Sunday, August 7, 2011
The Coronation for Basketball's Clown Prince
By Oscar Robertson
(To the New York Times)
A great oversight will be rectified Friday when the Harlem Globetrotters star Reece Tatum — better known as Goose — is enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
The Globetrotters’ founder, Abe Saperstein, the former stars Meadowlark Lemon and Marques Haynes, and the organization have been in the Hall for some time. But Tatum, the original “clown prince,” the heart and soul of the team, was not. So last fall, I placed his name in nomination, the committee on African-American pioneers of the game agreed, and he will take his rightful place alongside his colleagues.
Tatum was my hero when I was a youngster and just starting to develop as a player. I grew up poor in segregated Indianapolis in the 1940s and ’50s, when it was rare to see black and white players on the same court. Attending professional basketball games was out of the question aside from a local community organization’s periodic $1 specials. But I wouldn’t think of missing the Globetrotters’ annual visit. Invited into their locker room when I was 13, I was astonished that the players’ primary halftime activity was their card game.
My fellow Crispus Attucks High School alumni Hallie Bryant, Willie Gardner and my older brother Bailey went on to play for the Trotters, and Cleveland Harp played for one of Tatum’s later barnstorming teams. (I resisted Saperstein’s overtures when I was at the University of Cincinnati because I had promised my mother I would get a college education.)
Tatum created Globetrotters basketball as we know it today. From 1942 to 1954, except for two years of military service, he was the most popular player on the most popular team in the history of basketball. He was an unparalleled ambassador for the sport, performing for presidents, popes, kings and millions of fans all over the world. Even as they were denied equal rights at home, he and his teammates helped defuse cold-war tensions with a State Department tour of the Soviet Union.
Goose was only 6 feet 4 inches and whippet lean, but he had an 84-inch wingspan. He could handle the ball, lead the fast break, shoot from outside. When he set up inside, he owned the paint. His repertory of tricks — often created spontaneously — combined with his quickness made him impossible to stop. He frequently scored 50-plus points a game. Regardless of the caliber of the opposition, one has to be able to put the ball in the basket to do that.
Tatum’s most impressive shot was the hook, which he is credited with inventing. Swooping in one direction, he would arc the ball back the other way, toward the goal. Sometimes, however, he would stand dead still, flip the ball back over his head without looking, and wait for the crowd to tell him he had hit nothing but net. The Globetrotters had perfected the no-look pass; Tatum added the no-look shot.
His blend of superb athletic skills with the charisma of a showman was unique. He was beyond cool; he was sly — a hustler, a trickster, a magician. You just knew he was up to no good. His perpetual grin said, “Here it comes, fool, and you can’t stop me.” He studied clowns and mimes, the better to evoke laughter from movement instead of speech.
Although the Globetrotters became known primarily as entertainers, Tatum and his teammates could play serious basketball with anyone. In 1948 and 1949 exhibitions, they beat the reigning N.B.A. champion Minneapolis Lakers, led by George Mikan, the most dominant player of that era. Then they split a 22-game exhibition series with a college all-star team led by Bob Cousy.
Tatum was born in 1921 in El Dorado, Ark., and played several sports in high school. His first love actually was baseball, and I saw him play first base for the Indianapolis Clowns before I saw him on the court. He began his pro career at age 16 with the Louisville Black Colonels, and appeared thereafter with Negro league teams in Memphis, Birmingham, Indianapolis and Detroit. His clowning on the field and at bat quickly drew Saperstein’s attention.
During Tatum’s tenure, the Globetrotters graduated from barnstorming the nation’s backwaters to drawing huge audiences live and on national television. They helped keep the N.B.A. afloat in its early years by filling the arena for the first game of doubleheaders.
Whatever Saperstein paid him, Tatum seemed to spend more, and he periodically disappeared while the team was traveling. In 1954, he left the Globetrotters for good, fronting a succession of his own touring teams through 1966. He is said to have carried the gate receipts (and the team’s payroll) in a paper bag.
Tatum came to see my Cincinnati team play an N.C.A.A. tournament game in Lawrence, Kan., in 1959, and we took a wild ride afterward in his red Cadillac. That was my last contact with him. He died, apparently of a heart attack, in 1967.
I know nothing of Tatum’s personal life, but Haynes once said, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had nothing on Goose.” He might have perpetuated the longstanding tradition of the tragic clown, but I remember watching him in awe. I couldn’t wait to get to the playground to emulate some of his tricks, knowing that our coaches would never permit them in organized competition.
Even now, the mere mention of Goose Tatum makes me smile.