’s just now we’re bringing in our personalities. Expect the unexpected, but expect us to win.”
Besides the Golden State Warriors, the Bay Area has been home to some of the game’s largest figures. Bill Russell, who passed away in July, grew up in Oakland before starring at the University of San Francisco and then the Boston Celtics.
After him, the likes of Jason Kidd, Gary Payton and Damian Lillard have also emerged from the area and enjoyed hall-of-fame NBA careers. More recently, Warriors fans could also point to Juan Toscano-Anderson and Gary Payton II as local inspirations.
“There’s so much history that comes from Oakland that impacted the game of basketball as we know it today,” said Rivers. “I love the culture out here. It’s authentic. Coming from New Jersey, we’re all about that grit and grind.”
The trio all have fond memories of playing at the Warriors’ old home in Oakland, formerly named Oracle Arena, but now known simply as the Oakland Arena.
“The fans [at Oracle] were always amazing since they were right on top of you,” Sharpless said. “But I can’t wait to play in the Chase Center.”
Torch George agreed. She said she’s been in awe of the region’s history since coming here for the first time years ago.
“It’s our job to continue that Black excellence not just on the court, but off of it as well,” she said.
As the three Globetrotters left for their game in Stockton, the kids in recess followed them as if they were rock-stars, clamoring for them to stay and play with them more.
Jet Rivers would give them a taste of what they could expect should they come out to a game. He took a kid’s ball, walked to the corner spot and hurled it, no-look, over his head at the basket.
It arched high, and for a moment, captured the attention of everyone in the park as he walked calmly to their car. Swish. Nothing but net. The crowd went wild.