They were tall, athletic, and African American. Him, small, fat and white. How could you be more opposed than the Harlem Globetrotters and their owner, Abe Saperstein? However, this set of antagonisms, of differences about an exceptional success, which still punctuates the planet basket to the son of Sweet Georgia Brown. For the better, but also for the worse, this success is sometimes that of this little round man with the loose tongue who put together one of the greatest shows in history.
After bypassing a barnstorming team to set up his own business, Abe Saperstein is now a member of the Harlem Globetrotters. Not – or little – on the floors, but everything that revolves around it is his responsibility. An association that may seem shaky, but which ultimately holds up thanks to Abe’s methods and vision.
The Abe Saperstein Method
Pockets filled with small papers that serve as a diary, directory or any other function, Abe Saperstein works to contact anyone capable of offering him a match or highlighting his team. His only office: his parents’ living room. To help him, son of Brother Henry, 14 years at the start of the Globetrotters. The latter types press releases, contracts… everything Abe Saperstein needs to promote the training. In order to save money when sending telegrams, he shortened New York Harlem Globe Trotters by skipping “New York”. Two words less to pay is always winning when you don’t have an unlimited SMS package. A feat for a chatterbox like him.
He gladly catches up with the local press, talking tirelessly with every journalist who can help him with his publicity. Problem, once the valves are open, they cannot be closed. Abe Saperstein spouts continuously, twisting the truth, embellishing things in favor of his players and himself – he himself would have been professional according to his words – and going so far as to throw big mythos. So much so that it is difficult to follow her as the versions he gives of the history of the Trotters differ from one day to another according to the lies: defeats become victories a posteriori, the balance sheet improves certainly every year as the team grows, but it is even regularly revised upwards retroactively. Who’s going to check anyway? An attitude, coupled with his future price of power over training, which earned him the nickname of Little Caesar given behind his back by the players a few years later.
Embellishing reality works
Throughout the history of the Trotters, Abraham always finds a way to glorify his team, by misrepresenting the facts or starifying some of his players. On the beginnings, it is Runt Pullins who is put forward. Then when it breaks, he finds a new foal. And so on, always pretending he’s letting a guy go because he’s found a better replacement. This turns out to be true at times, but the announcement is always made a priori, without any certainty, just to fall back on its feet and keep control of the communication.
The method pays off since in the middle of the Great Depression, the Harlem Globetrotters stay the course. Better, Abe Saperstein is obliged to set up a second team to ensure all the requests for matches. At the same time, he even set up another barnstorming formation – this time made up of white players – managed by one of his brothers. These New York Nationals follow the same route as the Trotters, with a few weeks difference. The adventure will not last despite a good record, the Nationals not attracting crowds as much as Saperstein’s flagship.
Abe Saperstein wants more
Amidst the tours, Abe Saperstein found his soul mate in Sylvia Franklin, whom he married a few years later. His father-in-law advises him to put himself forward, and the team’s jerseys get extra flocking for the Saperstein name, though he still doesn’t own the team. It’s only a matter of time and above all a step towards his complete takeover of the Globetrotters. The crisis is brewing.
This does not yet hinder the atmosphere within the workforce and the Trotters continue their tour by chaining victories. Taking advantage of the dynamics and difficulties of the other Black Fives due to the Great Depression, Saperstein feels he is growing wings. In his usual weighting, he challenges the title of Colored Basketball World’s Champions to the New York Renaissance. Which affects one without moving the other in all Rens players. For the moment. But opening it like this allows Abe to stir things up and create a good rivalry from scratch for his publicity., insisting the Rens don’t want to mess with the Trotters. Implying that they are afraid. Unlikely as the difference in level seems at that time largely in favor of the Black Five of Harlem, at least according to the New York and Chicago press. Regardless, as long as it bites into the Midwest where his team is touring, Abe is happy.
But his dreams of grandeur end up having an impact. Not so much with the Rens, always silent, but within the team. After a 38-33 loss to the Golden Bobcats in Montana on February 17, 1934, Abe Saperstein decides the rules have now changed. No more shared recipes. As of today, players get $7.5 per game, the rest is for him. He is the owner. Megalomaniac delirium or logical decision as long as his business grew (in addition to the Harlem Globetrotters, Saperstein managed many other teams at that time)? Whim or thoughtful consideration? Difficult as often to know with Saperstein. Inevitably, the change does not slip like dad in mom and several players – Runt Pullins in mind – refuse. According to the latter, his pay was around $40 for each performance. The setback is therefore enormous. Not to mention the fact of no longer being a partner but a simple employee. But Abe refuses to reconsider his decision so that in the middle of the tour, the team separates. Only Inman Jackson and Razor Frazier remain. The rest of the trip is canceled, return to Chicago for the rest of the troupe.
First difficulties, first criticisms
The new boss has no time to gamberger. He quickly puts together a team based on his contacts. Above all, it provides after-sales service. No, it was not the players who left, it was he who kicked them out because they did not respect the organization. With this communication, the message sent is clear. He is not only the boss, but also the star and media figure of the Globetrotters.
This experience of breaking with Pullins will serve him on other occasions later, when different departures will occur within the Trotters. Luckily for Abe Saperstein, the new troupe quickly finds its stride. Neither seen nor known, the first crisis is over and its influence only emerges strengthened. Indeed, instead of sinking the Globetrotters, this rupture finally allows them to progress, at the box office receipts stage. Partly because entertainment and the show smoke more and more space in their game. What dresses the crowds.
The show being pro
A few months after this first crisis, Abe found himself in the crosshairs of the Amateur Athletic Union of Oregon. While organizing Trotters’ first tour in the area, he ran into AAU regulations. Admittedly, it does not differ from other coins in the country, but one seems to look a little more on the amateur setting in the Beaver State. And as Saperstein for his part is not the type to be bored with respecting the rules, what was to be a great advance for the Globetrotters turns into a fiasco.
If the AAU does not want its own, then Abe Saperstein does without this organization. He then leads the Trotters towards always more show and assumes the professionalism of the team. From there begin the criticisms – which return regularly in their history – on the image that they send back. The comedies set up to entertain the public are more and more akin to the minstrel show. And the fact that a white man leads a troupe of African Americans does not help the comparison. Especially when players rely on stereotypes related to their community. But what makes the people – mostly white – who attend this show laugh? The cartoons presented by African Americans? Or have their Caucasian adversaries turned to ridicule?
Abe Saperstein, superstar complex
As often when looking at Abe Saperstein’s career, ambiguity dominates. Whether it is by simple financial reflection or by racism, his choices divide, especially with the hindsight of the past decades. One thing is certain, its role in the massive addition of gags caricaturing African Americans is indisputable. And that is a task when one takes stock of his work.
Especially since thereafter, he gradually distanced himself from the players as his stature as a grandiose businessman. He wants to be the star. The one to whom the spotlight turns. The one who benefits from the fame of the Globetrotters. His empire expands, his ego too. However, the portrait, which does not always seem glorious, is more nuanced when we talk about his relationship with Inman Jackson. The pivot who has not left the ship during the crises is a relative. The two men have enormous respect for each other, probably reinforced by the miles spent on the roads, those nights in seedy hotels – they regularly shared their room, even their bed when conditions required it. Proof once again of the complexity of the Saperstein man, megalomaniac owner of a troupe of African-Americans but also a pioneer who put a Black Five on the front of the stage by attaching himself to men despite the differences in an era characterized by segregation.
With his style, Abe Saperstein forcibly took control of the Harlem Globetrotters. A crisis that could have sunk the team but which finally allows them to have free rein to define their destiny from now on. That he therefore sees grandiose given his ambition and his need to be in the light. Even if it means sometimes forgetting where it comes from.