A great oversight will be rectified today when Harlem Globetrotters star Reece Tatum — better known as Goose — is among 10 enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
The Globetrotters' founder, Abe Saperstein, former stars Meadowlark Lemon and Marques Haynes, and the organization have been in the Hall for some time. But Tatum, the original "clown prince," the heart and soul of the team, was not. So last fall, I placed his name in nomination, the committee on African-American pioneers of the game agreed, and he will take his rightful place alongside his colleagues.
Tatum was my hero when I was growing up poor in segregated Indianapolis in the 1940s and '50s. I wouldn't think of missing the Globetrotters' annual visit. Invited into the locker room at age 13, I was astonished that their primary halftime activity was a card game.
Tatum created Globetrotters basketball as we know it today. From 1942 to 1954, except for two years of military service, he was the most popular player on the most popular team in the history of basketball. He performed for presidents, popes, kings and millions of fans.
Goose was 6 feet 4 and whippet lean, with an 84-inch wingspan and an all-around game.
He is credited with inventing the hook shot. Sometimes he stood still, flipped the ball over his head without looking, and waited for the crowd to tell him he had hit nothing but net.
His blend of superb athletic skills with the charisma of a showman was unique. His perpetual grin said, "Here it comes, fool, and you can't stop me." He studied clowns and mimes, the better to evoke laughter from movement instead of speech.
Tatum and his teammates could play serious basketball with anyone. In 1948 and 1949 exhibitions, they beat the reigning NBA champion Minneapolis Lakers, led by George Mikan. Then they split a 22-game exhibition series with a college all-star team led by Bob Cousy.
Tatum was born in 1921 in El Dorado, Ark. His first love was baseball, and his clowning while playing for Negro League teams drew Saperstein's attention.
Whatever Saperstein paid him, Tatum seemed to spend more, and he periodically disappeared. In 1954, he left the Globetrotters for good, fronting his own touring teams through 1966. He is said to have carried the gate receipts (and the team's payroll) in a paper bag.
Tatum watched me play in an NCAA Tournament game in 1959, and we took a wild ride afterward in his red Cadillac. That was my last contact with him. He died, apparently of a heart attack, in 1967.
I remember watching him in awe. I couldn't wait to get to the playground to emulate his tricks, knowing that our coaches would never permit them.
Even now, the mere mention of Goose Tatum makes me smile.
Oscar Robertson is in the Basketball Hall of Fame as an NBA player and as co-captain of the gold-medal 1960 U.S. Olympic team.