Monday, January 21, 2002
By DAN RALEY
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
It all started with a call to the Post-Intelligencer, about a different sort of home delivery. Could an epic basketball game land on Seattle's doorstep and be put together in just a handful of days?
As history has demonstrated, the answer was a resounding yes.Fifty years ago tonight, on Jan. 21, 1952, also a Monday, the city was treated to one of its most endearing sports memories -- Seattle University's 84-81 upset victory over the Harlem Globetrotters at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. Every seat was filled that evening, with the $1.50 tickets snatched up in 48 hours. Celebrities were trotted out. The town was mesmerized.
This was a pairing taken far more seriously than planned, intended as a fund-raiser that would provide a few laughs, supposedly a mismatch of local collegians against professional athletes who doubled as comedians and magicians. Amusement soon gave way to awe. The moment was punctuated by wizardry, but from an unexpected source -- a 43-point scoring binge by the Chieftains' 5-foot-9 Johnny O'Brien, a midget manning the post.
A classic contest was played. Realizing this, crazed fans rushed the floor at the end, one sneaking off with a cherished game ball.
"It has to be one of the top five sports events held in Seattle," local historian Russ Dille maintains, "for the outcome, spectacle and promotion."
Said Rod Belcher, retired TV and radio broadcaster who once played against the Globetrotters himself, "It's still the greatest thrill I've had in basketball -- watching that little son of a (bleep) play the big man's game."
Edmundson Pavilion will be dark this evening, its seats empty, the building silent. But five decades ago, the place came alive, filled to its 12,500 capacity and worked into a frenzy, largely because Royal Brougham said so.
The beauty of this sporting era was a game or event of almost any kind could be orchestrated overnight, culled from someone's imagination, without agents and contracts getting in the way, and spun so brilliantly that people just had to be there, even if they weren't quite sure why.
The late Brougham, the P-I's longtime sports editor, columnist and self-appointed civic leader, did this better than anyone.
Five days before the game would be held, Brougham received a call from Howard Hobson, Yale basketball coach and United States Olympic Committee member. Money was needed to support the country's Olympic effort that summer in Helsinki, Finland. The Globetrotters had agreed to a three-game fund-raiser against college teams in the West, Midwest and East.
Could Seattle help? Provide guarantees? Get ready on short notice?
Done, done and done, Brougham responded without hesitation.
For an opponent, the University of Washington was the first choice, but Huskies coach Tippy Dye said no. Too many injuries. Probably not enough backbone, either.
Seattle U. was a willing alternative. "Those days, we'd play anyone," said Eddie O'Brien, Johnny's identical twin brother and the Chieftains' point guard.
Brougham promised the use of Hec Ed, the city's biggest gym. Trouble was, he couldn't reach Harvey Cassill, the UW athletic director, to obtain permission. Cassill was returning from a meeting in Minneapolis by train. The P-I leader brazenly agreed to the deal without him.
"Brougham announced it in the paper the next day," said Bill Sears, former Seattle U. sports information director. "Cassill didn't know anything about it until he got off the train and read it. He was incensed. But nobody was going to buck Brougham. He was Mr. Big in those days."
No laughing matter
With the NBA still in its formative stages, the Globetrotters represented marquee entertainment. In 1952, they were celebrating their silver anniversary, engaged in a 108-game tour nationwide. Center Reece "Goose" Tatum and guard Marques Haynes were touted as the highest-paid basketball players anywhere, with annual salaries of $25,000.
Seattle U. had Johnny O'Brien, the nation's leading NCAA scorer at the time (27 points per game) and a program on the rise. Still, the small, Catholic school was considered a poor second cousin in basketball to the more established UW.
Entering the game, the Globetrotters had played 3,571 games, winning 93 percent. Their schtick was this: They warmed up doing tricks, played serious until building a comfortable lead and resorted to lighter fare once again while finishing off an opponent.
They often used a second, or road, team to meet scheduling demands. Not this time. The Globetrotters, with the exception of Haynes, who was left behind to fulfill a draft-board obligation, were bringing their best.
There was reason to think this pairing was ill-advised, even among the overeager Seattle U. camp.
"I remember when (coach) Al Brightman told us we were going to play them, we thought he was kind of off his rocker," said Chieftains starting center Bill Higlin, 72, who now lives in Bend, Ore. "I really thought they were going to make donkeys out of us."
The braying was supposed to begin at 8 p.m., following a preliminary game. College rules would be used, except for fouls; that night, Higlin became the only player in Seattle U. history to foul out with six personals. A college ball was used one half, a pro ball in the other.
Globetrotters owner-coach Abe Saperstein was smug about the prospects. He didn't try to hide it. He should have.
"Before the game, we were under the north stands and the Globetrotters were on the other side," recalled Johnny O'Brien, 71, who lives on Capitol Hill. "Saperstein came over, looked at us and said, 'Is this all you got?' That's where we won the ballgame."
In familiar red, white and blue uniforms, the Globetrotters took the floor and went into their antics. The band played "Sweet Georgia Brown," their signature song. Players stood in the "Magic Circle," cleverly whipping the ball around. The Chieftains tried not to watch.
"At midcourt, they did their thing," Johnny O'Brien said, "but we weren't that interested."
Actress Joan Caulfield was brought to midcourt for a ceremonial opening tip. The Chieftains snuck a few looks at her. Then things got serious. O'Brien scored his team's first three baskets.
The Globetrotters were taller, older and more physical, but they had no one who could contend with O'Brien. He was quick and uncanny around the basket. He banked in feathery hooks with both hands. He had his way with Tatum, seven inches taller.
"One time, I had the ball in the three-second lane and had to get rid of it, but everybody was covered," O'Brien said. "I flipped it through Goose's arms and into the hoop. He came running down the floor and said, 'Knock that off, little guy, that's my shot.' I started laughing, and he started laughing."
Otherwise, chuckles were minimal. The Chieftains led throughout the first two quarters. Forward Wayne Sanford was a demon on the boards, ultimately totaling a game-high 14 rebounds. Eddie O'Brien's buzzer-beating shot from halfcourt ended the half, bringing people out of their seats and giving Seattle U. a 46-36 lead.
Intermission was a show within itself. Legendary trumpet player Louis Armstrong and singer Velma Middleton performed a riveting duet; they happened to be town, playing at the since-closed Palomar. The Globetrotters provided a dribbling specialist and French unicyclist. Not everyone was entertained by it.
"Brightman was mad," Eddie O'Brien said. "He wanted us back out there, and it was an extra-long halftime."
The Chieftains shouldn't have been in any hurry. Johnny O'Brien had suffered a broken nose earlier in the game and sat out most of the third quarter. In his absence, the Globetrotters made a run, grabbing their only lead of the evening, 55-54.
Seattle U. and its scoring ace regrouped. With Johnny O'Brien filling the hoop again, the Chieftains pushed ahead by 10 early in the fourth quarter. Then it was a race to the end.
With nine seconds to play and Seattle U. up 83-81, a jump ball was called. The Globetrotters made a fateful mistake -- they called time out, and didn't have any left. A technical was whistled.
Johnny O'Brien hit the free throw for his 43rd point, an Edmundson Pavilion record. The Chieftains inbounded the ball and ran out the clock, with forward Jack Doherty heaving the ball into the rafters as fans streamed onto the floor. No one saw the ball come down. No one saw much of anything -- except happy faces.
"It took 20 minutes to get off the floor and into that locker room," said Johnny O'Brien, still none too concerned.
Possession, Johnny O'Brien
That night, the Globetrotters were gracious in defeat, lauding Johnny O'Brien for his unique offensive skills. Said forward Louis Pressley, who took an unsuccessful turn at guarding the high scorer, "I don't think it's possible to completely check O'Brien without using a net."
It was clear Saperstein wasn't happy with the outcome. Most teams went easy on the Globetrotters, not for the throat like Seattle U. did. The master promoter promptly canceled the rest of the collegiate fund-raisers, a game with Notre Dame and another with either Army or Navy.
Saperstein gradually eased his team away from competitive matches, choosing to play staged games with staged opponents, such as the Washington Generals.
The Chieftains were local heroes. A week later, Brougham presented the team with a trophy and individual gold medals.
Years later, Johnny O'Brien received an added gift. He was working as a radio broadcaster for Seattle U. games, teaming with Keith Jackson, when a fan sheepishly approached him one night. The stranger was holding a bag.
The man explained how he had grabbed the game ball during the bedlam after the Globetrotters game and took it home. He wanted Johnny O'Brien to have it.
Temporarily, he did.
"Me and my big mouth," Johnny O'Brien said. "I mentioned it to Royal and he said, "I've got to have that in my museum.'"
Reluctantly, Johnny O'Brien handed it over. The prized basketball was displayed with other sporting artifacts at the P-I, then the Kingdome. Much like the game, the ball took on a life of its own.
After Brougham passed away in 1978, the standout player had a startling thought: That leather keepsake might be lost forever.
"He ups and dies on me, and I didn't have any paperwork that said the ball was mine," Johnny O'Brien said. "No way to prove it."
Still, he knew where the ball was. Three years ago, when the Kingdome was headed for demolition and the contents of the Brougham museum were headed for charity, Johnny O'Brien got on the phone and claimed ownership. There were no protests.
Today, the Globetrotters ball sits in a display case in Johnny O'Brien's basement, fully inflated, a reminder of a magical night.
P-I reporter Dan Raley can be reached at 206-448-8008 or firstname.lastname@example.org