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An 8-year-old kid gapes from the stands as the great George “Meadowlark” Lemon stomps over courtside to hurl a bucket of water on the ref — that intolerable striped-shirted thorn in Meadowlark’s side! The ref promptly ducks.

And then that wide-eyed boy — and all the other expectant spectators in those San Antonio, Texas, bleachers — has a split-second of gleeful horror, tensed for the inevitable. And, oh, Sweet Georgia Brown, but what comes flying into our cringing faces? Confetti. Of course.

What else could it be when the Harlem Globetrotters are in town?

I remember it was Lemon at the bucket because he was the Globetrotters to me, even there toward the end of his 24-year, nearly-10,000-game reign as basketball’s supreme courtside jester, a red-white-and-blue blur of soulful swagger and athletic prowess who retained his sugar-coated sense of cool even after he was turned into a Saturday-morning CBS cartoon alongside goofy Scooby Doo. But maybe I was actually 7, after all. And it could have been Greenville, N.C., and not San Antonio where my dad took me to see basketball’s irrepressible, irreplaceable comedy troupe of athletic all-stars, which also then included copper-domed dribbling impresario Fred “Curly” Neal and ebullient cut-up Hubert “Geese” Ausbie.

Details, schmetails. What matters is that I saw the Harlem Globetrotters as a kid. And so did everyone else sitting courtside with me that day, adults included. The team, now three-quarters of a century old and counting, weaves style and substance into something grander — call it spectacle — inevitably reducing adults to tow-headed tykes at the front row of the circus, mouths agape.

“I can’t think of a single soul who’s come up to me and said that they have a bad memory of the Harlem Globetrotters,” seven-year team veteran Wun “The Shot” Versher said by phone last week from a tour stop in Hampton, Va. “People keep bringing their kids, generation after generation,” he added. “Their fathers have seen us, and they’re bringing their sons, and their sons will probably be bringing their kids in the next 75 years.

“If you bring your children to a game, it’s almost promised that they will get something positive from that show. There is no bad track record [with] the Harlem Globetrotters.” Versher, 30, adores his job. “I probably wouldn’t give it up for nothing in the world,” he admits. Growing up in inner-city Compton, Calif., he first saw the team when he, too, was about 8, on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. His heart soared watching Geese Ausbie in action. “Geese just kind of lit up the screen,” enthuses Versher. “I was tied to the tube all morning.”

But he never aspired to be a Globetrotter himself. Basketball was a means to an end — Versher’s shooting skills paid for the degree he earned in recreation management from Arizona State in 1993. “I knew my family’s situation, so I just used basketball to get there for free,” he says. Versher had intended for graduation to mark the end of his hoops career. “I was done with basketball,” he says. But it wasn’t done with him. A Globetrotters scout who had seen Versher play contacted him after graduation. “I thought, actually, that it was a joke,” Versher remembers. “I was like, Globetrotters? At that point, I didn’t really think that they were still around.”

But he was intrigued enough to attend a team tryout. And when they rolled out the red, white and blue basketballs, that was it. “I fell in love with the team,” he gushes.

The Globetrotters began inauspiciously enough back in 1927. They were called the Savoy Big Five, after Chicago’s Savoy Ballroom, which sponsored them early on, according to the team’s official Web site. Founder and original owner Abe Saperstein, a 24-year-old white British immigrant, reportedly packed eight hand-picked black ballplayers into an old Model “T” and drove them to their first game before a crowd of 300 in Hinckley, Ill.

But the trademark clowning around didn’t surface for another 12 years. The ball club — by then renamed the Harlem New York Globetrotters to emphasize it was an all-black outfit in an age of white-only leagues — was routing a local team by the absurd (but not uncommon) margin, 112-5. To inject a little life into the proceedings, the ‘trotters started hamming it up. The crowd reportedly loved the foolishness, and Saperstein instructed his players to do that whenever they were winning big. Original Globie Inman Jackson would go on to create the “clown prince” role that became the team’s calling card. The 1942 team added Bob Karstens, the Globetrotters’ first and only full-time white player. (The team broke boundaries again in 1985, adding its first — and pro-basketball’s first — female player, Lynette Woodard, who stayed for two years.) Lemon, a native of Wilmington, N.C., joined the Globetrotters in 1954, realizing a dream he’d had since first seeing the team on newsreel footage when he was 11. He retired from the franchise in 1979 (though he played 50 more games with them in 1993) and is now an ordained minister in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Lemon remains the boss of the behind-the-back pass, a sure-fire setup for the easy layup. He’s also the man whom Globetrotters alum and giant NBA giant Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain called the best basketball player ever: the grinning king of the impossible half-courter hook shot — say swish!

Lemon was unavailable for comment at press time, tied up with filming an HBO Real Sports special on his life, said a spokesperson with Meadowlark Lemon Ministries Inc. His “master showman” mantle has been handed down to a new funny man, as it was passed down to him. Ausbie also once held the title, as did “Sweet” Lou Dunbar and the great Reece “Goose” Tatum. Now it’s Paul “Showtime” Gaffney’s turn.

Gaffney, 33, often called “the new Meadowlark Lemon,” said that much of his cutting up, unlike the old bucket trick, isn’t rehearsed. But the old confetti-for-water routine is still around today, and probably always will be.

“That’s something people want to see,” Gaffney says. “You can’t take that out. That’s like making lasagna and not putting the noodles in.

“A lot of people play for millions of dollars,” he adds. “We play for millions of smiles.”

Like many of his teammates, Gaffney measures his performance by what it does for children. In his hometown of Houston, he runs a nonprofit youth-development organization and is now building a 70,000-square-foot center for kids 8-18. Now in his eighth season with the team, Gaffney sees his job as “taking the history that the Globetrotters represent and magnifying it each and every night.” And that’s a lot of nights. The Globetrotters organization has been touring three different teams at once this season, putting in almost 300 games since Dec. 27, with only Super Bowl Sunday off, according to their press office.

Trouble in the Air

Today, the team, which played Nelson Mandela’s birthday party in 1997 (and named the peace-minded former South African president an honorary Globetrotter), is seeing something of a renaissance. But about 20 years back, it was a whole different story. At the dawn of the 1980s, the team was slowly sliding off the American sports horizon, even as the NBA began flowering into a televised cult of personality where top-player paychecks soon surpassed the national debts of some small countries. Versher blames the Globetrotters’ decline on bad management. “The team actually was going into bankruptcy,” he reveals. And with the coming Age of Michael, who really noticed the vanishing old-school showboaters? Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan was a one-man melding of style and substance, whose tongue-wagging (literally, his tongue, wagging) flights (literally, flights) of fancy (and oh, was he fancy) captured the American imagination — and expanded it. No cartoon was made of him, sure, but he did rub elbows with Bugs Bunny in Space Jam. But then His Airness retired in 1993. And then he retired again a little more than two years ago, this time for keeps.

Every great comic — and every great athlete — knows that timing is everything. In 1993, the Globetrotters got a new lease (again, literally) on life. Mannie Jackson, a former team member from the 1960s, bought the Globetrotters for $5.5 million that year, becoming the first African-American to own a major sports franchise, including the one most identified with America’s flagship black community. Like Jackson himself, the Harlem Globetrotters are now based in Phoenix, Ariz. Jackson’s life story reads like the bio of a black Horatio Alger: born in a Missouri boxcar, director of four Fortune 500 companies. “He picked the team up and put them back on the map,” Versher declares. The national “Sports Q” ratings — billed as a barometer of how likable and recognizable athletic personalities are — now place the Globetrotters second only to Air Mikey in stealing the American psyche, and just ahead of links lynx Tiger Woods.

In the vacuum created by Jordan’s absence, the revamped Globetrotters have an open court to dribble with our hearts, using them for flamboyant slam-dunks and flashy finger twirls. And Versher and Gaffney’s team, the one that will visit Asheville, is no longer pitted against the hapless old Washington Generals, but against a new nightly foe — the New York Nationals, who aren’t in it to lose, Versher says. They’ve won before — once. And that wasn’t a good thing. “If the Globetrotters don’t win, there are a lot of disappointed kids out there,” Versher says with a laugh. “It’s like shooting Santa Claus.”

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