When the Harlem Globetrotters bring their acrobatic, ball-spinning, high-flying brand of showmanship to FedExForum Wednesday, fans will likewise bring with them certain expectations.
Wun The Shot Versher of the Harlem Globetrotters teaches Haleigh, a resident of Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes in Bartlett, how to spin a basketball on her finger. Versher visited residents of the home on Friday. (Photo: Lance Murphey)
They’ll expect to leave the arena having seen the team dip into a deep bag of tricks that includes seemingly impossible ball-spins, wild dunks and comedic antics.
The team’s “4 Times the Fun” tour that rolls into town this week – marking the team’s 85th touring season – includes all that and more, such as a newly implemented 4-point shot that gets lobbed 35 feet from the basket.
But the crowd-pleasing show on the basketball court is only part of what’s made the Harlem Globetrotters an iconic American institution.
The effort that goes on behind the scenes won’t be visible on game night. It includes players visiting schoolchildren in the towns in which they play to encourage them, offer life lessons and, of course, teach a few ball-handling tricks.
Every 4-point shot that gets sunk during Wednesday’s game – like the others on the tour – will also mean an important gesture for children around the world. The team has partnered with America’s Best Contacts and Eyeglasses and global nonprofit VisionSpring to donate funding for four pairs of eyeglasses to VisionSpring for each 4-pointer made.
The team estimates its current 274-game, 220-city North American tour will result in funding for more than 5,000 pairs of eyeglasses for children in need.
That same spirit brought team veteran Wun The Shot Versher to Memphis late last week, when he sprinkled some basketball entertainment with the personal touch and advice of a mentor to children at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home.
Versher, who said the team visits about 150 schools a year, said interacting with the children is a staple of what the Globetrotters organization is all about.
“Visiting St. Jude will be the highlight of my day,” said the 6-foot-5 graduate of Arizona State University as his Friday appearances began.
Versher, a crowd favorite on a team of favorites, admittedly fell in love with the Globetrotters’ off-court initiatives a long time ago and is both an “advance man” and unofficial goodwill ambassador for the team, which always plays – and beats – the hapless Washington Generals.
“We love mixing education with entertainment,” he said.
The team makes that last part – the entertaining – look effortless.
Some of what goes into the shows comes about by accident, then gets molded into shape.
“We play over 300 games a year,” Versher said. “If someone reacts to it, we’ll refine it. We’ll perfect it. We’ve actually switched the (current) show up some. And that’s what we want to do. We don’t want it to be stale.”
Not that it’s ever in danger of venturing even a mile into stale territory. The team’s feats are so noteworthy Versher said it’s the reason he got to travel with his teammates to South Africa to meet Nelson Mandela. He also met Pope John Paul II before he died.
“I love the game. I love the discipline in it,” Versher said. “I like to say I grew up with the Globetrotters. I started in my 20s. I learned about life and people and cultures and understand how blessed I really am.
“Meeting kings and queens all over the world is an awesome experience that can’t be replaced, either.”
Wednesday night, the Globetrotters will remind fans why they are kings themselves of the sport. Fans “think we can do anything,” Versher said, and they don’t want to let them down.
When asked a taste of some of the other tricks in store, Versher said they could only truly be appreciated in person.
“No way, man,” he laughed. “Even if I explained it, it wouldn’t make sense on paper.”