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Harlem Globetrotters to visit Norfolk this weekend

The 84-year-old basketball show known as the Harlem Globetrotters will visit the Hampton Roads area this weekend, and team members promise to deliver an entertaining show.

“It’s more of a game, but we end up putting on a show, because of the things that we do,” said Aundre “Hot Shot” Branch, who has been a Globetrotter for seven years. “We have music playing, and there’s a lot of dancing with the fans.”

From its humble beginnings, the Globetrotters have become one of the most recognizable basketball teams in the world. The team was started in the 1920s by 24-year-old Abe Saperstein, who organized and coached the “Savoy Big Five,” according to information on the team’s Web site.

The original team got its name from Chicago’s famous Savoy Ballroom, where the first games were played. The ballroom, located above a movie theater, featured all the big bands of the day. Business began dropping off, and the owners of the Savoy decided to schedule basketball games in order to lure people to Savoy after the game.

The Savoy agreed to sponsor Saperstein’s team, and the Savoy Big Five was born. However, the basketball scheme did not do much for business at the Savoy, and the idea eventually was dropped. However, the players wanted to continue with the team, and Saperstein proposed a touring team. Several new players joined, and the Savoy Big Five now included players Tommy Brookings, William Grant, Inman Jackson, Lester Johnson, Joe Lillard, Randolph Ramsey, Walter Wright and William Watson.

The team had a slow start, but increasingly picked up speed. On Jan. 7, 1927, the Big Five played its first game in Hinckley, Ill., before an audience of 300 people. The game netted $75 in admission fees — at a price of 25 cents each.

The new team traveled the road packed into Saperstein’s Model T Ford. By 1930, the team’s name had been changed to the Harlem New York Globetrotters, and in 1939, the team began to clown around during a game it was leading by a 107-point margin. The crowd responded well, and “clowning around” became a selling point for the team.

Not everyone responded well — or so the team thought. In 1949, the Globetrotters traveled by dogsled to inner Alaska to perform for an Eskimo audience, but they were puzzled when the audience did not laugh or clap. However, the team did not realize that the more silent an Eskimo audience is, the more the performance is appreciated.

Though the Globetrotters have played for presidents and popes, the players are still humble.

“I was always a fan [of the Globetrotters], but I never thought I would get a chance to play for them,” said Branch, who was playing for a team in Spain when the Globetrotters first contacted him. He went to a mini-camp with about 75 other players, and only three were offered positions with the team.

“Any basketball player would love to have a chance to be part of the organization,” Branch said. “Here I am in the shadow of some of the great Harlem Globetrotters.”

The Harlem Globetrotters will perform at the Ted Constant Convocation Center in Norfolk on Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. To buy tickets, visit www.constantcenter.com.