EDITOR’S NOTE: This story first appeared on BASN Newsroom in July 2008.
By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus
NEW HAVEN — In July of 2008, the WNBA’s New York Liberty met the Indiana Fever in a regular season game that what was called the “Liberty Outdoor Classic”
The game was the league’s first regular-season outdoor game and was played at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the home of tennis’ U.S. Open in Flushing, N.Y.
The contest was the first non-tennis sporting event to take place at the USTA’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, Queens, which is the largest public outdoor tennis facility in the world.
While the contest was being promoted as making “professional basketball history”, the true history of outdoor professional basketball games is a long time tradition that was begun by arguably the world’s most famous basketball team — the Harlem Globetrotters.
Ironically, the Trotters had made two attempts to join the professional hoop leagues of the day but were denied. In 1937, the team was rejected by the National Basketball League (NBL).
Years later in 1946, they were rejected by the Basketball Association of America (BAA), the precursor to the NBA as we know it. It is alleged that in both instances, the Trotters were turned down because they were an all-Black team.
Beginning in 1951, the Globetrotters would play several outdoor games within the United States and around the world. In fact, the Trotters’ first-ever outdoor game was played in Germany.
In the team’s 4,000th game, the Globetrotters would play before 75,000 fans packed outside into Berlin’s Olympic Stadium. Just prior to the game, a helicopter lands on the field and emerging from the helicopter was the Globetrotters’ special guest — track legend Jesse Owens.
The 1936 gold medalist, who was making his first trip back to Germany since the Berlin games, was cheered by the German crowd for a solid 15 minutes before the start of the game and was given a hero’s welcome.
The mayor of Berlin would address Owens by stating, “The last time you were here, Adolf Hitler refused to shake your hand. Today, I’m proud to give you both of mine.” Owens and the mayor embraced, then Owens ran one last ceremonial lap around the track, with the crowd cheering.
Later that year, the Globetrotters would post another all-time attendance record, as 36,256 fans watched them play a game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which at the time was the largest United States basketball crowd on record.
Over the next three years, the Trotters would more than live up to their name while also playing outdoor games in several famous venues. In September 1952, the Trotters would play a pair of games at Koraken Baseball Stadium in Tokyo.
They would defeat a team of Japanese hoop all-stars (56-20) and a team called the New York Celtics (41-16) during their tour. Two years later in 1954, the Trotters would come stateside to play a series of outdoor games against the George Mikan All-Stars.
On July 29th, the Trotters would defeat the Mikan All-Stars 61-41 at Boston’s Fenway Park before a crowd of just over 31,000. One month later, the Mikan All-Stars fell again 57-51 before a crowd of 29,000 at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
The third and final game between the two — a 61-42 Trotter victory — would be played at Public School Stadium in St. Louis. Over the years, the Trotters would play several more outdoor games, many of them overseas.
It’s important to note that the team would play several more outdoor games in the U.S. because, despite their popularity, many arenas wouldn’t host them.
While the event in the Big Apple was historic for women’s basketball, it’s important to look back at the folks who truly helped pave the way for it to happen.
The history of the Globetrotters may mean different things to different fans, one thing is certain — their impact on hoop history is unmistakable.