McKenzie Arena wasn’t filled to the rafters with bodies cheering the Harlem Globetrotters on Wednesday night, though at least 3,000 folks coughed up anywhere from $15 to $100 a ticket to watch the world’s most popular hoops squad knock off the Washington Generals 108-101.
No, it was filled with something better. Laughter. Joy. Enough happy memories to last a lifetime.
“Oh, I remember going to watch them in Memorial Auditorium when I was growing up,” said Buster Brown, who swears he has no family connection to Globetrotters’ “Sweet Georgia Brown” theme song. “I’ve probably seen them five or six times since then, and it’s always great.”
It was a bit better for the Browns than most. Having bought courtside seats for themselves and 8-year-old daughter Skylar, Buster and wife Kathy were pulled from the crowd for a third quarter skit with the Trotters’ current clown prince, Big Easy Lofton.
“We didn’t think we’d be part of the show,” Buster said of the routine that eventually had both Browns dancing independently with Big Easy. “It was fun, though.”
It always has been fun. From the days of Marques Haynes and Sweetwater Clifton to Curly Neal and Meadowlark Lemon to current stars Lofton and Firefly Fisher, the Globetrotters have embodied family entertainment at its finest.
“The best value in the world is the Harlem Globetrotters,” said Paul “Showtime” Gaffney, who retired from the team in 2008 after a 15-year-career and now resides in North Chattanooga.
“You can be 8 or 108 and there’s nothing like it.”
Gaffney played his college ball at Tennessee Wesleyan, graduating in 1990. He caught on with the Trotters in 1993. He now runs Off The Court sports club, which helps organize youth tournaments and clinics.
“I played in 90 countries,” he said. “I was on Oprah one time. I got to sit down with Nelson Mandela. I played with guys like Oliver Miller and Chris Morris, who played in the NBA. Magic [Johnson] even played with us. And, yes, the Globetrotters can play some pretty serious basketball when they want to.”
That’s rarely the object in a setting like McKenzie. It’s mostly about skits and laughs and red, white and blue basketballs turning into balloons. It’s showmanship, which the Globetrotters have done better than anyone during the 82 years and 20,000 games — most of them wins over the Generals — they’ve been around.
But this is also an organization that once lost to Michigan State by just four points the year after the Spartans won the 2000 NCAA championship. Heck, on Wednesday night alone Willie “Slick” Shaw — who once starred at St. John’s _ hit no fewer than four of the Trotters’ 4-pointers from a spot 35 feet out on the court.
“Pretty much where Ty Patterson hit that 3-pointer for us in the (2009) SoCon title game,” laughed University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach John Shulman. “If we’d had the 4-pointer, we’d have won by eight instead of seven.”
Not that Shulman necessarily would want the college game to adopt such a gimmick.
“No way I want to open that can of worms,” he said.
Even Shaw winced at such a suggestion.
“I don’t know about that,” he said as he signed his 200th or so autograph after the game.
Speaking of autographs _ which all the Globetrotters signed for at least 30 minutes at the close of the contest _ 7-year-old Cayce Davis knew exactly what she intended to do with the autographed ball that Big Easy handed her during a first-half routine.
“I’m going to play with it,” said the North Lee Elementary School student.
Her parents downplayed that idea, preferring to put it in a case. But her enthusiasm probably pleased a certain Tennessee head basketball coach, since Cayce said her favorite team was, “The Lady Vols.”
But for a lot of us old enough to remember when the Globetrotters were the biggest name in basketball, Wednesday night was as much about the organization’s storied past as its entertaining present.
“They were the game’s first showmen,” said Shulman. “Spinning the ball on your fingertips. Dribbling between your legs. Behind-the-back passes. Guys like Dr. J were doing Globetrotter moves when they wowed the NBA. I remember my dad taking me to see them in Johnson City and what a big event it was.”
As the big event wound down inside McKenzie, someone asked “Showtime” Gaffney his age.
“I don’t have an age,” he said. “I’m timeless.”
Kind of like the Globetrotters.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...