When the Harlem Globetrotters tip off for their Feb. 17, 2018 appearance at Ontario-based Citizen’s Bank Arena, probably few people know the full history of Abe Saperstein’s creation from the 1920s. There were two shows, one at 2 p.m., the other at 7.
The ‘Trotters are nearly a full century old. Part of their rich history surfaced eastbound from Ontario, about 30 miles away, in Redlands – a long way from Harlem, a New York City suburb.
Around 20 years ago, a man was spotted shooting baskets at the outdoors court at Redlands High School.
The man, who looked to be in his 70s (he was actually in his 80s), was shooting hook shots from half court. If they didn’t swish through the net, his shots at least hit the rim.
There he was, hiking the ball through his legs – in the manner of a football center – at the hoop. Again, if his shots didn’t go in, they were close.
He broke out three basketballs, dribbling them simultaneously, as if he were hoops-playing magician. I was waiting to cover a high school baseball game a couple hundred feet away. Something was up with this guy, though.
Friendly. White. Outgoing. Gentle. The man spoke in respectful terms.
“I’m Obrey Brown. I write for the local newspaper, covering that baseball game over there. Saw what you were doing and decided to come over.”
“I’m Bob Karstens,” he said.
“Bob, it’s nice to meet you.”
There was something about this guy that was a little different. I have an inner sense about things like these. As we continued to chat, this smallish man who stood a couple inches shorter than my 5-foot-10 height, seemed to brighten up when I told him I was from the local newspaper.
“You might be interested in this …” he started saying.
After three decades in the newspaper business, it’s a phrase I heard often enough. Usually, it might come from a pushy parent, or a publicity-seeking coach, or a public relations/Sports Information Director informing me about a once-in-a-lifetime story that I just couldn’t miss. Hey, I came after him, though. Okay, Bob, finish what you were saying. “I might be interested in this – in what, Bob?”
Karstens, who was standing in front of me, was not black. As a matter of fact, without his shirt on, I could tell that he needed a little sun. It pays to listen, though.
“I spent a year with them back in the 1940s,” he explained, “during the war. When Reece “Goose” Tatum was taken into the Army, the Globetrotters needed a clown prince.”
Saperstein, the Hall of Fame orchestrator of the ‘Trotters, apparently tapped Bob on the shoulder and said, “You’re it.”
Karstens himself had been a gifted ball handler from the House of David, the famous traveling bearded baseball team that barnstormed the country. Not known for anything in sports beyond baseball, Karstens told me, but the House of David had dabbled in some hoops during the late 1930s and into the 1940s.
Here’s the rub: I didn’t believe him – at first. In my business, you’ve got to hold people at arm’s length when they tell you stories like this. I could, literally, tell you stories. He invited over to his house a couple blocks away – down Roosevelt, across Cypress, over on Lytle. When he opened his garage door, he led me to three huge boxes full of stuff.
It was Harlem Globetrotters’ memorabilia. Karstens was seen in photos with Saperstein, Tatum, Meadowlark Lemon … Wilt Chamberlain!
Suddenly, my notebook was produced. Pen, in hand, scribbling madly, all the ramblings and utterings he’d voiced over at the high school – you know, when I didn’t believe him. I had a lot of catch-up to do, including a bunch more questions.
“How long have you lived in Redlands?”
“Where’d you learn to play basketball?”
“What kind of money did you make?”
“Did you really start that pre-game Magic Circle routine?”
Truthfully, I didn’t have to ask many questions. Bob was spinning tale after tale. I could pick and choose. What a story – and I had it! My pen just had to keep up with his stories.
Karstens, who was from Davenport, Iowa, took over for Tatum on the ‘Trotters’ 1942-43 roster while he served in the military. When the ‘Trotters took the court in Ontario, they probably met at mid-court, pre-game, for the Magic Circle routine.
It’s recorded: This was Karstens’ invention. He organized this ritual. He played on the all-black ‘Trotters eight years before the NBA was integrated. Part of the ‘Trotters’ history is that by playing doubleheaders with those early NBA teams, it allowed the league to grow into prosperity.
Karstens invented the “goof” ball, the ball that bounces in all different directions because of various weights placed inside, not to mention the “yo-yo” ball. ‘Trotter fans know the routines well.
This guy lived in Redlands?
He loaned me some photos from his stash for my next day’s sports section. I had gold mine of a notebook – quotes, stories and prime history. I sent our photographer, Lee Calkins, over to Bob’s house for an updated mug shot of my new best friend; the guy I had cynically, though silently, doubted. I made up with myself, though.
Karstens. The Globetrotters. Tatum. Saperstein. Chamberlain.
Hook shots from half court! You name it.
Karstens, for his part, stayed on his ‘Trotters’ team manager until 1954, having coached the infamous Washington Generals along the way. After the ‘Trotters, Karstens went into construction. By 1994, he was inducted into the ‘Trotters’ Hall of Fame. At 89, Karstens died on Dec. 31, 2004. I covered his Redlands funeral that was attended by former ‘Trotters Geese Ausbie and Govonor Vaughn.
It was another Redlands Connection.