The exact beginnings of the Harlem Globetrotters are uncertain, although the team considers that their first-ever road game took place on January 7, 1927, in Hinckley, Illinois. Over the past nine decades, the hoopsters have entertained 144 million fans in more than 100 countries with their comedy routines and basketball skills. Explore 10 surprising facts about the world-famous barnstorming basketball team.

The Harlem Globetrotters originated in Chicago.

Members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. (Credit: David Reed)
Members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. (Credit: David Reed)

In spite of the team’s name, the squad was born 800 miles west of Harlem in the south side of Chicago. In 1926, a group of former basketball players from Chicago’s Wendell Phillips High School reunited to play for the Giles Post American Legion basketball team that barnstormed around the Midwest. The following year, the team became known as the Savoy Big Five while playing home games as pre-dance entertainment at Chicago’s newly opened Savoy Ballroom. After a pay dispute, several players bolted the Savoy Big Five in 1928 to form a new barnstorming team known as the Globe Trotters.

A white Jewish immigrant gave the team its name.

Professional basketball executive Abe Saperstein. (Credit: Public Domain)
Professional basketball executive Abe Saperstein. (Credit: Public Domain)

Abe Saperstein from Chicago’s north side became the manager of the newly formed Globe Trotters. A master promoter, Saperstein re-christened the team as the New York Harlem Globe Trotters in the belief that the name would make the team a greater draw in Illinois and Iowa by giving the impression that they had traveled far to be there. The shortest member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, Saperstein also thought that attaching Harlem to the squad’s name would help advertise it as an all-black basketball team at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Not until 1968 did the team actually play a game in Harlem.

The Harlem Globetrotters played serious basketball in their early decades.

Composite of five photographs of some members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, 1931. (Credit: Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)
Composite of five photographs of some members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, 1931. (Credit: Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

Although now known primarily for their on-court antics, the Globetrotters played straight-up basketball games at their outset. The team lost the national championship game in 1939 to another all-black team, the New York Renaissance, but defeated the Chicago Bruins to capture the prestigious World Professional Basketball Tournament the following year. The Globetrotters didn’t start to incorporate ball tricks and dribbling exhibitions into their games until the late 1930s. In 1948, the Globetrotters shocked the basketball world by defeating the Minneapolis Lakers, champions of the all-white National Basketball League, the precursor to the National Basketball Association (NBA). The following year, they proved it was no fluke by beating the Lakers again.

The NBA’s first African American players were Harlem Globetrotters.

Nat Sweetwater Clifton, of the New York Knickerbockers, holding a basketball in each hand. (Credit: Bettmann / Contributor)
Nat Sweetwater Clifton, of the New York Knickerbockers, holding a basketball in each hand. (Credit: Bettmann / Contributor)

The victories by the Globetrotters over the Lakers demonstrated the talent of African American basketball players at a time when the NBA, unlike professional baseball and football, had yet to integrate. That changed in May 1950 when the Globetrotters’ Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton became the first African American player to sign a contract with an NBA team by inking a deal with the New York Knicks. Earl Lloyd and Chuck Cooper, who also broke the color barrier in 1950, had also played briefly with the Globetrotters.

Wilt Chamberlain began his professional career with the team.

Wilt Chamberlain. (Credit: Underwood Archives / Contributor)
Wilt Chamberlain. (Credit: Underwood Archives / Contributor)

One of the greatest basketball players of all-time, the seven-foot, one-inch Chamberlain signed a one-year contract with the Globetrotters reported to be worth $50,000 after leaving the University of Kansas in 1958 following his junior year. Chamberlain often said the year he spent with the Globetrotters was the most enjoyable of his career. He joined the team on an historic 1959 tour of the Soviet Union during which he shook hands with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. He was the first Harlem Globetrotter to have his number retired.

The Harlem Globetrotters helped keep the fledgling NBA afloat.

Chriss 'Ace' Jackson  of the Harlem Globetrotters spin the ball on her finger before an exhibition game against the World All-Stars at Arena on June 2, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary. (Credit: Arpad Kurucz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Chriss ‘Ace’ Jackson of the Harlem Globetrotters spin the ball on her finger before an exhibition game against the World All-Stars at Arena on June 2, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary. (Credit: Arpad Kurucz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

While the Globetrotters played to sellout crowds in the early 1950s, the newly formed NBA struggled to draw more than a few thousand fans to its games. To drum up interest in the new league, NBA teams scheduled doubleheaders that featured the Globetrotters. As the NBA grew in stature, it could pay higher salaries than the Globetrotters, and the best African American players began to opt for the NBA.

Three Baseball Hall of Famers played for the team.

Carde 'Rocket' Pennington of Harlem Globetrotters dunks the ball during the exhibition game between Harlem Globetrotters and World All-Stars at Laszlo Papp Budapest Arena on June 2, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary. (Credit: Laszlo Szirtesi/Getty Images)
Carde ‘Rocket’ Pennington of Harlem Globetrotters dunks the ball during the exhibition game between Harlem Globetrotters and World All-Stars at Laszlo Papp Budapest Arena on June 2, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary. (Credit: Laszlo Szirtesi/Getty Images)

In addition to the hardwood legends who played for the Harlem Globetrotters, so did three diamond gods enshrined in Cooperstown. After signing with the St. Louis Cardinals, pitcher Bob Gibson spent late 1957 playing with the Globetrotters and rooming with Basketball Hall of Famer Meadowlark Lemon until the baseball club reportedly offered him more money to focus strictly on baseball. Even after winning 20 games for the Chicago Cubs, pitcher Ferguson Jenkins suited up for the Globetrotters during the off-seasons from 1967 to 1969. After winning a World Series title in 1967 with the Cardinals, speedster Lou Brock also played a handful games for the court jesters.

They have lost to the Washington Generals.

Members of the Harlem Globetrotters arrive before an exhibition game against the World All-Stars at Arena on June 2, 2016 in Budapest,Hungary. (Credit: Arpad Kurucz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Members of the Harlem Globetrotters arrive before an exhibition game against the World All-Stars at Arena on June 2, 2016 in Budapest,Hungary. (Credit: Arpad Kurucz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

When it became more difficult for the Globetrotters to find opponents as they barnstormed the country, Saperstein in 1953 asked Red Klotz, the coach and manager of the Philadelphia Sphas, to tour as the Globetrotters’ foils. The Sphas had beaten the Globetrotters on several occasions in prior years, but that would hardly be the case with Klotz’s new squad, which he rebranded the Washington Generals. Although the team took on various identities such as the Boston Shamrocks, New Jersey Reds and Atlantic City Seagulls, the players—and the losing—remained the same. It’s estimated the Generals dropped more than 16,000 games to the Globetrotters, but in one shining moment on January 5, 1971, the 50-year-old Klotz, who was a player-coach, drained a last-second bucket to beat the Globetrotters in Martin, Tennessee. Lacking champagne, the Generals poured orange soda on their coach in the locker room. “Beating the Globetrotters is like shooting Santa Claus,” Klotz was quoted as saying of the monumental victory.

The team once had a one-armed star.

Members of the Globetrotters basketball team are shown arriving in New York aboard the liner Mauretania. From top to bottom are: Louis Pressly; William "Rookie" Brown; Boyd Buie; Reece "Goose" Tatum; Frank Washington; Markus Haynes; Sammy Quee; Clarence Wilson; and (in front) manager Winfield Welch. (Credit: Bettmann / Contributor)
Members of the Globetrotters basketball team are shown arriving in New York aboard the liner Mauretania. From top to bottom are: Louis Pressly; William “Rookie” Brown; Boyd Buie; Reece “Goose” Tatum; Frank Washington; Markus Haynes; Sammy Quee; Clarence Wilson; and (in front) manager Winfield Welch. (Credit: Bettmann / Contributor)

In 1946, Boid Buie joined the Harlem Globetrotters as one of the new crop of rookies. Buie was an amazing talent considering he had lost his left arm in an automobile accident as a teenager. He overcame his handicap to star at Tennessee State and serve as captain his senior year. As a nine-year member of the Globetrotters, Buie averaged double-digits in scoring.

The Harlem Globetrotters have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The Harlem Globetrotters star on Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood, California. (Credit: Alphotographic/www.istockphoto.com)
The Harlem Globetrotters star on Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood, California. (Credit: Alphotographic/www.istockphoto.com)

The Harlem Globetrotters proved to be entertainers off the court as well, starring in two 1950s Hollywood movies, including “Go Man Go” featuring Sidney Poitier. In the 1970s they became Saturday morning television regulars, appearing in two different animated series created by Hanna-Barbera and the “Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine,” a 1974 live-action variety show. The team also solved mysteries with Scooby-Doo and played a team of robots after crash-landing on Gilligan’s Island. In recognition of their role as entertainers, the Harlem Globetrotters received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1982.