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COMMENTARY : Globetrotters Still Ahead of the Game

Times Staff Writer

The Harlem Globetrotters were in town over the weekend to show us how, at 63, they haven’t aged a bit, and in fact are more than au courant :

The Globies carry a woman on the roster, they play above the rim, and Twiggy Sanders’ Bingo shot--a 40-foot hook from the sideline--may yet find an expert practitioner in the National Basketball Assn.

The rosters have changed, of course. Show Biz Jackson and the 6-foot-9 Sanders now take up the slack of those earlier antic showmen, Goose Tatum and Meadowlark Lemon, and young Tyrone Brown takes care of the dribbler’s legerdemain that was once the incomparable province of Marques Haynes and Curly Neal.

But most of the old crowd-pleasing tricks remain. The swift, ever-tightening weave at the top of the key, where the ball is popped in to the center who kicks it or passes it or bounces it off his head to a cutter who in turn finishes with a Hi Slamma Jamma dunk. The trick balls. The long pauses where Sanders may toss a vendor’s entire supply of Cracker Jacks into the crowd and then ask of him “Do you take checks? Good. I’ll check with you later.” The play with children (an eager 5-year-old boy is fetched center court, changed into a Globetrotters uniform while the players hold towels discreetly around him, then returned to his father, whom Sanders tries to dun for $15--which remains amicably unpaid).

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The Globetrotters play as much as eight games a week--a crushing schedule (NBA teams average three)--yet for a few minutes of each quarter we get to see some very good basketball. The defense of the Washington Generals (the Globies’ opponents) may be a bit sketchy, but it’s clear that the script is only partly blocked out and that the players are allowed to spend some time really going at it.

Their pleasure--the inner game--is in putting moves on each other, challenging each other, and there are times when we witness the almost breathtakingly beautiful sweep of fine-tuned young players taking a fast break downcourt, arcing and cutting like gazelles in an orchestrated stampede that climaxes in someone’s gorgeous leap to the basket.

Basketball may have started as a white game, but once blacks began playing it quickly became clear that whites would have to be very good to keep up (and for a while they weren’t; that’s why the Globetrotters went on their own--they’d been frozen out). When we struggle for similes at the sight of an electrifying Magic Johnson pass or an Air Jordan glide to the hoop, for a second we always think that the miracle belongs in a Globetrotter game.

Only the other night Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said: “I grew up in Harlem. I didn’t know anything about the Lakers or the Celtics when I was a kid. I only knew the Globetrotters.”

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If the game weren’t enough, they’re also skillful and affectionate clowns who find every opportunity to play the crowd. During the intros, Sanders grows bored with waiting for his name to be announced and steps off-court to swipe somebody’s box of nachos and sodas, which he redistributes to someone else.

There is black patois (“Who ball?” Jackson inquires of the referee); ironic elegance (ref calls for ball, player responds, “Are you inquiring about the availability of a ball?”); impromptu dancing (Tyrone Brown moonwalks through the key), and endless improvisatory surprise, whether in low-fiving a youngster who can’t reach a 7-footer’s high-five, or in forming a swift ensemble that rushes to either side of the court en masse--drawing the opposition along--and then leaving the ball behind for a deliberately tardy teammate to scoop to the basket.

One of the things that makes a Globetrotters appearance a treat is that the players themselves are always in search of the adroit move (stocky young Quentin Jackson’s eyes scanned his own bench after a particularly clever flight to the hoop, after which he curled downcourt doing an Ickey Woods finger twirl).

Another is that they’re such expert practitioners of the game that they can toy with its form. There are so many millions of dollars at stake in an NBA franchise’s season that there isn’t always a lot of room for fun (Lakers’ show time excepted), and the intercollegiate game is even duller.

That leaves the Globetrotters to remind us that at the heart of real play there’s discipline, and at the heart of discipline there’s always the freedom to play. If they weren’t so adept at the structure of the game, turning it around, parodying it, they’d be unwatchable. To the extent that theirs could be called a deconstructivist approach, they remain at one with the age. (You can just hear an incredulous Sanders now: “Say what ?”)

If the rule of comedy is invention, who would have thought that six decades into what is now an institutional franchise, the Globetrotters are still ahead of the game?


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