Updated: April 16, 3:15 PM ET
In a league of their own
By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com
They didn't know, and that is surely a part of the charm. Marques Haynes and his Harlem Globetrotter teammates knew they were headed into a terrific contest against the mighty Minneapolis Lakers on that day 55 years ago. Haynes certainly understood the mathematics in play, an all all-black team facing an all-white team.
"I don't think," Haynes says now, "that anyone had any thoughts at the time of it being as important as it turned out to be."
And that, of course, is one of the compelling things about history: It is so often committed by those who are too immersed in the moment to see that they've done it.
On Feb. 19, 1948, the Harlem Globetrotters beat the Minneapolis Lakers, 61-59, at Chicago Stadium in a game that would, most basketball historians agree, forever change the sport. It was the game that brought the talent level of African-American players into the open, that confirmed the men wearing Globetrotters uniforms as brilliant, elite basketball players rather than mere skilled entertainers.
It was the game that openly alerted the professional leagues to the competitive advantages of incorporating black athletes into previously all-white basketball teams. It certainly was the direct precursor to the 1950 season, when Sweetwater Clifton, Chuck Cooper and Earl Lloyd became the first African-American players on NBA teams.
And it also was, those 55 years ago, very much just a basketball game between two great teams on a cold winter night in the Midwest. The history was in the aftermath. The game was the thing.
"Very cold night," remembers Haynes, now 76, the only living member of the Globetrotters' starting five from that game. "It was an extremely big crowd in Chicago Stadium, and you could tell they were wondering just how we might fare out, playing against the Lakers -- the Lakers being the dominating team that they were, and the Globetrotters being thought of as just a comedy basketball team, ball-handling and tricks and all this."
The Globetrotters knew what they had. They had Haynes, generally acknowledged as the best ball handler of his era, and Goose Tatum, and sweet-shooting Ermer Robinson, and a lineup that had beaten all comers in a day when the Trotters really did play all comers on their barnstorming tours of the country.
They also knew what the Lakers had. The Lakers had the great George Mikan and Dan "Swede" Carlson and Jim Pollard, and it was a given that Minneapolis was the best professional team assembled. Haynes and his teammates had played in enough double-headers in which the Lakers appeared on the pro half of the bill to appreciate the Minneapolis lineup.
"The average person really felt the Lakers would win, I think," says Haynes, who in 1998 became the first member of the Globetrotters inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. "They just didn't realize what kind of talent we had."
The history, it turns out, was in the playing. The Lakers, using Mikan's height advantage at center, jumped out to an early lead and still were in control at halftime, but the Globetrotters chipped away, possession by possession, to draw back even in the second half.
"There was only one person on the team who had wondered why the Globetrotters would schedule that game against the Lakers, and guess who it was?" Haynes says with a chuckle. "The player who made the winning shot."
Robinson's shot went through the net as the buzzer sounded. After some confusion over the shot clock, the basket was declared good. The Trotters had won, 61-59. And professional basketball was never the same.
The Globetrotters and Lakers met twice more in 1949, Haynes' team winning the first contest and Mikan's squad the second. By then, the legitimacy of Abe Saperstein's Chicago-based basketball troupe was beyond question, and the momentum for black players in the pros was gathering. Clifton, Cooper and Lloyd signed with NBA teams shortly thereafter, and over the following decades African-Americans would come not merely to be integrated into the league, but to dominate the professional ranks.
Somewhat incredibly, both franchises from that historic 1948 meeting are still thriving. The Lakers, long since relocated to Los Angeles, have produced some of the most famous players in the annals of the NBA. The Globetrotters, moribund as recently as the early 1990s, have made a global resurgence since being purchased by former Trotter player Mannie Jackson in 1993. This year, the Globetrotters' two traveling squads will play some 500 dates around the world.
"It's gratifying to know that it has the resiliency that it does," Jackson says of the Globetrotter franchise. "I'd be lying to you if I said I totally understood it, but great brands find a way to endure."
Endure the Trotters have. And coming someday to a theater near you: The filmic history of the Globetrotters, to be directed by "A League of Their Own's" Penny Marshall -- and to be focused significantly through the prism of that '48 contest with the Lakers. It was, at the time, one hell of a game. It's history now.
Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com