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Tricksters in the Madhouse: Lakers vs. Globetrotters, 1948

Tricksters in the Madhouse: Lakers vs. Globetrotters, 1948

by John Christgau


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803215993
Publisher: UNP - Bison Books
Publication date: 10/01/2007
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.75(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.49(d)

About the Author

John Christgau (1934–2018) was a lecturer at Saint Mary’s College of California and is the author of many books, including The Origins of the Jumpshot: Eight Men Who Shook the World of Basketball (Nebraska 1998).

Read an Excerpt

Tricksters in the Madhouse

Lakers vs. Globetrotters 1948
By John Christgau

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2004 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.

Chapter One

The Race

The floodlights over the floor of Chicago Stadium hang like tulip bells from long cords, and a blue fog of cigarette smoke swirls beneath the lights. From the third tier of seats, above the smoke and lights, the players gathered for the center jump appear as colorful as images drawn in crayon. The Minneapolis team wears the colors of the Swedish flag-royal blue piping on their shorts and the word "Lakers" in golden yellow across their jerseys. Their opponents wear shorts with broad red stripes. Their jerseys are deep blue, with gold stars sprinkled around the name "Harlem Globe Trotters."

The Lakers' center is George Mikan, a towering hulk who hardly seems to fit in a jump circle that from those high seats looks like a tiny bull's-eye on the court. There is little room left for the Globetrotters' Reece "Goose" Tatum, who is half a foot shorter than Mikan and standing beanpole stiff, his freakishly long arms pinned to his body as if he is being squeezed with Mikan in a phone booth. Goose's bizarre pose suggests he is about to launch into one of the jump ball antics for which he is famous. Perhaps he'll snatch the ball from the startled official, then go off at a flatfoot sprint for an easy basket. Perhaps he'll hold Mikan's pants so that he jumps out of them when the official throws up the ball.Perhaps he'll rearrange the Lakers on the court in a comic tableau guaranteed to lead to an easy basket for the Globetrotters.

But not tonight. Even though the Globetrotters have done their usual "Magic Circle" routine, with six players choreographing their passing and ball-juggling tricks to the whistled music of "Sweet Georgia Brown," tonight is serious basketball, and Goose crouches suddenly. He lifts one foot, plants it behind himself, then looks up and waits. Mikan crouches also. The official, whose coal black pants and black-and-white striped shirt seem like an incongruous center for the rest of the bright colors, crouches slightly himself and prepares for the throw. For a split second, everyone freezes.

It is an oddly static beginning for a game that can explode with furious action. It is also a far cry from those early days of basketball when teams were so warlike and ferocious in their play that to start the action officials tossed the ball from the safety of the sidelines to "cagers" inside a net cage.

Now, however, the official leans close to the two posed jumpers, rolls the ball so that one hand is on the bottom, the other on the side to steady it, then dips his body as he tosses the ball in perfectly straight upward flight between the two men.

Mikan and Goose jump together. For a moment it seems that Mikan's height advantage will mean just an easy tap to one of his teammates. But at the peak of its flight, the ball hangs as Goose rises higher and higher, as if he is floating up toward the lights, and his long arm stretches past Mikan's and tips the ball to husky forward Babe Pressley. Pressley dribbles awkwardly into the Globetrotters' frontcourt, as if any second he will lose control of the ball, as if the ball has a will of its own and he is stumbling after it, trying to capture it. It is hardly the ballet of slick ballhandling for which the Globetrotters are world renowned, and when Pressley finally has the ball in hand twenty-five feet from the basket, he has to pivot to avoid the two Lakers defenders who are chasing after him, hoping to steal the ball. He whirls a second time and finishes facing the basket. Still covered by two defenders, he cups the ball in one wrist and with a flair meant to reclaim his grace, he pumps his left knee like a drum major and flips a shovel pass directly behind him to his teammate, guard Ermer Robinson.

The huge crowd roars with pleasure. The slick pass is the realization of the antic promises of Goose Tatum's comic phone-booth stance in the jump circle. But Robinson appears not to hear the laughter. His face so stern it could be mistaken for mock seriousness, he poses with the ball just in front of his nose, drops his head slightly as he takes a bead on the basket, then steps with his right foot as he releases the long, one-hand shot.

It is too flat, skidding along beneath the smoky scud hanging over the floor. The shot glances off the front rim, caroms untouched onto the floor between scrambling players, and then is snatched by the Lakers' Jim Pollard and Herm Schaefer. Pollard relinquishes the ball to Schaefer, then gallops downcourt after his teammates. Schaefer walks slowly up the court, banging the ball with a slow dribble that in the sudden quiet makes it clear that no matter how quickly the Harlem Globetrotters can set up and shoot, the Minneapolis Lakers will take their own sweet time.

The night before, a fiery meteor explosion lit up the night sky of the Midwest. It might have been taken as a cosmic bulletin for the game, and in the sudden warm spell that hit Chicago, fans had begun lining up for admission to Chicago Stadium at 3 a.m. By midafternoon, strong chilly winds off Lake Michigan made the flags along the roofline of Chicago Stadium crack like gunshots. Still, no one left the ticket line, and by game time, the stadium announcer reported that the standing-room-only crowd of 17,823 fans was the largest ever to watch a professional basketball game in Chicago.

It wasn't just the standing-room-only crowd that was unusual. There were black fans everywhere now, and in that high third tier, the seats were filled with young black and white faces, some of whom had skipped school that Thursday to stand in line all day for cheap, seventy-five-cent tickets. Part of it was the appeal of the Globetrotters, whose "Harlem" designation on their jerseys didn't disguise the fact that they were really Chicago's team and drew huge crowds whenever they appeared there. But it was also the appeal of this particular game. The first-year Minneapolis Lakers were tearing up the National Basketball League (NBL) and were being touted as the best basketball team ever. Oh, there might have been teams in the past with one star or even five good players who ran motion offenses that turned like the gears of a clock. But few teams ever had two such powerful basketball figures as the Lakers' towering George Mikan, who had made his college reputation in Chicago, and leaping Jim Pollard, who was even better than Mikan, some insisted. Defending the two was like trying to plug the leaks in a pipeline. Whatever you did to stop one, baskets poured from the other.

There is no doubt that it is either Mikan or Pollard the Lakers will turn to immediately as Schaefer enters the frontcourt, then crosses to Pollard's left forward position, still walking the ball with a slow dribble. Schaefer's two-hand chest pass to Pollard is leisurely and deliberate.

Pollard receives the pass with two hands at his chest. He turns and faces Mikan, who is at the low post, using both arms as bars to keep Goose Tatum behind him. Pollard lifts the ball over his head, makes one jerk fake of the pass, pauses, waits for Mikan to bring his hands up, then snaps a high bullet pass. Mikan reaches for it with both hands, but it slips through his fingers and bangs the pipe standards that support the basket. The basket shivers, and the sudden groan from the fans reflects a disappointment so keen even the building seems to be quivering in distress.

Globetrotters' ball. No score.

Fay Young, sports editor for the Chicago Defender, the influential black newspaper whose masthead celebrated itself as the "World's Greatest Weekly," sat at the scorer's table beside a young intern. Young had been looking forward to the game for weeks, as a match-up between two great teams. But now he thought to deliver a few journalistic cautions to the intern about objectivity. "You don't care who wins," he said. "The contest is what counts, the drama of the battle."

The intern nodded. He wasn't about to contradict the veteran Fay Young, whose graying hair, square glasses, and smoldering pipe gave him the dignity of an incontrovertible sage.

But Young hadn't won his convictions easily, he confessed to the intern. And as the Globetrotters brought the ball up court after the Lakers' turnover, he recalled the time as a young reporter when he had given strong advice to a black football coach whose quarterback had repeatedly called terrible plays.

"That bonehead you've got at quarterback," Young had raged at the coach, "ought to be in the jailhouse!"

The coach had taken a moment to spit tobacco juice casually. "I'm doing the quarterbacking," he finally said softly, then spit again. "If there are bonehead plays, I'm to blame."

Young had crawled away, the lesson stuck in his head forever. "From that day to this," he told the intern, "I sit and look. I jot down what is news, and let it go at that. I do no more quarterbacking."

Fay Young's connection to the Chicago Defender, which had been arguing for the betterment of African Americans for almost fifty years, suggested he was rooting for the Globetrotters, despite his call for sportswriting objectivity. That partisanship was the legacy of Robert S. Abbott, the Defender's founder, who had started the newspaper in his Chicago landlord's kitchen in 1905 on a budget of twenty-five cents, which was just enough for three hundred copies of a four-page weekly.

From the start, Abbott attacked segregation, using red ink to highlight stories of rape and lynching. It was five years before he could hire his first full-time paid employee. By 1915 the circulation was a quarter million and extended beyond Chicago. Pullman porters carried the Defender on trains into the South, where it was passed from person to person and read aloud in barbershops, in churches, and on street corners. Eventually, the Defender had a Chicago and a national edition, with a readership of over half a million.

It was Robert Abbott's Defender, depicting the North as a land of opportunity and promise, that helped bring one-and-a-half million southern blacks to Chicago. In Abbott's mind, and on the pages of his newspaper, they were "the Race ... designated for great things." In sports, they were "Race men," and Abbott was dedicated to equality for all "Race men" in sports.

Frank A. Young joined the Defender in 1912 as a volunteer. He wrote his sports stories nights and weekends while he worked as a dining-car waiter on the Northwestern Railroad. A year later he signed a regular contract with the Defender at $15 a week, and because of his habit of signing his stories with the initials of his name, he was quickly tagged with the nickname "Fay."

Underpaid and overworked, Fay Young waited tables, freelanced as a sports publicist, refereed college football, and sponsored boxers in order to supplement his meager income as a sportswriter. He talked very little about his own athletic past, and his sportswriting was never an instrument for reliving his own athletic glories. It was instead a force for integration, especially major league baseball. But from the Defender's very beginning, when Robert Abbott had established a newsboy basketball team to boost circulation, basketball had been in the blood of the newspaper, and when young Abe Saperstein formed his New York Harlem Globetrotters, he immediately began hectoring Fay Young and the Chicago Defender for publicity. Young quickly decided that Saperstein was a pest and tried to ignore him. When that didn't work, he tried to discourage him. Basketball, Young argued, was too new to have an audience among blacks, who preferred boxing and baseball.

Young's arguments failed to discourage the aggressive Saperstein, and the Defender finally caved in and began to publicize the Globetrotters. At the same time, Young began to see the importance of basketball in the landscape of integration, and when the New York Rens came to Chicago for the first time in 1929, Young could hardly hide his own excitement when he wrote, "Interest [in basketball] on the South Side has reached fever heat." It wasn't just what he described as the Rens "dash and pep" that was so exciting. This was the same African American team that had beaten the all-white New York Celtics at the height of their glory, and the whole world had been forced to take notice of what "Race men" could do on a basketball floor.

Eventually, it was Saperstein's powerful Globetrotters, whom Young had initially discouraged, who had the dash and pep that Young admired. Their cleverness on basketball courts worldwide and their numerous victories against all comers would do more for integration, Young felt, than hours of tedious speeches on race. "Damnfoolishness," he called such speeches, especially when they were delivered at the ballpark. "Folks came to see a ball game," he wrote, and speeches were like ice water dashed in their faces.

The lesson was in the game itself. And Saperstein's celebrated Globetrotters were "Race men" whose basketball victories were the best polemic in the world for repudiating the racists who argued against integration in athletics. After years of covering sporting events, Fay Young knew as well as anybody the arguments that racists gave for keeping blacks and whites separated on the playing field.

The bigots began by quoting Thomas Jefferson, who had once said that "Negroes were inferior to whites in the endowment of both mind and body." If that wasn't enough to seal the argument, they could also quote Abraham Lincoln, who insisted, "There is a physical difference between the white and black races." By the end of the century, so-called scientific studies claimed to prove what those differences were: blacks had limited reasoning power, inferior muscle strength, a love of ostentation, as well as small lungs and an inferior nervous system. It meant that blacks had poor endurance and were too lazy and shiftless to be good competitors. There were other studies meant to prove that blacks were deficient in the qualities that made for great athletes. Even the "scientific studies" that eventually conceded there were star athletes among the "Negro race" discussed their heavy bones and small lungs. It was hardly the right anatomy for the demands of basketball.

Then in 1941 Dean Cromwell, who had coached the American Olympic team and Jesse Owens in Berlin in 1936, wrote that the black athlete excelled in certain athletic events because he was closer to primitive man than the white man. It meant that he could box, yes, but only because the sport required the brute strength of the jungle savage. Otherwise, African Americans had neither the courage nor the endurance for athletic competition. Furthermore, well-intentioned white philanthropy, which had helped blacks succeed elsewhere, had left them without the competitive will to succeed at sports. Meanwhile, in literature African Americans were depicted as fools and sycophants. In movies they were portrayed as buffoons and servants. They were musical and superstitious and superreligious, and their suppressed anger made them deceptive and potentially violent. Integration, particularly on a basketball court where intense battle lines were already drawn, only invited violence. As long as the races were kept athletically apart, the separatists could go right on arguing that blacks, with their lack of competitive will and their small lungs and inferior nervous systems, had neither the stamina nor the deft touch as shooters to prevail against superior whites on a basketball court. They surely wouldn't have the skills to defeat the powerful Minneapolis Lakers.


Excerpted from Tricksters in the Madhouse by John Christgau Copyright © 2004 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

I. First Quarter
1. The Race
2. Ma Piersall
3. The Kangaroo Kid
4. Babe
5. Goose
6. Ermer
7. The Fastest Runner on Sixty-first Street
II. Second Quarter
8. Blackie
9. The King of Basketball
10. The Crisco Kid
11. Olson's Terrible Swedes
12. Sambo
III. Halftime
13. Johnny and Abe
IV. Third Quarter
14. Bucky
15. Pop
16. Marques
V. Fourth Quarter
17. Ted
18. The Wee Ice Mon
19. David and Goliath
20. The Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost
21. The Shot
22. Sweetwater
VI. Overtime
23. Shaq
24. Rigo
Sources and Acknowledgments

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