Zeus McClurkin’s basketball coaches had a consistent criticism.
“They’d say, ‘You smile too much when you’re on the court,’” McClurkin says. “’All you want to do is smile and dunk.’
“They tell you nowadays that basketball is not a place for a nice guy, that you have to have a killer instinct or a mean streak in order to be successful. That’s just not the case with me. I’ve never been a mean person. I’ve always been nice,” he said.
“I’m the type of guy that if I foul you, I’ll apologize for it. If we line up at the free-throw line, I’m talking to the opposing player, saying, ‘keep your head up, you’re having a good game.’”
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His teammates and coaches might not have liked his kindness, but it made him a perfect candidate to become a member of one of the most storied basketball teams in the world: The Harlem Globetrotters.
McClurkin and the team head into Rupp Arena on Saturday night for its annual Lexington visit on its 90th-anniversary tour.
“Everywhere I go, people recognize this red, white and blue,” McClurkin says, wearing his Globetrotters gear. “People see it, and they immediately start talking to me about when they came to a game with their parents or their grandparents and what it means to them. Immediately they let me into their homes and their hearts, and they don’t know who I am, but just because I play for this team, they are like, ‘if you represent such a great brand, you must be a great person yourself.’”
The team started in 1926 on the South Side of Chicago, according to the team’s official history. It was initially named the Savoy Big Five, after the famous Chicago ballroom, where it practiced. It began touring Illinois and surrounding states the next year, taking on all comers.
It eventually became the Harlem New York Globetrotters, original coach Abe Sperstein choosing the borough because it was the center of black culture in the United States. The team didn’t play its first “home” game in Harlem until 1968.
With numerous teams on tour over the years, the Globetrotters have lived up to their name, playing in 122 countries and territories on six continents, combining dazzling basketball skill with family entertainment. As in the NBA, players primarily come from college programs or other professional careers.
The team’s all-time roster lists 19 players from Kentucky schools, including former Kentucky Wildcats Wayne Turner and Shagari Alleyne, who was listed as “Skyscraper” on the nickname-heavy lineup.
You guys have UK here, but every time we come to town, you treat the Globetrotters like they’re the hometown team.
Zeus McClurkin, Harlem Globetrotters
McClurkin says the Globetrotters appreciate coming to a basketball town like Lexington and playing on the storied court at Rupp Arena.
“You guys look for good basketball here,” says McClurkin, who has played Rupp both as a Globetrotter and as a member of the rival team, the Washington Generals. “You guys look for the little nuances of the game, like pick-and-rolls; you like nice, good clean layups, textbook stuff. But you also like the high-flying slam dunks, the half-court trick shots and the crowd participation.
“I come here, and I can feel the love and dedication that you put into this sport in particular. You guys have UK here, but every time we come to town, you treat the Globetrotters like they’re the hometown team.”
McClurkin hails from Columbus, Ohio, and says he was a “basketball late bloomer,” who didn’t click with the sport until after his sophomore year in high school: “I drank a whole lot of milk and grew five inches over the summer.”
He excelled at other sports, but he really wanted to play basketball because it was the one that seemed to elude him, he says. He went on to play for North Carolina A&T and eventually found his way to the Globetrotters. Late last year, as a Globetrotter, he bounced into the Guinness Book of World Records for most slam dunks in one minute with 15.
And it’s a job that suits McClurkin, drawing smiles instead of fouls and trying to make people laugh.
“Everyone on the team was pretty much a class clown,” McClurkin says. “It turned out, my whole life I was training to be a Globetrotter, and I didn’t know it.”