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Cultural Intersection: The Globetrotters in Jerusalem

Harlem Globetrotters

Harlem Globetrotters
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Basketball is an interest of mine. In fact, I possess the largest collection of basketball memorabilia in the world – all the pieces displayed proudly in my Jerusalem home, and all reflecting an attachment to my hometown Portland Trail Blazers. It would have been foolish to have believed that this would not have rubbed off on my son Yehuda, age 13.

My wife noticed an ad announcing that the Harlem Globetrotters were coming to Jerusalem, suggesting that I take Yehuda, who by now is a rabid basketball fan. Two weeks and 450 shekels later (about $120), my son and I found ourselves in the second row behind the Globetrotters’ bench. Yehuda and I were both very excited. I explained the history of the team, they having once been a refuge for black players, having players that included Wilt Chamberlain and Connie Hawkins. I told him that in their heyday, the Globetrotters were great enough to have beaten the NBA champion Minneapolis Lakers twice, in 1948 and 1949.

I also told him that we were about to see a show, not a game, and that everything was rehearsed for our entertainment. I recalled the pulling down of the opponents’ trunks bit, the really cool dribbling weave, and the bucket full of water/confetti routine. But above all I wanted my son to know that these were all very skilled athletes and terrific showman, even on the opposing team – no longer the “Washington Generals”, but the “International Elites.”

The show opened with the Globetrotter mascot “Globie” playing musical chairs at center court with four little local Israeli kids. The mascot made sure to lose at the end to a happy little girl. For his next trick, the mascot took the same four chairs and turned them inward toward each other in a square. Out came for more Israeli kids, these appearing to be 16 or 17 years old, three boys and one girl in a skirt. The mascot seated each child and then had them turn 90° to the right. This is where it started to get a little bit uncomfortable. He instructed each child to lie back and put their head on the knees of the person behind them. As the father of a religious girl about the same age as the one at center court, I worried for the girl’s embarrassment as the adjacent boy slowly lowered himself onto her bare legs. The mascot then did a really cool trick, pulling out each chair, successively, with the kids maintaining their positions. Of course, the last chair pulled out was the girl’s, with all of them holding the pose – practically levitating – until the mascot put enough pressure on them to collapse. The mascot then swept away the girl, like Scarlett O’Hara, her arms around his neck, taking her back to her seat.

My discomfort for her was in knowing that she was publicly holding onto a man and probably came from a home that did not condone touching any man (except a husband), and even then only in private.

Then out came the Globetrotters, with their introductions and warm-up routine, Sweet Georgia Brown, playing over the familiar spectacle. The game started and the Trotters were fantastic. The dribbling, alley-oops, and long-range shooting enthralled us, prompting my son to ask why they could not play in the NBA. After a brief explanation, we continued to enjoy the show.

At one point, one of the Globetrotters went into the crowd and emerged with a patron’s purse. Fully microphoned with perfect audio, he proceeded to walk around effeminately, and tested the humor waters for pseudo-homosexual comedy. The crowd was less entertained than he expected, I suspect. Next, he called upon the owner of the purse from the audience to come courtside. Again, came a religious woman clad in skirt and scarf. His first bit with her was to walk up court with wedding music playing, arm in arm. I cringed. This skit went on for a while until finally her purse was given back and she was released – but not before being asked for a kiss! Finally, he had gone too far for this woman. Confused, she kissed her hand and tried to touch his cheek. But he would have none of that. He insisted on a kiss. Finally she admitted that she only kissed her husband. I could feel palpable relief from the audience, a great deal of whom were also religious, when he led her back to her seat, playfully made quick fun of the husband, and proceeded onto the game.

At one point, the Globetrotters star “Hi-Lite,” today’s equivalent to Meadowlark Lemon, started a shtick with the referee that resulted in Hi-Lite being told to go to the sideline and wait for his opponent to shoot free throws. At that point, the player/actor goose-stepped not once, but twice. Predictably, the Israeli audience was not amused by the Nazi imitation.

At halftime I found my way to the stage manager on the sideline and informed him that goose-stepping is inappropriate in Israel. He gave me a look that was a cross between “I’ve got real work to do” and “you people complain about anything.” In short, I did not think the message got through. When the team came back out before starting the third quarter, I called over the Globetrotter “Coach,” Louis “Sweet Lou” Dunbar, Jr., a guy who played 27 years for the Globetrotters and is ten years my senior. Coach came over without hesitation and leaned in for a listen. I said to coach, “You are playing in Tel Aviv tomorrow. You need to understand that your guys should not imitate Nazis in Israel.” “Sweet Lou” looked up at me with the utmost sincerity and suggested, “We should not do that anywhere.” He then held out his hand, shook mine, and thanked me warmly.

At that point, my son, Yehuda, asked me what I had said to those guys, hopeful that I had invited them to come to our house to see “the collection.” While explaining to Yehuda what had transpired, I looked up to see “Sweet Lou” nearby talking to “Hi-Lite”. Not thinking much more of it, I glanced up again to see “Hi-Lite” trying to get my attention. I was taken by surprise, finally focusing on him. “Hi-Lite” smiled, mouthed “thank you” and gave me the thumbs up. At the end of the game, too, as the players were leaving the court, “Sweet Lou” turned to me from a distance and said “thank you.”

I wondered why nobody had briefed the Globetrotters on the local culture. It would seem natural, when going from country to country, to have a liaison explain what might be inappropriate. On the other hand, I am sure the bit with the woman went over swimmingly in Tel Aviv, so maybe it is too much to ask for that sort of cultural granularity. Nonetheless, I came away from the game with a very thankful 13-year-old, with great father-son memories, and happy, knowing that, given the opportunity, the Globetrotters are still fully capable of being America’s ambassadors to the world.

Oh, and I also walked away with a head full of confetti, courtesy of “Hi-Lite”.

About the Author: Rich Brownstein is the CEO of QuizRevolution.com, an Israeli-based internet company that provides interactive multimedia engagement. From 1990 until 2003, he was the founder and owner of The Transcription Company in Los Angeles, Hollywood’s premier transcription company. He has lived in Jerusalem since 2003. You can reach him at Rich@Quizrevolution.com.


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Despite a few uncomfortable moments, I came away from the game with a very thankful 13-year-old, with great father-son memories, and happy, knowing that, given the opportunity, the Globetrotters are still fully capable of being America’s ambassadors to the world.

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