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Globetrotters Mark 20,000th Game

January 13, 1998 GMT

WOLCOTT, Ind. (AP) _ The trick shots and clowning never grow stale, not even after 20,000 games.

The Harlem Globetrotters passed that milestone Monday night in a northern Indiana high school gymnasium filled beyond its 3,371-person capacity on a raw, icy winter night.

``Some of the gags I remember from the old days, but they’re still funny,″ said Harold Smith of Rensselaer, Ind., accompanied by his wife and two teen-age daughters. ``They’ll always be funny.″

As usual, the ’Trotters triumphed. This time, an 85-62 win over their perennial foes, the New York Nationals _ successors to the equally hapless Washington Generals.

The win pushed their record to 19,668-332. The legacy of those 20,000 games over 72 years is untouched in professional American sports. Coming closest are the Chicago Cubs, who have played 17,978 games since 1876.

``If you trace the histories of sports teams _ all of them, not just basketball _ there’s no parallel. It’s a terrific legacy for the nation and for fans across the globe,″ said Joe O’Brien, president of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

About a third of the Globetrotters’ games are in small venues like Tri-County High School in Wolcott, a town of 1,300 about 65 miles southeast of Chicago.

The site of Monday’s game was coincidental, but recalled the team’s origins as a barnstorming outfit that crisscrossed the Midwest, playing local teams in gyms and armories.

Then, as now, the appeal was their mesmerizing shots and sleight of hand mixed with wacky humor: humiliating the flustered ref, taunting the audience with a bucket of ice water _ or is it confetti? _ and sashaying away with a purse plucked from a woman’s side.

Monday night, that woman was Sharon Miller, 29, of nearby Chalmers. After watching her purse make the rounds of the court, Miller, a science teacher at the school, was led onto the floor by 6-foot-6 Globetrotter Paul Gaffney for a dance.

Then, Gaffney convinced Miller to plant a kiss on his sweaty face, not once, but three times before a nationally televised cable audience.

``I was a little embarrassed, but I thought I’ll probably never have that chance again,″ Miller said sheepishly while her husband frowned.

Watching the spectacle from floor seats was Eloise Saperstein, the daughter of Globetrotters creator and longtime owner, the late Abe Saperstein. An English immigrant turned enterprising Chicagoan, he began coaching the team in 1926, initially dubbing them ``The Savoy Five″ (the team adopted its current moniker around 1930).

On Jan. 7, 1927, the team played before its first paying audience: 300 people at a high school in Hinckley, Ill.

Years of barnstorming followed with the Globetrotters playing local teams five nights a week nearly every week of the year. To attract publicity and spare his players wear and tear, Saperstein devised the Globetrotters’ familiar style.

The mixture of trick shots and humor was a hit in the Depression era. But the team faced racial prejudice off the court, often refused restaurant service and lodging.

In the nearly six decades since, the Globetrotters have played before an estimated 100 million people in 114 countries, taking their theme song ``Sweet Georgia Brown″ with them. Along the way, some of their more famous players _ Meadowlark Lemon, Goose Tatum, Sweetwater Clifton, Curly Neal _ became household names.

While the Globetrotters’ heyday spanned the 1950s to the 1970s, the 1980s marked their decline. By 1991, annual attendance had slumped by two-thirds, to about 600,000, while revenues dropped below $10 million.

But in 1993, Mannie Jackson, a former Globetrotter turned Honeywell executive, purchased the team and began engineering a turnaround.

He replaced canned music with a hip-hop sound aimed at energizing the crowd. He adopted a Disney-like mascot called ``Globie″ and put more emphasis on basketball, less on comedy.

But the Globetrotters’ main appeal remains unchanged.

``It’s good, clean fun,″ Jackson said. ``That’s what people want.″

This year, the Globetrotters, who have two touring teams traveling the globe, expect attendance of 2.5 million at their 250 games _ 75 of which will be outside North America.

``He’s breathed new life into the team,″ Saperstein said. ``My father would have been so proud, especially by the fact that Mannie is a former Globetrotter.″