Since 1926, the Harlem Globetrotters (who were actually founded in Chicago) have captivated audiences with their amazing tricks and kept fans laughing at their antics. The fans love watching the players play, and the players love entertaining their fans; it’s one of the best symbiotic relationships in sports. I went to the CapitalOne Center in Washington, D.C., in March to see the Globetrotters take on their longtime nemesis, the Washington Generals. (The Generals have suited up against the Globetrotters since 1952 and have beaten them a grand total of six times.)
Doors opened an hour before the noon show, and immediately fans swarmed to the apparel stand to acquire various Globetrotter merchandise, from balls to jerseys to stuffed animals to posters. You can feel the positive vibes as soon as you enter, with pop music blaring from the speakers and entertaining videos and promotional footage playing on the jumbotron. The ever-present aromas of hot dogs and pizza complete the picture.
Before the game, some members of the dunk group the Flying Globies, who are the opening act for the Globetrotters, approached me and asked if I wanted to play in an on-court game, and of course I said “yes.” I sat courtside and watched a game of musical chairs and a great dance battle between some lucky (or unlucky) adults. My opponent and I went third and had to throw huge beach balls into an oversized hoop at half-court to win free donuts. The catch: The balls were passed down through the stands onto the court. I lost, but it was a really fun experience.
Shortly afterward, it was game time. After player introductions, the Globetrotters went into what is known as the Magic Circle, which is when the players form a circle and go around performing their various tricks.
Then Ant Atkinson, standing small at 5’9”, asked to participate in the tip-off (instead of 6’4” teammate Bull Bullard) against Cager, the 7’1” center for the Generals and designated “bad guy.” Cager proceeded to throw Atkinson over his shoulder and march him around the court.
“I’m blessed to be [a Globetrotter],” says Atkinson, one of the most versatile and popular of the Globetrotters, who started off the game by amazingly hitting six straight shots from the four-point line, which is 30 feet from the basket and has been a staple at Globetrotters games since 2016. He described his famous trick, which he performed in the Magic Circle: “I [throw the ball up] then catch it on the back of my neck, then throw it back up and bounce it off my head like a soccer player and catch it on my neck again.”
Atkinson started playing basketball at a very young age. “My father introduced me to [it]; coming out of the womb they said I had a basketball in my hands,” he said. “[My dad] put the ball in my hand and told me, ‘You can be whatever you want to be as long as you work hard at it.’”
Atkinson’s hard work has certainly paid off over the years. In 2007, he scored 10 points in 39 seconds to lead Barton College to a 77–75 win over Winona State in the NCAA Division II championship, earning him runner-up at the 2007 ESPY Awards in the Best Finish category.
One of the more memorable antics during Globetrotter games is when players take a water cooler either full of water or confetti into the stands and throw the contents onto a section that almost always bursts out laughing along with the rest of the arena. Another one is when a player argues a call with the referee and subsequently requests a replay. The players on the court and referee then “rewind” the footage by performing the previous play backwards, and playing it back in “slow motion” by using a beach ball instead of a basketball.
In D.C. they also hosted a wedding between Atkinson and a fan, stood on the rims and blocked the Generals’ shots (and of course got down by going through the hoop), and brought a team of five kids to try and take the ball away from Globetrotter Dizzy English, since the Generals seemed to be unable to.
Moose Weekes, the 6’8” Globetrotter forward who wears a constant smile along with his signature Afro, has to be one of the most flashy and enthusiastic members of the Globetrotters, as evidenced by his constant dunks and his celebrations, which included yelling “caw, caw” every time teammate Hawk Thomas dunked the ball.
While it might seem impossible for the Globetrotters to travel all over the U.S. and the world in about eight months, the organization has everything planned out. “We’ve got 30 players under contract, which allows us to put three teams out simultaneously,” says Brett Meister, the senior vice president of the Globetrotters. “You’ll see incredible athletes who can also put a smile on people’s faces [no matter where they are].”
A Globetrotter player doesn’t only have to be entertaining. “We’re looking for someone who knows the game,” says Barry Hardy, one of the organization’s three coaches. “We see the type of people they are. We interview them to see what kind of character they are, how they speak and talk and represent themselves.”
With the Generals down by 30 towards the end of the game, Cager was caught by the referee at the scorers table running up the score manually for the Generals and was forced to bring it down some; however, the referee somehow did not remember the previous score and announced it a tied game with one minute left. Inevitably, the Globetrotters came away with the victory through a series of dunks and crossovers, and left thousands of fans with smiles on their faces.
Photographs by Brett Meister/Harlem Globetrotters