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Abe Saperstein: An Unconventional Champion of Civil Rights

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Abe Saperstein: An Unconventional Champion of Civil Rights

In 1924 a young Jewish man named Abe Saperstein was chosen to coach an African American semi pro basketball team called the Giles Post American Legion Quintet. Little did he know that with this position he would eventually revolutionize the game of basketball and help to initiate integration throughout the country, while establishing himself as an unknown and unconventional hero. Saperstein was a masterful promoter and businessman who would build the most well known sports franchise in history. He was also a visionary who knew the immense impact that African Americans could have on the game of basketball and was determined to force integration throughout the game of basketball. By forming his own successful African American team, Saperstein pioneered the integration of the National Basketball Association, and changed the way the game of basketball was played.

Though Saperstein was born in London, England in 1902, he spent his childhood in Chicago and always having a fascination for basketball. After becoming the coach of the Giles Post semi-pro team, the team turned professional in 1926 and assumed the name the "Savoy Big Five". Under Saperstein's guidance, the team played in the famous Chicago's Savoy Ballroom, but in late 1926 three of the players, Inman Jackson, Lester Johnson, and Walter Wright got into a dispute with then manager Dick Hudson, and quit. But Saperstein had big plans; he and the three disgruntled players banded together with two new players and formed the Harlem Globetrotters. On January 7, 1927 Saperstein's Globetrotters played their first game in Hinckley Illinois and won handily, then the Globetrotters set off on a cross country tour in which they won 101 of 117 games, often by large margins. In the early years many of the people who attended the Globetrotters games had never interacted with people of African heritage. So Saperstein was in a sense integrating the entire country by spreading a black influence throughout the country. With these actions he began to lay the groundwork for the infusion of black players into mainstream basketball. Despite the fact they were winning games, the Globetrotters did not show a profit until 1940, because of this Saperstein was not only the coach, he was also the chauffer, trainer, and the teams only substitute player. Most times even when Saperstein had the money for hotel rooms his Globetrotters were discriminated against, so most of the time he and the team slept in the bus. Not even these difficult conditions could stop Saperstein from following through with his heroic plan for integration. The Globetrotters maintained their dominance on the court until 1939 when they were invited to play in their first professional basketball championship tournament. Unfortunately, the New York Renaissance defeated the Globetrotters, but the Globetrotters began to clown around and introduce some of the flashy aspects of street basketball to their game. Despite their loss, the crowd loved the Globetrotter's antics, and Saperstein saw an opportunity. He told his players to add more clowning to the games but only when they had established a safe lead. People from all around began to come see Saperstein's Globetrotters and their new fast paced style of flashy basketball. The original globetrotter Inman Jackson is credited with initiating the teams "Clown Prince of basketball" role that exists today. Despite the Globetrotter's new found fame from clowning around on the court, Saperstein still wanted to prove that his all black team could play with the best. So in 1940 with a record of 159 wins and 8 losses the Globetrotters were again invited to play in the World Professional Basketball tournament. This time the Globetrotters had their sights set on revenging last year's loss to the New York Renaissance; the Globetrotters got their revenge when they defeated New York in the semi-finals. The Globetrotters then went on to defeat the Chicago Bruins in overtime to capture their first ever World Basketball Championship. Despite their clowning play, this title provided substance to Saperstein's long-ignored claim that given the opportunity the Globetrotters were among basketballs best.

Because the Globetrotters were now considered to be a legitimate basketball team, they began to play more high profile games with larger crowds. For instance in 1940 after their championship, the Saperstein arranged for his Globetrotters to return to Chicago Stadium and play a game against the college all-stars before a crowd of 22,000, a far cry from the 300 who attended their first game in 1926. The Globetrotter's successes also made scheduling season games difficult, and the games they had often became lopsided and dull. But in 1942, Saperstein found the spark that would take the team in a new direction; he signed Reece "Goose" Tatum with the Globetrotters. Under Saperstein's guidance Tatum established himself as an inspired comedian and the two men are credited with developing most of the team's classic comedy routines, such as their patented bucket of water skit. Despite



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