Heroes of the hardwood
The world-famous Harlem Globetrotters return to Chico on the heels of their 21,000th win
After 77 years of entertaining crowds, it was about time.
Last September, the legendary kings of clown basketball, the Harlem Globetrotters, finally received what many basketball enthusiasts consider long overdue acknowledgement: induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
While most people know the Globetrotters for their crowd-pleasing antics—trick shots, amazing passes and superior ball handling skills—many are unaware of the team’s true legacy.
Back in the 1940s, when professional basketball was still a white man’s game, the Harlem Globetrotters entertained crowds by playing warm-up contests among themselves before National Basketball League games. The all-black Globetrotter team quickly became the main audience draw thanks to its players’ undeniable talent. Accounts told of crowds actually leaving before the professional white players even took the floor for the marquee match-up. This eventually led to the idea for a game between the warm-up entertainment and the established professional champs.
In 1948, the NBL “world champion” Minneapolis Lakers—led by future Hall of Famer George Mikan—faced the underdog Globetrotters in two highly publicized contests before large crowds. Both were close, hard-fought contests, but the taller Lakers were beaten both times by the Globetrotters (though the Lakers won a third rematch). In any case, the Globetrotters had proven that blacks belonged in the pros.
Shortly afterward, the NBA was formed from a merger of the Basketball Association of America and the National Basketball League. Black players such as Chuck Cooper and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton began the integration process for a league now dominated by black players.
For their part, the Globetrotters went on to pop culture stardom as a comedy performance team that played for kids and dignitaries worldwide—although the team’s influence on the sport, both in skills and historical significance, has been lost on younger generations. Think about it: Behind every wild pass that current stars like Jason Williams make or every crossover dribbling feat that Allen Iverson shakes an opposing player with, there is likely an antecedent in a Globetrotter routine of years past.
The News & Review recently had a chance to chat with five-year Globetrotter veteran Roy “ZaZu” Byrd (No. 31), a 6’4” guard hailing from Oakland who attended Patton College, where he averaged 15 points a game. After college, Byrd began working for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, where he choreographed dunks with the team’s mascot before winning a slot on the Globetrotters.
With the kind of sparkling personality required of an “Ambassador of Goodwill” for one of the world’s most popular sports, Byrd personifies the modern-day Globetrotters—or, as he will proudly tell you, the world’s “best, smartest and cutest team.”
How did you decide to become a Globetrotter?
It was always in me to play ball. I had a lot of hurdles and obstacles in my life that I overcame. I just always thought of the Globetrotters as the highest level and never really thought I would be a part of it. Usually you have to be invited to try out, but they opened the door this one year , and I bought my plane ticket to Phoenix for one day and tried out against 65 other guys. … I went in to prove myself and walked away with something.
Where does your nickname “ZaZu” come from?
Ever seen The Lion King? Manny [Jackson, Globetrotters owner] was in New York watching the Broadway play and the Bird in The Lion King was all over the stage. He just sat there and started laughin'—people was like, “Whatchou laughin’ at?"—and he said I came to mind: “Those birds all over the stage is like you all over the floor, so I’m gonna name you ZaZu.” Plus my last name is Byrd, so the little kids can relate to that. I thought he was calling me GaZu—you remember GaZu from The Flintstones? I said, “Why is he talkin’ ’bout my head?!” (Chuckles.)
Tell me about the most famous basketball tune ever, “Sweet Georgia Brown” [the Globetrotters’ theme song]?
“Sweet Georgia Brown"—we still got that. It all started one day, back when they was doing some ball handling—we call ’em rings, but a lot of people call ’em tricks, and that song came on the radio. Ever since then, they just liked that sound. It just went with it ever since.
Why did they call it the Harlem Globetrotters if the original players hailed from the Midwest?
A little short white Jewish dude named Abe [Saperstein] started it. He took the best black guys he could find, named ’em Harlem ‘cause it was associated with black entertainment—'cause back then black guys weren’t allowed to play in the ABA, which is the NBA today. … The way they started combining comedy with basketball was this: When you blowin’ somebody out by 40 or 50 points, you get bored after a while. So this one evening—it was kinda cool—the [Globetrotters] was playing in a barn, and there was a potbellied stove over in the corner. One of the players got off the bench and went over to the stove, and he was so tuned into the game, he forgot his shorts was too close to the stove and they caught fire. So he starts running around the barn, and his teammates start trying to put the fire out on his shorts and the crowd started laughing. That’s when the showmen like Goose Tatum started. … [But] this type of basketball is not for everyone. To be a Globetrotter, you got to know when to turn it on and off—most guys can’t turn it off. They’re strict competitors. Here you have to have personality, too.
What is your favorite part of the process?
The fans and the kids. That’s what I get out of it. Our schedule is brutal. We play every single night in a different city, sometimes twice a night.
How do you handle injuries and people getting tired?
Pretty much practice. We practice two hours before every game. But we’re always on each other to keep on our toes. The fans don’t care if we just rode a bus for six hours or we just played a game last night. They wanna see Globetrotter basketball. It’s geared toward love of the sport; that’s what keeps us going.
Has it changed much since former Globetrotter Manny Jackson took over?
He’s a wonderful businessman and has some creative ideas. To be honest, the attendance has tripled. He’s taken things, reclaimed ’em in the original tradition and kind of put ’em back where they used to be.
Do you still get huge turnouts in Europe?
Yep, we’re very big over there. We introduced basketball to the European crowds. Those people will get on a train and ride eight hours to come to our game. We sell out wherever we go and welcome people with open arms.
What do you think of the whole street ball scene, the popular Rucker Court videos and the emphasis on highlight footage?
That’s street ball. You know, I tell kids that looks good—and nothing to take away from those guys—but if you do all that, you gotta put that ball in the hole. ‘Cause if you don’t, all that you just did don’t matter. But those guys are out working hard too, trying to get a job someplace. … A lot of people saw that ball handling commercial a couple years ago and thought, “Ooh, they just did that.” But naw, we been doing that for 77 years.
It all starts with the basic fundamentals. Once you got that down pat, you can go to the fancy passes. I always say, just make a wise decision on whatever you’re doing. Be aware of your decision.
What is your opinion of the current state of the NBA, high school players going pro, etc.?
You know, from one ball player to the next, I got a lot of respect for those guys. I just want them all to take their jobs seriously ‘cause there’s a lot of talent out there. And you know there’s always somebody coming after your job. It’s a business decision if you go from high school to NBA—and I don’t know their family situation. But I tell the kids, basketball only lasts a season, education lasts a lifetime.
I was impressed by [NBA star] Kevin Garnett. He’s a helluva player, he’s making good money. And for him to go back to school to work on his degree? The man signed for what, 100 million? He don’t have to go to school if he don’t want to!
With our organization, 90 percent of our team has their degrees or are a year or two away from getting theirs—so not only are we the world’s best and cutest team, we’re the smartest as well (laughs).
What can we look forward to in Chico?
We have one of the world’s greatest dribblers who followed in the footsteps of Curly Neal. Curley “Boo” Johnson—oh my goodness, he’s one of the greatest! And we have one of the highest flyers around who is in the Guinness Book for highest dunk at 12 feet.
But the best thing is that we all come together and smile. It doesn’t matter how tall or short you are, what color you are. We’re one big happy family out there, and we get everybody involved. We spin a ball on a little girl’s finger. Let a little boy take a jump shot. We might even bring a woman out and dance with her at half court. You never know.