- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 15, 2000

NEW YORK
Basketball's beloved buffoons are ready to get real.
The Harlem Globetrotters still run their famous weave-and-pivot. They still shower the scorer's table with confetti, still goose the referees, still pummel the hapless New York Nationals successors to the Washington Generals night after night after night. And they still do it all to the familiar whistle of "Sweet Georgia Brown."
But later this year, the Globetrotters will put their trademark pranks aside for a rare competitive tour a multigame exhibition series against some of the nation's top college teams, one that team owner Mannie Jackson assures will be "straight basketball with no tricks or shenanigans."
And while the idea seems somewhat incongruous like WWF football or Aaron Spelling's "Macbeth" the Globetrotters promise they will be more than ready.
"We've always been competitive," said coach Charles "Tex" Harrison, who has played or coached with the team for 39 years. "There were a few years where we slipped away from that, but we've always wanted to be considered basketball players first, entertainers second. And we're there we just have to prove it.
"Give us some time to practice, put all of our players together and we can do it. Our practice schedule will change. We'll devote all of our time to the competitive aspects of the game, and we'll be well prepared."
The tour, part of a three-year agreement with the National Association of Basketball Coaches that includes a game against a college all-star team at this year's Final Four, is the latest step in Jackson's ongoing effort to rebuild the Globetrotters' faded competitive credibility.
"What's behind this is to erase the cartoon image, the novelty act image that was established back in the 1970s," Jackson said. "It's been a ball and chain around our neck. We want to get back to the point when we were an international favorite as a barnstorming basketball team that can entertain but can also put some serious licks on people."
When Jackson, a former Globetrotter turned Honeywell executive, purchased the team for $5.5 million in 1993, he took over organization whose finances and reputation were both slumping badly.
The Globetrotters, founded in 1927, were perhaps the world's best barnstorming team for many decades, twice defeating the world champion Minneapolis Lakers in 1948-49. In fact, the Globetrotters originally developed their comedy routines including the weave-and-pivot as a way of entertaining audiences during blowout victories.
Yet as the comedy became preeminent highlighted by 1972's short-lived television variety series "Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine" and a number of memorable guest appearances on "Scooby Doo" the team's competitive identity suffered.
By 1991, the team's annual attendance had dropped two-thirds to roughly 600,000, while its revenues dipped below $10 million.
And though Jackson quickly turned around the team's financial situation raising annual attendance to more than 2.5 million, adding a dozen corporate sponsors, quadrupling revenues and increasing the team's net worth to around $55 million last year the lack of competitive respect still irked him.
"I originally wanted to own the rights to the name," Jackson said. "The idea was to build a licensing and merchandising phenomenon around it. I also wanted access to the story, for musical purposes and movies and such which we have going.
"And we made so much money in the third year, I was almost OK with not having the image just yet. Economically, we were probably the wealthiest sports team in the country at that point.
"But it still bothered me that we didn't have the credibility. It was kind of an insult."
To make the team more competitive, Jackson raised player salaries to a maximum of $250,000 a year and recruited high-quality players like former Maryland stars Exree Hipp and Johnny Rhodes from overseas, the CBA and major college programs.
More importantly, he rekindled an annual tour of games against top college players. In 1997, the Globetrotters defeated a college all-star team featuring seven NBA draft picks; last year, the Globetrotters swept a three-game series against a college all-star team that featured Denver Nuggets rookie James Posey and Detroit Pistons rookie Jermaine Jackson.
The Globetrotters also captured the 1998 Los Angeles Summer Pro League title, beating out a field of teams that featured NBA stars Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce and Anthony Mason.
"Sure, the 'Trotters are show, with the tricks and confetti and all that," Wizards forward Tracy Murray said. "But give them credit. I've played against most of them in the L.A. Summer League. Some of them even played on my team. And they can play. A lot of them could go play overseas or in the NBA or the CBA. My brother [Cameron Murray] left the CBA to play with the 'Trotters because it was a better situation."
But can they compete with a major college team?
Murray said yes.
"They've been together five or six years, the same guys, playing every day," he said. "And they have experience playing against professionals every summer. So it could be a little difficult for a college team they'll probably beat some of them."
Said Cameron Murray: "The Globetrotters have a long tradition of many more wins than losses. And we want to keep it that way."
While the NABC has yet to announce which college teams will face the Globetrotters this fall, Mannie Jackson said St. John's, Purdue and Michigan State have all expressed interest.
"[St. John's coach] Mike Jarvis has always been a supporter," Jackson said. "And we'd like to open up in Madison Square Garden against Mike's team. But I just want to play a top team. I don't want to beat some team 140-50. That's not going to serve anyone's interest. So put us with a good program."
Ultimately, Jackson said, he wants to establish the Globetrotters as one of the top-10 basketball teams in the world, good enough to receive an at-large bid to the FIBA World Championship as long as that doesn't detract from the team's true mission.
"We have access to the players, but our issue now is: Do we want to pay that kind of crazy money?" Jackson said. "Our players are starting to average over a couple hundred thousand a year. They're doing OK. But do we want to go over that?
"It would take money away from charity, from good business, from small towns that we travel to and be ambassadors. We go to places, like Oshkosh, Wisconsin, that league teams can't get to, and we'll spend a day or two with families and kids. We could have never spent a month in South Africa, working with Nelson Mandela and others during that healing period if our players had their hands out for a million, 2 million.
"The charm that we have is that we can go into a place like Beirut, Lebanon, beat the best Middle Eastern teams handily and still have the people walking away smiling and happy. And I don't want to lose that."

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