Harlem Globetrotters Joining the NBA Is the Right Thing to Do but It Will Never Happen

There is a reason the Harlem Globetrotters are one of only 10 teams enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Founded in 1926, the Globetrotters spread basketball worldwide before the vaunted Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics. More than that, the team was a landing spot for Black players denied an opportunity to play. But is that history worthy of being admitted to the NBA as a franchise?

The Globetrotters think so. The team sent a letter to the NBA requesting a spot in the NBA, citing its long history of contributions to the NBA. Exhibition wins over the BAA champion Minneapolis Lakers in 1948 and 1949 opened the door for Blacks to play in the NBA.

NBA immortals and beloved figures alike have donned the red, white, and blue uniforms of the Harlem Globetrotters. The Globetrotters are challenging the NBA to show a commitment to changing society by allowing the team into the league.

The Harlem Globetrotters have an indelible mark on the NBA

The Harlem Globetrotters are integral to the history of basketball, but should they be admitted into the NBA?
Wilt Chamberlain in 1958 signed with the Harlem Globetrotters for a salary of $65,000 a year. | Bill Meurer/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

As the letter to the NBA points out, the first Black player to sign with an NBA team was a member of the Harlem Globetrotters. Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton joined the New York Knicks in 1949. Another Globetrotter, Chuck Cooper, became the first Black draftee by an NBA team when he was selected by the Boston Celtics the same year. Completing the trifecta, Earl Lloyd was a Harlem Globetrotter before becoming the first Black to play in an NBA game.

The team has played in 122 countries and deserves credit for many of the plays we take for granted in today’s game. Crossover moves, no-look passes, dunks, the fast break, the long jump shot — all of these were Harlem Globetrotter originals.

There was a more direct role the Globetrotters played in the growth of the NBA. As the pro game struggled to build an audience, teams would schedule doubleheaders that featured an exhibition game involving the ‘Trotters along with the regularly scheduled NBA contest.

It’s an innovative idea, admitting the Harlem Globetrotters into the NBA. But is it a viable one?

Complicated logistics of admitting the Globetrotters

Though the team has been called the Harlem Globetrotters since its founding, it was more than 40 years before they ever played a game in Harlem. That occurred in 1968. But most of the organization’s history has been as a traveling exhibition club. Finding a permanent NBA home might not be an easy proposition.

Would they play in Harlem? The neighborhood is famous for The Rucker (Rucker Park), where some of the most incredible playground basketball ever played took place. But it’s probably not a viable option to host an NBA franchise, given that a January home game on a blacktop court might get a tad chilly.

Then there is the issue of a third franchise in New York. Manhattan already has a team, the New York Knicks, who play in Midtown. That’s about seven miles (and nearly three galaxies) removed from Harlem. The Brooklyn Nets, meanwhile, are across the bridge in Prospect Heights. Given the lack of real estate and viable arenas, a third New York team is a hard sell.

Besides, If the Globetrotters join the NBA, you can cue the loud howls of outrage from the Pacific Northwest. Seattle has been without an NBA franchise since 2008 and has been vocal about wanting one to return sooner rather than later. Las Vegas and Kansas City are also potential expansion targets. Then there are the wilder ideas such as Mexico City or expanding to Europe.

The Harlem Globetrotters should have been admitted decades ago

Former Harlem Globetrotters player Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton in 1949 was the first Black player to sign an NBA contract.
Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was with the Harlem Globetrotters until he became the first Black player to sign an NBA contract with the New York Knicks in 1949. | Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The harsh truth is that the NBA should have brought the Harlem Globetrotters under their umbrella in the late 1940s. Instead, the NBA went the route of Major League Baseball regarding the Negro Leagues. They raided the best talent and left the Globetrotters to fend for themselves.

Legendary Wilt Chamberlain played for the Globetrotters while waiting to become eligible for the NBA draft. Blackballed by the NBA, Hall of Famer Connie Hawkins joined the team. His shadow ban was over his wrongful connection to a point-shaving scandal that occurred before he was eligible to play in a varsity game at the University of Iowa. (Pro tip: It’s much more difficult to shave points when one is not playing in the game in question.)

The bottom line is that admitting the Harlem Globetrotters would be a tremendous gesture to acknowledge what the organization did for the NBA in its foundational years. In practical terms, however, it’s just hard to see it happening.

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