Chicago’s Harlem Globetrotters


When they circled the chain link fence around the old brown ramshackle house across the street, a preparation for the demolition to come, I could still hear Brother Bones whistling “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and remember that mixture of laughter and awe watching the Harlem Globetrotters on the black and white Zenith in the basement when I was 10.

That house. Right across the street on Hermitage Avenue, was where Abe Saperstein was living that cold January morning in 1927, when he got up and took his basketball team—the Savoy Big Five—60 miles west of Chicago, deep into the fields and farmlands, to the tiny town of Hinckley Illinois, for their first road game. Saperstein was just a bit over 5 feet tall himself. He was twenty four years old.

And he thought that the name “Harlem Globetrotters” would sell more tickets than “The Savoy Big Five.” He was right. The man did have a vision.

For that first trip out into the frozen Illinois tundra, Saperstein collected $75.

The team played 150-175 games a year during the last economic depression, the one in the 1930’s. They got so good, that they started developing comedy routines on the court.

Saperstein was the force behind the team for 39 years. He died in 1966. By then, the team had played in 87 countries

Now, 44 years after his death, his old house is coming down.

Not a big deal, I guess. Houses along Chicago streets come down every day. Used to be that a bigger, better—and often more pretentious—house would rise up where the old one stood. A “McMansion.”

But that’s changing. No one can afford to build a house here anymore.

Now what happens, and it’s happened 3 times on our one block alone, is that because there is a thin sliver of the population that still has lots of money, the guy next to the old house buys it, (at a rock bottom price) knocks it down and presto, there’s a neatly manicured green grass blanket of a side yard for kids and summer parties.

So the very nice people next door to the Saperstein place will have a lovely big yard.

Maybe they’ll keep the historical marker that said Abe Saperstein lived here.

But what I’ll remember is the total awe in watching the Globetrotters. How laughter burbles out of a young kid the first time they recognize what it means to be so good at something; that you can make it funny. To have the command that takes fun one step further so that it even becomes funny.

The list of professionals who played for the Globetrotters is the stuff of legends. It even includes Chicago Cubs pitcher Fergie Jenkins and St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson.

The Saperstein house is gone. But if you listen real hard you can still hear Brother Bones whistling “Sweet Georgia Brown.”

And if you think about The Globetrotters, perhaps you’ll recall a time when something or someone had such command, was just so good at what they did; that all you could do was laugh.

Being just so good, that you laugh.

Thank you Mr. Saperstein and your wondrous team.

5 Responses to “Chicago’s Harlem Globetrotters”

  1. twd3 Says:

    Roger:

    Did you jump the chain link fence and grab any old boards or windows as mementos/souvenirs? Abe would have appreciated that…

    TD

  2. Helen Gagel Says:

    Is it too much to hope that the new owners will put up a basketball hoop? Thanks for the memory, Roger.

  3. Dale Says:

    This was so good, it made me smile.

    Savoy Big Five, huh? Can’t imagine why he changed he name. 😉

    One consolation: At leat they’re not putting up a parking lot.

  4. Ted Schneider Says:

    Roger,

    Very interesting – I did not know the facts behind the Globetrotters but do recall seeing them at least once or twice as a young person. I do remember being in awe of their expertise on the court and they were entertaining as well. It is a shame we tear down old things like homes that have some historical value.

  5. Paul Haider Says:

    Thank you, Roger, for being such a good writer. I still remember watching the Harlem Globetrotters cartoon show on TV when I was a kid. I had no idea that that their first game was played in Illinois and that Fergie Jenkins played on the team at one point. Paul

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