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Spinning the GlobeChapter OneThe Garden
This story begins with a song.
A pure sound of joy. One person, sotto voce, whistling a simple little melody: twelve notes in all, repeating rhythmically up and down the scale. And behind the whistle, carrying the beat, a lone, mysterious percussionist it could be fingers snapping or rhythm sticks, but it's actually bones, a pair of flat rib bones from a cow or a hog, clacking together, driving the tune.
The song wafts across the arena where we are sitting, waiting eagerly for what we know will come.This scene could be happening in any of a hundred arenas in a hundred different towns, from a high school gym in Sheboygan or the Boilermakers Union hall in Yakima to the Cow Palace in San Francisco, but we are actually in Madison Square Garden the old Garden at Fiftieth Street and Eighth Avenue in New York City.
It could also be any year of the past seventy-five, but tonight is January 1, 1950. New Year's Day. The beginning of the postwar decade and the halfway point of the century. It's a Sunday night, just before seven P.M. Eighteen hours earlier, 750,000 people thronged Times Square to ring in the New Year, clogging the streets between Forty-second and Forty-seventh Streets with the largest crowd in local memory, attributed partly to the bearably chilly temperatures. The city indeed, the entire country is in a celebratory mood, having finally sloughed off the lingering shortages of the war years, and the economy is ramping up toward a decade of unprecedented prosperity. It was a wild, joyous New Year's Eve. Midnight revelers cheered as the white ball on the TimesTower descended down its flagpole, Manhattan nightclubs reported a brisk business, the everalert news photographers with their Speed Graphic cameras snapped the duke and duchess of Windsor dancing at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, and those seeking a more solemn beginning to the year had pilgrimaged to St. Patrick's Cathedral, where Francis Cardinal Spellman led a midnight pontifical Mass.
This evening, the Garden is packed with nearly 19,000 people, the largest crowd ever to watch a professional basketball game in the city. A standing-room-only sellout. Earlier this afternoon, there was a near riot at the box office after the standing-room-only tickets sold out in fifteen minutes and 7,000 disappointed fans were turned away; a special detail of New York's Finest had to be called out to calm the angry crowd.
Fans that come to see the New York Knicks are habitually late, often straggling in halfway through the first quarter, but this crowd was here thirty minutes early, knowing that the best part of the evening will happen before the game. It's a family crowd: Mom and Dad and the whole nuclear gaggle of kids, and three generations in some cases, with Grandma and Grandpa along for the night, and all of them scrubbed squeaky clean and dressed in their Sunday best. The men are in suits and ties, the women in the calf-length skirts that are the fashion of the day. There's an air of giddy anticipation, much as there was in Times Square last night, and a murmur of excitement ripples through the stands as everyone waits for what they know is coming.
And then it begins the whistle and the bones.
The lights come up and five tall, graceful men jog out onto the floor, dressed in white silk warm-up jackets that every boy in the arena covets as soon as they see them. The men are led onto the court by the two most acclaimed basketball players in the world: Marques Haynes, who does things with a basketball that no one has ever done, and Goose Tatum, the Clown Prince of Basketball, a talented and temperamental comic genius. The players are introduced one at a time, to thunderous applause, then form a circle around the foul line and start passing a ball, whipping it behind their backs, between their legs, faster and more expertly than these fans have ever seen.They roll it up one arm and down the other, spin it off their fingertips, feint one way and flick it the other, bounce it off their heads, their behinds, their chests. And the song is driving it all, that whistle and the bones.
By now, the spectators can't help themselves, it's physically impossible their feet are tapping. Entire families tapping in unison. Dad's spit-shined brogans, perhaps almost imperceptibly, but tapping nonetheless; Mom's black pumps, with quiet decorum; and Junior's stinking Converse All-Stars, which should have been thrown out with the trash weeks ago. All tapping. Some in the crowd are humming, too. They have no idea of the words to the song. There may not even be any words to this song, except for the only three that matter, and they sing them under their breath at the end of each line:
"Sweeeet Georgia Brown"
This song can mean only one thing: the Harlem Globetrotters* are in town and we are going to have the time of our lives. The song is like a Rorschach test for American culture. There is no two-headed dog in the picture, no repressed sexual memories, no oedipal urges. There is only one message: the Harlem Globetrotters make people happy.
The crowd is mesmerized, their eyes riveted on the court, as the players weave a spell of enchantment over the Garden. The one person not watching the Magic Circle is the team's owner, Abe Saperstein, who is standing in front of the Globetrotters' bench and, by force of habit, scanning the stands, expertly counting the house. It is a skill honed over twenty-five years a necessity in leaner days as protection against disreputable promoters and vanishing gate receipts, but even now, when he no longer has to worry about the gate, a habit that refuses to die ...Spinning the Globe. Copyright © by Ben Green. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.