(Third in a five-part series in this Final Four week on Minnesota basketball events.)
Professional basketball was a hodge-podge of regional leagues and barnstorming teams in the 1930s. The National Basketball League was formed in 1937 and made an effort at organization, although there were 38 franchises in its 12 seasons, and the league fluctuated from four to 11 teams over its final decade.
There was an attempt to crown a U.S. champion with the World Professional Basketball Tournament, which was held in Chicago and sponsored by the Hearst-owned Herald American newspaper from 1939 to 1948.
It was a tournament that brought together top NBL teams, all-black teams and other barnstormers. The 10 champions included three black teams: the New York Rens in 1939, the Harlem Globetrotters in 1940 and the Washington Bears in 1943.
The Rens were the originals, formed in 1923, four years before Abe Saperstein started the Globetrotters. To start, Saperstein had five players, with him as the only backup should a mishap befall Goose Tatum, Marquis Haynes, Ermer Robinson, Wilbert King or Babe Pressly.
The Globetrotters were Chicago-based, with Saperstein choosing the Harlem title to market the team’s ethnicity. Saperstein was a great recruiter of talent – a serious basketball team that started adding the routines to the entertainment as they rolled over opponents on their constant barnstorming tours.
The NBL had integrated its rosters to a degree during the war, but when the Basketball Association of America (now classified as the forerunners to the NBA) arrived in 1946-47, those teams were all-white.
The Minneapolis Lakers replaced the woeful Detroit Gems in the NBL for the 1947-48 season. George Mikan, the most-famous and most-dominant basketball player in the world, hit the market after a third league, the Professional Basketball League of America, folded on Nov. 12, 1947.
The Lakers were able to beat out the BAA to sign Mikan. Suddenly, four games into their history, the Minneapolis Lakers had the No. 1 attraction in pro basketball. And Saperstein had the No. 1 attraction in basketball entertainment – talent and showmanship.
Mikan was from Chicago. The Globetrotters were from Chicago. This was too good to be true.
We’ll leave Sid Hartman to either confirm or deny this popular account: Max Winter, the Lakers’ general manager, made a deal with Saperstein to hold an all-out game between the Lakers and the Globetrotters.
The date found was Feb. 19, 1948, two nights after the Lakers had completed a two-game sweep in Indiana: over the Anderson Packers and then the Indianapolis Kautskys. This gave the Lakers a 33-13 record, with eight victories in a row.
The Globetrotters claimed a more impressive winning streak: 103 games.
Winter and Saperstein were hoping for a solid crowd in Chicago Stadium. So were the Chicago Stags and the New York Knicks, two teams from the BAA that would be playing the second game of the doubleheader.
Mikan vs. the Globetrotters in Chicago did better than solid: The crowd was 17,823, and the ticket buyers were there for the exhibition, not the second game.
Stew Thornley, a historian of the Lakers and other Minnesota sports entities, found this quote from Winter: “Little did we realize that it would turn out to be one of the most-memorable basketball games of all-time.’’
Mikan was dominating the 6-foot-3 Tatum through the first half, scoring 18 as the Lakers took a 32-23 lead. Then, Saperstein ordered a constant double-team from Tatum and Pressly on Mikan, the other Lakers couldn’t make the Globetrotters pay for the extra attention on Big George, and it was 59-59 with 90 seconds remaining.
Haynes put on a dribbling exhibition to run down the clock, threw a pass to Robinson in the final seconds, and Ermer hit a long set shot at the final buzzer to give the Globetrotters the victory, 61-59.
Considering the size of the crowd, there’s not much surprise that the headline in the next afternoon’s Minneapolis Star read: “Lakers Seek Return Tilt With Victorious Trotters.’’
The teams didn’t play Game 2 until Feb. 28, 1949, again in Chicago Stadium. This time, the crowd was 20,046 – “all the law will allow in the gigantic stadium,’’ wrote Glen Gaff in the next morning’s Tribune.
That’s right … the second Globetrotters-Lakers was so big the Tribune popped to send a sports writer to Chicago to cover it. Both the Lakers and the visiting reporter were astounded by the Trotters’ explosive second period, as Gaff offered this lead:
“A red-hot 23-point second period by the Harlem Globetrotters, which all but melted the ice under the basketball court at Chicago Stadium, proved too much for the Minneapolis Lakers on Monday night …’’
The score was 49-45, although the Lakers were down 13 with four minutes left and Saperstein had his team stop shooting and run down the clock.
This time, there was a rematch in Minneapolis on March 13, and a crowd of 10,122 showed at the Auditorium to watch a 68-53 victory for the Lakers. It was described in print as the “largest crowd ever to pack the huge arena.’’
By this second season, the Lakers had moved to the Basketball Association of America. They had won the NBL title in Year One and would win the BAA title (the first of the five recognized by the NBA) in Year Two.
For all the outstanding games the Lakers played in winning six titles in seven seasons from the fall of 1947 to the spring of 1954, for all the intensity of their rivalry with the Rochester [N.Y.] Royals, nothing packed the arenas as did the Lakers’ early games with the Globetrotters.
The Lakers would beat the Globetrotters twice more in the 1949-50 season: Feb. 21, 1950 at Chicago Stadium and March 26, 1950 at the St. Paul Auditorium. Beginning with the selection of Chuck Cooper, Earl Lloyd and Nate (Sweetwater) Clifton in the 1950 draft, the NBA slowly started to integrate.
Clifton went from being a Globetrotters’ star to the New York Knicks for the 1950-51 season. The fascination with the best black team against the best white team faded. There were single games in 1951 and 1952, both Lakers' victories over the Globetrotters, and then a desperate try again in 1958.
As for integration, our Lakers were a bit slow to take advantage of this amazing talent influx:
Bob Williams was the first African-American to play for the Lakers, as a reserve in 1955-56. Walter Dukes was the first African-American to get extensive playing the next season
(Thursday: When the Hamline Pipers were a national power.)