Globetrotting in Greensboro

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by Brian Clarey

The kids sit criss-cross applesauce on the gleaming hardwood, squirming on their butts and craning their necks to get a look.

The littlest ones have maybe 6 years, with the big’uns topping out at 14. And while the head coach runs through the paces of orientation — gonna have a lot of fun, gonna learn a lot of things — none of these kids can take their eyes off the Globetrotters.

There’s just two of them here at the Greensboro Sportsplex for basketball camp today: Anthony Blakes, who wears the jersey name Buckets, out of Phoenix, Ariz; and Eric Hall, a product of Greensboro who rode Smith High to Radford University, where he stacked up enough blocks and rebounds to make it to the fringes of the pro game and, as a Globetrotter, earn the nickname Hacksaw.

And in their royal blue jerseys and candy-striped trunks, they are resplendent.

These are not my Globetrotters — I came up with Geese Ausbie, who turned down an NBA contract to play with the team; the mellifluously named Meadowlark Lemon; Greensboro’s own ballhandler Curly Neal.

These guys played a game of pure entertainment, incorporating wild plays, trick shots and buckets of water into the show. In this era, their eternal rivals the Washington Generals became the losingest team in professional sports, always glaringly white in their green uniforms decades before Larry Bird played for the Celtics.

They traced their tenure with the team back to its founder Abe Saperstein, who didn’t exactly found it so much as appropriate it from its Chicago roots back in the 1920s and then bring the show on the road.

The Globetrotters were never from Harlem; Saperstein chose the home turf to convey the racial makeup of the squad. And in those early days, they never trotted the globe but barnstormed through the Midwest and, in 1940, became champions of the world.

That was the World Basketball Championships, an invitational tourney put on by a Chicago newspaper open to professional, amateur and barnstorming teams. The ’Trotters beat the Chicago Bruins 31-29, with an amazing 12 points from Sonny Boswell, who was named the MVP.

Buckets, by contrast, averaged 13 points a game his senior year at the University of Wyoming, enough to bring him to the Canadian and European leagues, the US semipro circuit and, eventually, the Globetrotters.

The team actually trots the globe these days — Blakes says he’s on his fourth passport.

“It’s by far the best life and basketball experience,” he tells the kids.

“Any of you kids got asthma or anything like that?” the coach asks the children on the floor. They squirm some more, reluctant to convey weakness in front of the ballers. After three counselors raise their own hands, several of the kids join in.

“Okay, we gonna stretch out a little bit,” coach says, “then we gonna roll for the next couple hours.”

They fill up both nets at four courts at the sportsplex, working on the give-and-go, the behind-the-back pass, defensive footwork, the coast-to-coast.

The little ones working on the backdoor pass can’t seem to get the hang.

“You gotta dribble when you run!”

“Pass it first!”

Part of the distraction are the Globetrotters themselves — the kids can’t stop looking at them, even when they’re supposed to be working the low post.

Buckets can deal with it. He’s one of 10 children.

“It’s important to me to be a good role model,” he told them earlier.

Hall, who at 6-foot-8 looks like a windmill in a cornfield, has transcended his Greensboro roots. He’s “been around the world and back,” he says. Now he makes his home in Richmond, Va.

Hall became a Globetrotter six years ago, just after graduating Radford. The team he joined is a far cry from Saperstein’s barnstormers — who in the beginning wanted to be acknowledged as a genuine team — and from the antic-laden squads of Curly and Meadowlark. Today’s Globetrotters play a faster brand of ball, with some more street to their game than anything the NBA puts out.

And though Hall is still an unrestricted free agent in the league, he has no problems with his career in the red, white and blue uni of the longest-running team in the money game.

There may not be a championship — a real one, anyway — in his future with the squad, but there isn’t one in his past, either. His team at Radford made it to the NCAA tournament just once while he was there, in his senior year of 2009. They lost in the first round to the UNC Tarheels.

Sometimes it’s better to be a Globetrotter.

“We win a lot,” he says.

This day with the kids, on his home turf, is a win of a different sort.