The Game That Changed It All

It was just a game. That’s all. A bunch of grown men in short pants, shoving each other around, elbows flying, sweat flying, spittle flying, blood staining uniforms, teeth loose, teeth missing, bouncing a ball from one end of a wooden floor to the other, throwing long-range bombs through round metal hoops, and hoping beyond hope that the crowd would be large enough to pay their salaries and expenses for the night.

That didn’t always happen. It was an old game. It had been around for decades. Yet on this particular night amidst the grit and grim of Chicago, it was all so different, and no one really knew what to expect or if they should expect anything other than a little chaos, a few embarrassments, and a lot of down-in-your-belly horse laughs.

One team was white. One team was black.

Wait. Hold on a minute.

Goose Tatum keep the ball away from George Mikan

Whites didn’t play blacks, not in public anyway, not in an era when whites considered themselves to be the ruling class, and blacks knew their place and how to stay out of the way because the laws said that was as much of the gospel as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and What’s His Name.

The whites lived on one side of the tracks, the good side. The blacks lived on the other even if the town had no tracks.

The whites went to one school. The blacks walked to another.

The whites sat on the front of the bus. The blacks made their way to the back.

Why on earth were they standing there face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball as though one was equal with the other when all of society both north and south of Highway 80 knew that it just wasn’t so? It was just a game, maybe. But it was all about the money. A promoter, walking the streets amidst the grit and grim of Chicago, had come up with a brilliant idea, which, in his case, was just another way of making money.

The 1948 Minneapolis Lakers were the world champions of professional basketball. No one doubted it. No one disputed it. The Lakers were lily white, led by George Mikan, called by some sportswriters as the ‘King of Basketball.” He was tall. He was big. He was powerful. He was religious, a man who crossed himself before each foul shot. He practiced hour after hour and symbolized what great basketball was all about. That’s what the power brokers of basketball said. And they must have known what they were talking about. No one had stopped Mikan yet.

All eyes were on the Lakers and Globetrotters.

Across the way, here came the Harlem Globetrotters. The Globetrotters did not have a white man among them unless, of course, you counted Abe Saperstein, the tough little Jew, the genius, the mastermind behind the greatest phenomenon in sports. The Lakers might call themselves world champions, he thought, but his team had rolled off 107 wins in a row, playing night after night in high school gyms across the country. And the Trotters had the Goose, the long, lanky, loose-as-a-goose center with the last name of Tatum. He was the clown prince of basketball, was big and quick but wasn’t paid to take the game seriously. He put smiles on people’s faces. He could score enough to win, but he played to the crowd and always left them laughing even after the gyms had grown dark.

The game came down to this. Who was best: the all-white team from the boondocks of Minnesota or the all-black team that, some said, was nothing more than a bunch of traveling salesmen. They never slept in the same bed twice. Play a game. Spend the night on the wrong side of town. Crowd into an old car. Hit the road. Play another game the next night and hope they could find a café to serve them when dinnertime came. North or South. It didn’t matter. They often went hungry unless they could find a little grocery store by the side of the road willing to sell them a loaf of bread, a handful of bologna, and a few cans of sardines.

The promoters knew the game meant big money. For them, it would be the payday of the year. Yet their anticipation was eroded somewhat by fear. More than one sports page had reported that black athletes possessed a suppressed anger that made them deceptive and potentially violent. Basketball games were bitter. They were intense. They invited violence. The sportswriters huddled together along the edge of the court and waited for the worse.

The Minneapolis Lakers had spent the night in one of the city’s most popular establishments, the Morrison Hotel. Its rooms were reserved by and for the rich and the influential. In Chicago, the best received nothing but the best.

The Globetrotters had slept in Ma Piersall’s rooming house. The rooms were small, ten feet long and ten feet wide, and a steam heater banged and clanked as it fought the chill of a Chicago night. The beds had no mattresses and sagging springs.

At the time, no professional game of any kind had ever drawn more than nine thousand fans in the city. The promoters were expecting sixteen thousand, and the fire marshal simply looked the other way and, somehow, forgot to count heads. A blue fog of cigarette smoke hung from the ceiling, gathered around floodlights that hung like tulip bells from the ceiling.

One sportswriter had written: “You don’t care who wins. The contest is what counts, the drama of the battle.” The Globetrotters had not read his words, which were little more than empty words. The Globetrotters were faced with one single, simple, undeniable fact: the score did count. This one night, even it was the only night of their lives, was their one chance for redemption.

Mikan versus the Goose, giant against giant, black on white, but the blood was red regardless of who bled. Let the best team win. Society was looking through the looking glass.  Society saw its own fears and prejudices looking back. This was the game that would continue it or end it all.

The ball was in the air.  A nation’s conscience hung in the balance.

The particulars of the game are unimportant. Goose Tatum fouled out way too early. Mikan was good at getting rid of opposing centers. With five seconds to go and the score tied 59-59, the elusive Marques Haynes, a magician, an illusionist with the basketball, crossed mid-court and hit Ermer Robinson, the Kangaroo Kid, on the run and floating thirty feet from the basket. A last second shot. An impossible shot. One second let. So far out. No chance at all.

Nothing but net.

Chicago was stunned. The wrong team didn’t win. The wrong team lost. And, Lord, who could believe that there hadn’t been any fights? Intensity born from a competitive spirit had run rampant and amuck. There had been hard drives, hard rebounds, hard knocks, and hard fouls, but no violence.

The blacks had won. The blacks had beaten the King. The King was dead. Long live the King. A racial barrier had been broken, and the Globetrotters had broken it. Within two years, professional basketball had signed its first black players to contracts. The league would never be lily white again.

The Globetrotters had no time to realize the impact they had made. By the next night, they were again on the road, miles from Chicago, working their magic against some second-rate, rag-tag team of hand-me-downs.

Only Marques Haynes was missing. He had played the entire game and set up the winning shot with a fractured lumbar vertebrae suffered after a collision with Mikan as he drove the lane. Early the next morning, doctors cemented him in a cast from his armpits to his hips and sent him back on the road.

The Globetrotters didn’t realize it. Neither did the Lakers. But this was the game that made a difference far removed from the final score. And yet, without the final score, there might not have been any difference at all.

This was the game that forever changed the face and the color of basketball.


Originally published by The Writers Collection under the prompt: “The Game.”

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