Harlem Renaissance

Confession: Some 25 years ago I owned a Harlem Globetrotters lunch box. Not Holly Hobbie, not Barbie, not even Land of the Lost. My preadolescent self chose the Harlem Globetrotters. Why? 'Cuz the Globetrotters were it, man. A Saturday-morning cartoon, a weekly TV show, a friendly theme song with fancy whistling and a Top 40 hit about our favorite player, Meadowlark Lemon... We were inundated with Harlem Globetrotter products, and we loved it. Now they're back, though of course they never really went away. With a major Globetrotter motion picture in the works and the NBA dissolving into a pathetic joke, the time for a Harlem renaissance is now.

Though the '70s were a peak time for the Globetrotters, the organization actually dates back to 1927. In fact, the 2000 tour marks the team's 74th consecutive season. What began as a ragtag exhibition team out of Chicago, not Harlem, evolved into a vehicle for innovation in the sport. The Globetrotters gave birth to the first African-American NBA player (Nathaniel "Sweetwater" Clifton in 1950), invented the "pivot" position, cultivated the first superstar of modern-day basketball (Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain) and set numerous world records for athletic feats such as losing only 332 out of over 20,000 games in 74 years.

The Globetrotters' live performances, which include superhuman basketball tricks, cheesy slapstick comedy, dancing mascots, trained animals and just about everything a live variety show can offer except Eastern European plate-spinners, are commonly referred to as "Good Clean Fun," which all too often translates into "Marketing at its Most Obnoxious." But the Globetrotters have more heart than commercial nightmares like WWF's "Smack Down" and Pokémon on Ice. After all, they were our lunch-box heroes.

Besides, when they're not out promoting the Brand -- as it is repeatedly referred to in the press kit -- for sponsorship dollars, they're promoting the Brand in order to help humanity. The "Ambassadors of Good Will" travel the world in support of charities such as Save the Children and United Way, and they host a summer training camp for kids. They were the first pro sports organization to play in Nelson Mandela's freed South Africa, and -- the icing on the cake -- they always stick around to sign autographs after the show.

So, even though Denny's, the chain once accused of racism, is sponsoring the Globetrotters' tour (payback? goodwill?), bring the kids. And pack a lunch.

The Harlem Globetrotters play Compaq Center on Saturday, January 29, at 7:30 p.m. Call (713)629-3700 for tickets. $11-$75.

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Liz Belile