Show-style basketball team the Harlem Globetrotters has a vast repertoire of high jinks, all perfected over several decades. Grainy video clips on YouTube show older iterations of the now 82-year-old exhibition team pulling some of the same stunts they use today. All the same, the Globetrotters pass, shoot, and dribble as effortlessly as any player in the NBA; not to mention they do crowd-pleaser tricks like juggling the ball from their heads, or dribbling down the court with one hand and holding an umbrella with the other. Some of these antics err more on the side of slapstick, but others are so beautifully choreographed, they make basketball look like ballet. In one particularly graceful move, a player pretends to start a lay-up, but instead of dunking the ball he back-passes it to a teammate, who passes back to another teammate, who passes it to another — about four players down the line someone finally jumps to the basket and scores. It's not efficient, but it looks gorgeous.
Setting up such plays requires intuition and an effective communication system, said Anthony "Buckets" Blakes, a point guard now in his seventh season with the Globetrotters. "You get used to playing with guys so you know their habits, and they know yours," Blakes said. "And we run plays so you know where that person's gonna be at a particular time." He said this type of coordination applies to other sports besides basketball. In volleyball, a setter might hit the ball high and let it bounce off several players before someone spikes it over the net, he said. Or in football: "A quarterback throws the ball at a certain spot for a wide receiver, and the wide receiver runs to a certain space because he knows the ball's coming."
The Globetrotters show a high level of competence as a team, but their particular style of basketball is very much about showcasing individual talents. Each player has his own arsenal of tricks — Blakes' personal favorites are rolling the ball along his arms and behind his head, or throwing it up high and catching it in the small of his back. Apparently, he can also drain threes by shooting from his head. He said the way to learn such stunts is to master the fundamentals (i.e., learn to pass quickly and dribble down the court keeping your eyes straight ahead), and then adapt them (like dribbling down the court waddling on your knees). "There's some basics that they show you and it's up to you to get better at those basics," Blakes explained. Then, he said, you add your own personality. Harlem Globetrotters play the Washington Generals at the Oracle Arena (7000 Coliseum Way, Oakland) on January 17 (7:30 p.m.) & 18 (2 p.m.). $17.75-$168. HarlemGlobetrotters.com