Bulldog Mack, a basketball player with the Harlem Globetrotters, laughs constantly when he talks about the team’s exploits, on and off the court. “It’s one big family out there,” says the 6-foot, 7-inch native of Huntsville, Ala. “Too Tall [Hall] is one of the funniest people. From the time we wake up in the morning until we start playing, he’s cracking jokes. Back on the bus, when everyone’s tired, he’s still cracking jokes. He’s hilarious.”
The Globetrotters bring their 2019 Fan Powered World Tour to the U.S. Cellular Center on Sunday, Jan. 13. The team, known for laugh-out-loud family fun and exceptional athleticism, has entertained more than 146 million people in 123 countries and territories since its first road game in Hinckley, Ill., on Jan. 7, 1927. Over the decades, the players have triumphed over their fellow road team, the Washington Generals, more than 16,000 times.
This year’s tour puts the emphasis firmly on the fans. Each Globetrotters game provides attendees with more than 20 opportunities to interact directly with the team’s stars, including pregame “Magic Pass” events that allow pass holders to spend time on the court with the team, trying out ball tricks and getting autographs and photos.
“Our fans are the most important thing,” Mack says. “Going all over the world, meeting different people, they all have different stories about when they went to see the Globetrotters for the first time. So it’s always good to meet people.”
The athletes are genuinely funny people, Mack says. On court, they have some planned gags, but “about 90 percent of the things we do is unscripted, off the top of our heads,” he says. “It’s all about action and reaction. The best things are the ones that are unplanned, so we get a natural reaction from the fans as well as from the team.”
For instance, Mack says, player-turned-coach Louis “Sweet Lou” Dunbar has been a Harlem Globetrotter for so long that he knows how to make the team’s funniest gags even funnier. “He always has stories — how they ran a certain play like this and if you add something funny to it, you can do it this way,” Mack says. “This is stuff he truly loves.”
Sometimes when Nathaniel “Big Easy” Lofton is dribbling down court and sees someone in the stands eating popcorn, “he’ll stop the game entirely and get some,” Mack says. “The Big Easy is such a good ad-libber, it can happen any moment. Everything will stop. He’ll throw a joke out there, get some popcorn, and everyone will give him a standing ovation.”
The other players love that because they can interact with the fans at the same time, sometimes posing with them for selfies, sometimes cutting up with the kids. It also gives the athletes a chance to catch their breath.
Being a Globetrotter is hard. Fun aside, it’s a real basketball game taking place on the court, with some hard running. The Washington Generals, a team of excellent athletes, play to win but have beaten the Globetrotters only three times over the years, according to the Generals’ website (the Generals’ 100-99 victory on Jan. 5, 1971, in Martin, Tenn., snapped a 2,495-game winning streak for the Globetrotters). Every game, the Generals “want to make history,” Mack says. But the red-white-and-blue-festooned Globetrotters find a way to win despite their antics along the way. The Generals “really try to beat us, so it’s always a tough and engaging game,” Mack says.
Don’t doubt that the Globetrotters are all-American athletes. They defeated the world champion Minnesota Lakers in 1948 and ’49, victories that helped integrate the National Basketball Association. The team has been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Former players include basketball legends Wilt Chamberlain, an NBA superstar, and Lynette Woodard, an Olympic gold medalist. (Woodward’s signing with the team in ’85 began a strong tradition of female players on the roster; today’s lineup includes five women.) Most fans of a certain age remember Globetrotter stars Reece “Goose” Tatum and Fred “Curly” Neal.
And, “Everyone remembers Meadowlark Lemon with the water bucket full of confetti,” Mack says. “We keep that in for the older people who remember it and for the new generation who don’t know what’s coming. We have some amazing athletes, some world-class athletes. We have some of the world’s best dunkers. We have Jumping Joe Ballard: His leaping ability is something I’ve never seen before.”
It’s crazy even off the court, Mack says. “We’ll be on the bus with each other three, four hours [a day], and it’s just a comedy show in there. Someone is always cracking jokes or telling a story [about] the older players [and] what happened 10 years ago when they were on tour.”
It’s hard, physical work that, at the end of the day, can make even the youngest Globetrotter feel tired. But they go to bed with memories of having made people smile, Mack says. “You can have someone come up after the game and say, ‘This is the most fun I’ve had in a long time,'” he says. “That’s the best thing in the world, some of the best joy ever.”
WHAT: The Harlem Globetrotters’ Fan Powered World Tour, harlemglobetrotters.com
WHERE: U.S. Cellular Center, 87 Haywood St.,
WHEN: Sunday, Jan. 13. Game begins at 3 p.m. Magic Pass events are 1:30-2 p.m. Game tickets are $24-$96. Magic Pass events are $22 plus fees, must also have game ticket