CHICAGO - It looked like a desperation shot, the kind that rarely falls.
But long before the ball left his hands 30 feet from the basket with the game on the line, Ermer Robinson had spent hours alone on a San Diego playground taking this same shot by the dozens for days on end.
As the horn sounded, the more than 18,000 fans packed into the Chicago Stadium and the players on the court watched the ball arcing through the air.
Robinson stood still as a statue, his right arm in the air, a signal the ball was about to find the bottom of the net. It did, and on Feb. 19, 1948, the Harlem Globetrotters had put their gags away and beat the best white team in the nation, 61-59.
It has been 60 years since the Globetrotters topped the Minneapolis Lakers and their legendary big man, George Mikan. With only a few of the players still alive and just a handful of photographs remaining, the game has been largely lost to history.
But for those who remember the win and what the country was like, this game — played seven years before a black seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus — stands as a moment of hope.
“It just revitalized so many of us, from the fact that (it showed) what we can be, could be, but we needed a chance,” said John Chaney, the former Temple coach who was then a black teenager in deeply segregated Jacksonville, Fla.
The game was the brainchild of Abe Saperstein, the Chicago entrepreneur who founded the Globetrotters a couple decades earlier, and Max Winter, an owner of the Lakers.
Saperstein’s team had vastly improved over the years. By the late 1940s, the Globetrotters were taking on and beating anyone who would play them: YMCA teams, industrial league squads and a team from the NBL, the NBA’s precursor. The crowds were getting bigger and by 1948 Saperstein was boasting his team had won more than 100 straight games.
Some, including Chicago Tribune sportswriter Arch Ward, proclaimed the Globetrotters the world’s best team — a view the Globetrotters shared.
“We just felt we could beat anybody we played against,” said Marques Haynes, one of the Globetrotters’ stars and a master ballhandler.
Winter’s Lakers were in their first year, but with Mikan and another future Hall of Famer, Jim Pollard, they were on their way to winning the NBL. In Minneapolis, John Christgau could not fathom anyone beating his Lakers, least of all the showy Globetrotters, as a black acquaintance of his father had suggested.
“I thought, ’This guy’s nuts,”’ said Christgau, whose 2004 book “Tricksters in the Madhouse” is about the game. “’The Globetrotters, they’re clowns, they’re comedians’ ... I said to myself, ’they’re not ballplayers in the same category as the Lakers.”’
Saperstein and Winter decided to settle the matter and what better way than filling Chicago Stadium and maybe walking away with a whole lot of money?
No one remembers any mention of race by either man. There were no references, for example, to Jackie Robinson, who just a year earlier broke Major League Baseball’s color line.
“I’m positive that he didn’t see it as a racial game,” said Gerald Saperstein, a cousin of Abe Saperstein who worked for him and attended the game.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
As for the Lakers, they’d seen the Globetrotters play and knew that along with being funny they were immensely talented. If they didn’t, their coach, Johnny Kundla, had played the Globetrotters and could tell his team just how good they were.
Besides, Kundla said, “It was just an exhibition game.”
Still, there was no escaping the shadow that race cast over the game. Chicago was a city of deep racial divides. The Globetrotters may have been a huge draw, but they knew better than to try to stay anywhere other than a black rooming house when they came to town.
Though it didn’t occur to him until later, part of Christgau’s confidence in the Lakers stemmed from widely held fallacies about blacks. They were lazy and clumsy. They weren’t smart enough to play a team game as intricate as basketball. Though they had plenty of brute strength, their bodies were all wrong for a skill as refined as shooting a basketball. And they would fold under the pressure of a real game against a real team.
“That was the prevailing theory,” Christgau said.
Perhaps just as significantly, were fears about the potential for violence — both among the players and the fans — if blacks and whites played together.
Just the year before, a fight between a white player and a black player in a NBL game in Syracuse, N.Y., triggered a riot in the stands. And though the NBL owners didn’t openly worry about the possibility that such a thing might happen in their arenas, by the end of the season, Christgau said, the NBL’s four black players were no longer in the league.
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