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My Greatest Erwin Center Moments: The Harlem Globetrotters

When Sweet Georgia Brown came to Austin, Texas.

Jason Smith

I can't remember most of my freshman year of college, but I can still remember when the Harlem Globetrotters came to Austin, Texas when I was seven years old.

They were a phenomenon that my young brain couldn't initially process. Were the Globetrotters playing the Texas Longhorns? Was Harlem in the Big East? Is that Red, White, & Blue ball even regulation? Who are the Generals? I'm pretty sure that was traveling...

The first few chords of Sweet Georgia Brown and the Globetrotter lay-up line offered clarity. This was a mummer's show, with bits and premises straight from 1920s vaudeville, the chitlin' circuit, and the Catskills. But for me, it was high comedic art. No matter how hackneyed, a lot of it still makes me laugh today. It was my first introduction to clowning and it was clear to me who the joke was on. And it wasn't on the charismatic Globetrotters.

Geese Ausbie was basically a hoops version of Bugs Bunny. He stopped the action on several occasions to comment on game play - typically the fatness of the referee, who looked remarkably like the building supervisor Bookman on Good Times. Bookman would blow his whistle at Geese and chase him, whereupon the 6-9 Ausbie would hide successfully behind a small water cooler, a towel, or underneath a giggling spectator. Eventually bored, Geese would challenge various Generals to fights, then run away with high pitched screams when they responded, put on glasses lifted from someone in the crowd (you can't hit someone wearing glasses! It's a rule!), and then pelt his enemies with shoes stolen from the most uptight looking white people he could find. If they complained, he threatened to kiss them.

The Globetrotters commented on the general lack of soul of various General players, usually after pulling down their shorts at the free throw line. After the third time, you'd think they would have expected it. But not the Generals! Urged by the PA announcer, we even tried unsuccessfully to warn them when a Globetrotter would begin an exaggerated sneak beginning at half court, but the target - usually resembling a floppy-haired young Mark Hamill - would just look straight ahead, quizzically. When he'd finally wheel to see what was happening behind him, the offending Globetrotter would sit on a kneeling teammate and pretend to leaf through an imaginary newspaper. Good stuff!

Another Globetrotter drilled 4 out of 6 half court shots - I believe it was Curly Neal. Neal also had a legendary handle that put Chris Paul to shame. The last of his half court swishes was performed underhanded and backwards, the world's greatest H-O-R-S-E shot. The whole arena let out a mass "Oooooohhh." Then, walking away, Neal responded by throwing a backwards Alley-Oop sixty feet to the opposite basket which was viciously dunked by another Globetrotter. 16,000 people in the Frank Erwin Center simultaneously shit themselves.

During another break in the action - the Generals were getting drilled, by the way - terrible defense, awful court awareness, why didn't they go to a 2-3 zone to stop penetration? - and after the Globetrotters fooled another hapless General with their famous ball handling weave, they selected various toddlers to come out to mid-court and dance along with them to Kool & The Gang. They returned all of the toddlers to the wrong parents - switching a ribbon-decked white girl to a black mother and delivering a pig-tailed black girl to a blonde white lady. Confusion ensued. Geese berated his fellow Globetrotters for their error, but the other Globetrotters responded that these kids all looked the same to them. Message, y'all!

I left the arena high as a kite, now fully bought into the Globetrotters, and made it my avowed mission to see them on every episode of Gilligan's Island, The Love Boat, Wide World of Sports (Jim McKay's narrations of the action are particularly pleasing in retrospect - "Oh boy, Goose Ausbie giving that official what for! Now he has the water bucket. Look out, Topeka!) and their Saturday morning cartoon, in which the Globetrotters were secret superheroes who transformed by climbing into lockers kept in Sweet Lou Dunbar's afro.

Yeah, heavy drug use among Hanna Barbera animators was rampant. It was the late '70s. It was fine.

As a youth, the Globetrotters taught me about the universality of Man, the leveling power of comedy, the folly of racism, and that tall black men are particularly deft at switching out confetti for water buckets.

What you got, Xbox?