It was March of 1993. I was eight at the time, and though my memory is hazy on many of the details of the evening, I do remember the gist of a conversation several fans were having as they approached the Spectrum. Something about “good riddance” and “Barkley leaving town” and “we don’t need that bum, anyway.”
Anyway, on this particular evening, I was off to a Harlem Globetrotters game with my uncle, who had been given tickets from ‘Sweet’ Lou Dunbar, a customer of my uncle’s at his auto body store, Performance Years. He had a GTO, and would often call my uncle for parts. Very often, in fact. My uncle remembered one humorous anecdote from a Sweet Lou call.
“He called me up one time, and he’s ordering this part, and suddenly, kind of in the background, I hear: ‘Lou? Lou, where are you?’ Sounded like his wife. So I go, ‘Hey Lou – where are you calling me from?’ And he goes: ‘Uh…from the closet.’ So then I hear his wife again, yelling: ‘Lou, you better not be in the closet on the phone, ordering more parts for that darn car of yours!'”
He was, as my uncle recalled, a funny, friendly guy. He often played the Meadowlark Lemon role – the joker, the entertainer, the guy whose role it was to be the life of the Globetrotters’ party. And he was even so good as to give us passes to go into the locker room before and after the game, which was a thrill for me.
Now, it’s funny what you remember as a kid. As we made our way into the locker room, I immediately noticed two of the ‘Trotters playing checkers. Hey, I like checkers – the Globetrotters like checkers, too? Cool. I’m also fairly certain one of them had lit a cigarette, and several of them were sipping on beer. This I did not expect.
My observations were broken by a friendly but rather booming voice from the other side of the room.
“Would you guys like a drink?” Sweet Lou asked, shaking hands with my uncle.
And goodness, was he tall. Six foot ten, it said in the program. But he looked a whole lot taller than that, tall enough to need a beanstalk just to look him in the eyes, at least for your average eight year-old. I must have nodded “yes” to the drink, and ended up with a Coke in my hand. I liked Coke. This was cool – I was drinking a Coke with the Globetrotters. Pretty sweet. And apparently, they were all pretty cool guys, signing some memorabilia for me and my uncle. As my uncle and Sweet Lou chatted, I enjoyed my Coke and freshly-signed program and daydreamed about what I would tell the kids at school.
Now, my memory sort of blips out here, and resumes somewhere in the middle of the game, precisely at the moment my uncle handed me some cotton candy. If there is one thing about being a kid that is priceless and universal, it is that cotton candy will remain as memorable as the context under which you enjoyed the deliciously sickening, pastel-colored sugar foam.
Not to say that I wasn’t enjoying the Globetrotters – they were hysterical, and really, really talented. How do they spin that ball around on their finger? And why do they keep running behind one another and making short passes and…oh, wow, did you see that shot? How did he do that? Haw-haw, that was cool. Oh boy, what does he have in store for this General…oh wow, that was awesome. Haha, the Generals stink – the Globetrotters are running circles around them. Oh boy, oh boy, look Unc, they’re about to get the ref with water – hahaha, it was just confetti. Oh man, that’s good, this sure is fun. Would you like some of my cotton candy?
But then there was a pause in the action – a fateful pause, one I would not soon forget. And suddenly, Sweet Lou was coming toward the stands where we were sitting, he was coming right up to us, right over to our courtside seats. Hey, he’s taking my arm – what is this business? Oh, goodness gracious, I’m in the middle of the court. How did this happen?
A lot happened after that, the order of which I can’t quite recall. But I do know that I became an integral part of the show. Shoot, I even got kidnapped by the Generals, and they gave me one of their green warm-up jackets, and we hung out on their bench, where I’m sure they asked me my name and how old I was and all of that trivial stuff that I found very important to answer with an air of dignity, grace and clarity, chin held up high.
But this business with the Generals was not to last long. Oh no, the Globetrotters were not going to allow me to smalltalk with the enemy, not on this evening. I was Sweet Lou’s guest, after all – it wouldn’t be right. So they brought their own robe over, and a nice headband, and a cool Globetrotters shirt, and had me toss that Generals garbage right off my body, and give it a few stomps for good measure.
I knew where I belonged.
But the Globetrotters – those conniving ‘Trotters – had a wicked plot in store for me. They huddled around me, aiming to put my new gear on. I sensed foul play, but I was eight, ensconced in a wall of basketball-playing trees. I surely wasn’t going anywhere. They stripped off my shirt, started to put on a new one, and then, before they actually put it on…
…they walked away…
…and left me standing in the middle of the Spectrum…
…WITHOUT A SHIRT ON!
Ohhhhh, no. Why me?
Well, I will say this for myself – I was a strapping lad, even at eight, and the crowd recognized this at once. The catcalls from the women were deafening, and, quite frankly, a bit embarrassing. I might be remembering the past with a bit of revisionist fondness here, but I do believe several bras found their way to the court, and one woman even had to be taken away by the paramedics, having worked herself into such a frenzy that she actually fainted.
All of which was good and fine, but my eight year-old mind wasn’t keen on having much more of this. I gave Sweet Lou a wide-eyed stare, one that surely said “How could you do this to me?” and, laughing all the way, he and the other ‘Trotters reconvened and gave me a shirt.
After which, they trotted me to the free-throw line, with the intent of having me take a shot from the charity stripe. Alright, I can handle this. I think. But I was young – I didn’t have the range. After repeated misses, they moved me closer, and I eventually made the shot, receiving a roaring applause from the crowd. Sheepishly, and trying to conceal any smile that might sneak upon my face, I made my way back to my seat next to Unc, who probably gave me a high-five and a quick, around-my-back squeeze of the shoulder. I’m sure he had himself a chuckle as my face slowly lost the many shades of red that had piled upon one another.
My ordeal was finished.
After the game, I think we went back into the locker room, though I don’t really recall much of what happened there. It wouldn’t have topped the memory of my on-court experience, anyhow. We hurried home after the game, curious to see if my antics had made the late-night news, but to no avail – they showed highlights of some baby that one of the Globetrotters had held during the game.
A baby? Big whoop – I made a free-throw.
Not to mention making an entire sea of women swoon.
We would go back to to see a ‘Trotters game a year or two later, and Sweet Lou was no longer playing the entertainer role. He was doing marketing for the team, or some other behind-the-scenes duty. They did a similar bit to the one they put me through, and quite frankly, the kid that they picked on this time was, well, rather subpar. He lacked my…well, my entertaining pizazz, my composure during performance, my knack for putting on a show. Who could blame him, really?
Ahem. We aren’t all made for the big time.
But that first evening with the Globetrotters will always remain my fondest memory of the Spectrum, and I always smile when I hear the Globetrotters’ whistling theme, or see them joshing about on a basketball court, deftly defying logic with their classic tricks.
Thanks, Sweet Lou. You made a place like the Spectrum – appreciated and experienced mostly by the generations that came before me – an immortal relic, a building that will always hold a special place in my memory.