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As ‘March Madness’ nears, remember the pioneers

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February 11, 2011 |

Now that the Super Bowl, the greatest ritual spectacle in the U.S.’s annual calendar of rituals, is over for this year, attention now turns to “March Madness” which culminates the collegiate NCAA Division 1 season and decides the best team in the nation. Even President Obama showed off his basketball “creds” last year by filling out his bracket picks and shooting hoops with Clark Kellogg. For colleges, a lot rides on the outcome of the tournament; the cache of the colleges, the esprit of, and donations from alumni, attractiveness to college applicants, coaches’ compensation levels, and television opportunities.

The typical fan is concerned with whether their team wins or loses and whether they can afford the price of the ticket. But basketball has become an enormous industry that generates billions of dollars in economic activity — expenditures, revenues and jobs. On April 22, 2010, for example, the NCAA announced a new 14-year television contract with CBS and Time Warner for $11 billion. With an expansion of the tournament, the March Madness “economy” expands dramatically. On the NCAA website, under the “Plan Your Trip” button, there are links for tickets, flights, hotels and car rentals. Little wonder that cities vie for venues for staging various rounds of the tournament. In 2004, 30 million people attended men’s basketball games.

The business of basketball is reflected in coaches’ compensation — Mike Krzyzewski makes $4 million, as does Rick Pitino, not including signing bonuses and tournament pay. At the professional level, the economic value of basketball is reflected in the market value of teams. With revenues of $209 million in 2009, the Lakers team was valued at $609 million. The last place team was still valued at more than a quarter of a billion dollars. How did the game become so valuable? Certainly color television, clever management and marketing played key roles, but as marketers would say, the key to the explosive growth of basketball has been the product — the players and the style of play exemplified by players such as Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, “Magic” Johnson, “Doctor J” Hakeem Olajuwon and Larry Bird.

But a great bulk of the credit ought to be given to the Harlem Globetrotters whose blend of athletic talent and basketball skills combined with their circus-like tricks made basketball seem positively magical. The Harlem Globetrotters, owned and managed by Abe Saperstein, a European immigrant, took their basketball show on the road, touring every continent displaying their magical brand of basketball and playing in unimaginable conditions — they once played in an empty swimming pool with one end higher than the other. Mark Johnson, son of one of the Original Harlem Globetrotters — Andy Johnson, has written “Basketball Slave — The Andy Johnson Harlem Globetrotter/NBA Story.” The book pays homage to his father, also one of the pioneers in racially integrating the emerging National Basketball Association League. It ought to be read by every young, aspiring African American athlete, as well as coaches, school administrators, teachers, sports reporters, editors and sports fans, in general.

Andy Johnson was handy with a basketball. Indeed, at the University of Portland in Oregon he was nicknamed “Handy Andy”: “Dad broke every basketball record including the high jump at the school and was later inducted into the University of Portland’s Hall of Fame with statistics that in some cases have yet to be matched.” While Andy Johnson was there, the university “had the highest attendance at basketball games it’s ever had even to this day.” However, Johnson did not graduate from the university — for $700 in one dollar bills (the most money he had ever seen at one time) he signed with the Globetrotters after his “junior year.”

The question remains, what would the university have done with “Handy Andy” if he had stayed around? As his son says “Sadly, Dad seldom went to class although he did attend his psychology class fairly regularly (where I think he picked up some of his matchless parenting philosophies). The more Dad excelled in basketball, the more Dad was praised … the more the school tinkered with his transcript. It was as though basketball became a career for him as soon as he started playing organized ball back at North Hollywood.” A sports editor said at that time “Andy will go down in North Hollywood High (Los Angeles) history as one of their all-time great hoopsters.” But he didn’t go to classes there either — he spent his days roaming the halls pitching pennies while no teacher made him do any studying.

Even more tragically, NCAA schools still, for the most part, fail to graduate the majority of their team’s players. This is the ultimate “March Madness.” Andy made subsistence wages as a Harlem Globetrotter and as a member of the Philadelphia Warriors NBA team — he worked in construction or at other jobs in the off season to make ends meet — though as a Trotter he was forced to play up to 200 games per year, sometimes two to three games a day, five to seven games a week.

As we watch “March Madness” and the road to The Final Four, let’s give a “shout-out” to the pioneers who catapulted modern basketball into a multi-billion industry and a great spectator pastime. At 172 pages, “Basketball Slave” is an easy, if enlightening read. It can be purchased online or through your local bookseller.

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