In early December, I sat down with Harlem Globetrotter “Buckets” Blakes over some tacos and salsa—the spicy garnish as well as the flavorful tunes playing overhead at Rosslyn’s Baja Fresh. A warm soul with a wide smile, Blakes arrived all suited up and with his basketball perched nonchalantly on his hip. When the behind-the-counter Baja employee jokingly extended his hands for a pass, Buckets playfully tossed the ball his way, afterward posing for a photo with the ecstatic fan.
Buckets Blakes (#15), now in his eighth season with the Globetrotters, clearly enjoys these press junkets he’s sent on as one of the team’s more experienced players. He kept busy during this past DC/VA tour—taking to the ice rink with the Capitals (learning “just how bad he is at hockey”), gift-wrapping at Tysons Corner, surprising Horton’s Kids youth with free eyeglasses and even, to the delight of some Wizards fans, swiping tickets at the Verizon Center (“Hey, I’ve got to make some cash somehow!” he joked). Blakes returns to the area with his teammates next week as they take over the court December 29 at Fairfax, Virginia’s Patriot Center at 7 p.m. and then at downtown’s Verizon Center December 30 at 7 p.m.
The Harlem Globetrotters are as American as apple pie. Who doesn’t hear Brother Bones’s whistled version of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and envision those red, white and blue-clad, towering magicians miraculously spinning basketballs atop long fingers and catapulting balls into the net from a court’s length away? The group, formed by London-born immigrant Abraham Saperstein, evolved in the 1920s on the South Side of Chicago where the original players grew up. The team (then called the Savoy Five) turned professional in 1927, later getting a new name when promoter Saperstein wanted to give the impression that the all-black team represented that mostly black New York borough. Famed for their unique combination of athleticism, theater and comedy, the Globetrotters have fluctuated between playing competitively and for show, resulting in one of the best-known sports entertainment franchises in the world.
These players put their passports to good use. Blakes casually lists places he’s visited from Brazil and Dubai to Japan, with stadiums often selling out, further confirmation of the Globetrotters’ worldwide appeal. The team’s now played more than 20,000 exhibition games in 118 countries, entertaining their biggest crowd (75,000) in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium in 1951 (where they received a 15-minute standing ovation when 1936 Olympian Jesse Owens was announced as a special guest). And now from December 2009 to May 2010, the schedule includes nearly 270 games in more than 215 cities in 44 states, five Canadian provinces and Puerto Rico. They will also play more than 150 games internationally in 2010. (To catch the talents here next week, call 202-397-SEAT, or visit www.ticketmaster.com.)
Born and raised in Phoenix (where he still lives), Anthony “Buckets” Blakes attended the University of Wyoming, leading his team in rebounds, assists and steals his junior year. His senior year he was one of two players in the Mountain West Conference to finish in the top 15 in scoring, assists and rebounding. He then played for the European Basketball League before receiving an exciting call from the Globetrotters. Some of his signature on-court moves? Blakes has mastered the half-court granny shot and claims he can roll the ball up his back, off his neck and into the basket (jokingly thanking his mom for the hereditary head shape that makes him capable of such a stunt).
Eight women have suited up for the Globetrotters over the years. Among other alum: NBA greats Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlin, Connie “The Hawk” Hawkins and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton” as well as honorary members who range from Henry Kissinger and Bob Hope to Whoopi Goldberg, Nelson Mandela and even Pope John Paul II. Blakes says the turnover rate within the team used to be high, but now “they’re selecting guys who can last.” (The team’s HQ moved to Arizona in 1996, and this is their third year under new owners.)
At the team’s training camp on Long Island, the focus is not purely physical; the players also attend workshops on “life skills” covering topics from nutrition and financial responsibility to social consciousness. The schedule during the fourteen to sixteen days of training is grueling: four hours of basketball in the morning, lunch, four hours in the afternoon, followed by dinner during which workshops take place. When on tour, the team practices two hours before each game. “You want to be perfect every night. You never know if this is someone’s first game,” Blakes says. “You see the smiling faces, and you don’t want to let them down.”
The Globetrotters have made countless TV and movie appearances. Recently you may remember them running circles around squeal-prone Jillian on The Bachelorette, appearing on Hell’s Kitchen and this season sending two lovable ambassadors, Flight Time and Big Easy, to sprint to Pit Stops around the world on The Amazing Race. (Those good-natured goofballs had my vote long before they did traditional Dutch dances in swooshy dresses and tie-on bonnets!) Blakes claims the two contestants obediently kept mum about the TV show’s winners upon their return to the States. But don’t think that their curious teammates didn’t try to coerce the Amazing Racers into revealing something they shouldn’t. “Are you sure you all didn’t win?” Blakes would tease, “That’s a really nice watch you’re wearing, Big Easy!”
The Globetrotters have made history time and again. Battling factions in Peru allegedly halted their civil war for four days in 1954 so that the Globetrotters could perform there, resuming fighting once the team departed. And more recently the team, aware of President Obama’s affinity for the sport, wore #44 jerseys for an Inauguration Day game. The team then sent four official basketballs to the White House as a gift to the First Family. They were also the first ones to send a basketball up into space—with the crew of the Atlantis on an 11-day mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope.
When asked about his post-Globetrotter plans, Blakes, who’s also an active goodwill ambassador for the team’s C.H.E.E.R. children’s program, says, “I’ve got a lot left in me.” But he does mention he’d consider working within another part of the organization, perhaps doing Globetrotters PR. And something about this guy’s humor and charm suggests he’d shine in that role just as much as he currently wows fans on the court. Watch Blakes and his teammates work their magic next week here in the nation’s capital!