The anticipation inside the gymnasium at Dubai International Academy was building. Hundreds of schoolchildren had been waiting and counting the minutes to see the Red, White and Blue pop out of the entrance in a build-up that would have been suitable for a rockstar.
It wasn’t rockstars the kids were waiting for though, but athletes that would be difficult to recognise in an everyday setting or walking down the street. Yet the joy they instantly brought to the room was palpable. These were the Harlem Globetrotters and if it wasn’t evident before, it became clear very quickly that their purpose is as much off the court as it is on, if not more.
Behind the slick handles, the fancy dribbles, the ball tricks and showmanship, is something deeper. The Globetrotters are more than a travelling circus, they’re ‘Ambassadors of Goodwill’.
Their role is one that goes beyond entertainment and has for nine decades, in which they’ve broken down barriers and had a positive influence on communities, particularly the black community.
When they began in 1926, it was during a period of racial inequality. Their all-African-American team, then known as the Savoy Big Five, would later become the Globetrotters with their move to the centre of black culture at the time – Harlem, New York City.
Before they incorporated tricks into their game, the Globetrotters were first and foremost a competitive team that played against other professional squads. They helped pave the way for black players, with one of their own, Nat ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton, becoming one of the first African-Americans to be drafted, as well as sign an NBA contract.
There’s no shortage of opportunities anymore, or as much racial inequality as there was 90 years ago, but what remains is plenty of unrest and injustice, especially in America at the moment.
From police shootings to institutional racism and everything in between, the need for figures of influence to lead the way continues to be a necessity and the Globetrotters, given their history, are a group that can wield that influence.
How they can use such influence is another question, and while Brawley ‘Cheese’ Chisholm probably didn’t come to Dubai expecting to be asked about the team’s role regarding social justice, as someone whose livelihood is more about impacting the community than scoring points, he didn’t hesitate to answer.
“It’s just staying with the template of what we’ve been doing for 90 years. It’s just really about being that role model of excellence and that role model of knowing what’s right and being a positive force,” he told Sport360.
“It’s about spreading joy to people so they can have an escape from whatever their days are. When you come to a Globetrotter game, whatever problems are going on in the world, you get to really just exhale and just have fun.”
Whether it’s the right or wrong approach, the Globetrotters aren’t deviating from their message.
While another athlete, Colin Kaepernick of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, has chosen to take a knee during the U.S. national anthem to protest against the current racial climate in his country, the Globetrotters are focused on bringing together people of all races and backgrounds.
“The unique thing about the Harlem Globetrotters is that we’re very versatile because we’re always positive. No matter where we go, we take pride in being able to bring people together,” said Fatima ‘TNT’ Lister, who in 2011 became the first female Globetrotter since 1993.
“We’re just going to stay on the trail we’ve been on and hope that positivity is infectious.”
They’re going about it in different ways, but Chisholm believes Kaepernick’s act of making a statement and forcing a conversation is something that shouldn’t be limited to athletes or people of influence.
“I think it’s big for the world to speak up about social issues, no matter what it is,” Chisholm said. “If he’s bringing light to a situation, people should acknowledge it. There are going to be pros and cons to everything, but it’s about acknowledging the pros and cons and coming to some type of agreement of what is going on.”
The Globetrotters may not be making any protest of their own anytime soon, but they’ll continue to go from school to school to spread a worthy message like their ‘ABCs of Bullying Prevention’, and entertain crowds young and old on the court, as they will Friday night at Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium.
Fans will be treated to cool trick after cool trick, but at the end of the day, the most impressive thing the Globetrotters can do is one where they don’t even need a basketball in their hands.
Tickets for the Globetrotters are priced from Dh150 and doors open at 17:30 with the action getting underway at 19:00.
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