The Black-Versus-White Basketball Game That Integrated the Sport

Over 70 years ago, the Harlem Globetrotters took on the Minneapolis Lakers, and changed hoops forever

Heather Tirado Gilligan
LEVEL
Published in
5 min readFeb 27, 2018

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Photo: MelanieWarner/Creative Commons

When the Harlem Globetrotters and the Minneapolis Lakers played an exhibition game in Chicago in 1948, critics dismissed the contest as a publicity stunt. There was no way the all-Black Globetrotters — a comedy team of sorts — could beat the Lakers, the reigning champions of the all-White National Basketball League, a precursor to today’s NBA.

Instead, the match changed basketball forever.

At the time, basketball was in trouble. Despite their winning record, the Lakers, like all teams playing in the NBL, had trouble drawing an audience. The league itself was losing money.

Not so for the Harlem Globetrotters, whose antics always drew a crowd, especially in their hometown of Chicago. (The “Harlem” in their name was only a way of telling audiences the team was Black.) The matchup was the result of a friendly argument between Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein and Lakers co-owner Max Winters about who had the best team. Around 17,000 people, Black and White, packed into Chicago Stadium on the day of the game — an unheard-of audience for the Lakers.

It’s unclear how many were there to see a serious contest. Globetrotters games were as much about comedy as about basketball. Players hid balls under their shirts, bounced trick passes between their teammates’ legs, traveled with hugely exaggerated steps down the length of the court without even pretending to dribble, and mimicked referees. The bits were meant to win over hostile small-town White audiences, and it earned them at least as many fans as their undeniable athletic skills.

That night, the audience waited for characteristic shenanigans from the Globetrotters, but the team was all about basketball. Goose Tatum, the Globetrotters’ best physical comedian, faced Lakers star George Mikan for the tip-off. Instead of a trick, Tatum used his comically long arms to reach over the 6-foot-10-inch Mikan and tap the ball to the ’Trotters — without so much as a smile.

Tatum wasn’t kidding about this game. Neither was Babe Pressley, who grabbed the tip-off and…

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Heather Tirado Gilligan
LEVEL
Writer for

Journalist, onetime senior editor @Timeline_Now, bylines in @slate, @huffpo, @thenation, @modfarm, and more.