There aren’t many things that can unite most Americans here in March 2023, but the return of the annual ritual of filling out March Madness brackets definitely qualifies. For the next few weeks, we’ll all have strong opinions about whether this is the year Gonzaga finally gets over the hump in the NCAA Men’s Tournament, whether South Carolina can continue its run of historic greatness to a repeat championship in the NCAA Women’s Tournament, whether Oral Roberts will become another unlikely Cinderella story, and so many other storylines that remind us of the complex but undeniably compelling power of sports.
That power can feel like it resides mostly in sports’ ability to entertain us, to provide a communal escape from the more difficult realities of our lives. But I would argue precisely the opposite: not only that sports are influenced and affected by all those realities, but also that sports at their best can play a role in social change and progress. Offering a case study in the social significance of sports is a longstanding and world-famous basketball team that seems designed solely to entertain: the Harlem Globetrotters.
The creation and the naming of the Globetrotters both reflect historical realities of race and prejudice and exemplify the team’s goal of transcending them. In the 1920s, decades before the founding of the National Basketball Association, most organized basketball in America took place at the collegiate level, and the vast majority of those college teams were racially segregated. Many of the best Black basketball players thus had to look elsewhere for opportunities to play, and one such opportunity was offered by Chicago’s Savoy Ballroom: not long after its 1927 opening, the Ballroom began fielding an exhibition basketball team known as the Savoy Big Five in order to draw crowds to its dances. Local entrepreneur and longtime basketball player and coach Abe Saperstein learned of the group and signed on as a manager and promoter, and in 1929 he and the team began to tour the region.
As the team broadened its horizons beyond the Savoy Ballroom and Chicago, it needed a name that would reflect those aspirations. In the 1920s, no American community better embodied the vibrancy of African American culture, of the Jazz Age and the Roaring ’20s, and of an increasingly cosmopolitan and globally connected nation than did the New York neighborhood of Harlem and its unfolding Harlem Renaissance. Despite the team’s Illinois roots and initial Midwestern tours, Saperstein and the Savoy players recognized their own connection to those cultural, national, and cosmopolitan trends, and chose a new team name that echoed those trends: the New York Harlem Globe Trotters.