Directed by Kevin Shaw
How many unknown legends are there across the world I wonder? How many great warriors, whose compassion and valor on the battlefield are remembered only by those there to witness it, or not as all, as time has passed their legend by? What great pioneers, and great defenders of justice have been written out of the history books by the victors, social or military? Certainly such an American sport as basketball would not have forgotten any of its own legends, right? Well, what about Reece “Goose” Tatum, whose basketball skills may have only been surpassed by his charisma as an entertainer? Believe it or not, it took basketball a while to remember one of its greatest pioneers, greatest ambassadors, and hands-down one of its greatest players of all time.
Goose was one of the first Harlem Globetrotters, an all black barnstorming team assembled by Abe Saperstein, a savvy Chicago businessman who knew the value of such a traveling act. (Yes, the team is actually from Chicago, not Harlem). A team famous for its flashy play, the Globetrotters style was in many ways thanks to Goose Tatum himself. I wondered while watching the film what the opponents of the Globetrotters thought of their antics on the court. They’re meant to entertain, but the teams the Globetrotters often played were “legitimate” teams looking to win. How do you play against such a team? This is a question not examined by director Kevin Shaw, for he had far loftier goals with his film. Goals he often reaches with a smoothness similar to his subject.
As one can imagine, the impact of Goose on the African American society is immeasurable. He gave black people hope in a time when America was ruled by the whites. Segregation kept things separate, but the whites flocked to see the circus that was the Globetrotters. Having to resort to such entertainment, the true talent of the blacks was never legitimized. Until, that is, they played the Minnesota Lakers, perhaps the greatest team in the world, and beat them. Twice. But still they were denied the recognition by the whites. The blacks on the other hand idolized players like Goose Tatum. They aspired to his talent and bravado; meanwhile the whites just looked to him for a laugh.
Tatum also helped bring the game to the world, something that cannot be understated in the early years of basketball. The Globetrotters once played an exhibition in an outdoor stadium in Germany in front of the largest crowd in basketball history at the time. People in Africa will still ask “which one is Goose” when the Globetrotters come. He was a king internationally, yet just a clown at home. This begs the question of true recognition. My favorite sport is baseball, which focuses so much attention on Major League Baseball, that I can’t help but feel so many others go unnoticed. As we have seen in recent years with the World Baseball Classic and other methods of globalizing the game, stars can come from any league. How does the Hall of Fame, or even simply history, account for that?
Goose Tatum was not in the NBA, so for many years, like the Negro League players in baseball, he went unnoticed, held out of the conversation of greatest. Not until a special committee, led by Oscar Robertson, was Tatum finally recognized by the Basketball Hall of Fame. Tatum was an extraordinary human being. An incredible athlete and a great basketball player, Goose was also a pioneer in free agency and marketing, and a great world ambassador for the game in its early years. He finally got the recognition he deserved, but in honoring the legend, the film also manages to pose the question upon countless other subjects. What other legends are we forgetting? Who else has impacted this world without fanfare? And shouldn’t we all be thankful that they did.
***1/2 – Great