Book Trailer Reveal: SWISH! THE SLAM-DUNKING, ALLEY-OOPING, HIGH-FLYING HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS by Don Tate (illustrator) and Suzanne Slade (author)
That’s how long it took me (Suzanne) to gather the courage to start writing Swish!: The Slam-Dunking, Alley-Ooping, High-Flying Harlem Globetrotters.
There was never any doubt I wanted to write it. I’ve been a huge Globetrotter fan as long as I can remember. Plus (little-known fact), the team began in my hometown, Chicago. That’s right, star players from Chicago’s Wendell Phillips High School formed the Globetrotters in the 1920s.
But I was intimidated by the research this project would require. I wanted to get every detail right, yet the team’s history was complicated. Several “reliable” sources listed different dates for the Globetrotter’s first game and other events. There were conflicting reports about how the team manager, Abe Saperstein, treated players. Through the years, the Trotters had so many outstanding players—Goose Tatum, Marques Haynes, Wilt Chamberlain, Meadowlark Lemon, and more. And this incredible team literally changed the world by breaking the color barrier in the NBA and helping world leaders get along (the US State Dept. named them “America’s Ambassadors of Goodwill”).
How could I write a picture book that included all this?
So I procrastinated and worked on other books.
Yet, I kept thinking about the Globetrotters—their phenomenal talent, determination, and groundbreaking accomplishments. Finally, I cleared a month on my calendar and jumped into my initial research with both feet. What a ride!
First, I went on the hunt for primary sources. I read and watched every player interview I could find while scribbling copious notes. I enjoyed 1950s team footage and videos of current players and was amazed by their unbelievable skills and winsome showmanship. (Gotta admit, this was the best part of my research!) I studied news accounts of big games, such as the historic 1948 matchup when the Globetrotters challenged the National Basketball League’s best team, the Minneapolis Lakers—and won!
Then I got my hands on a 65-year-old copy of Around the World with the Harlem Globetrotters, which was long out-of-print. One of the authors, Dave Zinkoff, traveled extensively with the team. He detailed their exciting overseas adventures and explained how the Globetrotters were treated like royalty in countries around the world. But when they returned home in 1950, ongoing racism in the United States meant the players weren’t welcome in many restaurants and hotels. Yet, these remarkable athletes persevered as they found ways to use their fame and talent to help bridge the racial divide in America.
During my research, I also consulted biographies and websites. Another extremely helpful source was Harlem Globetrotters International. Several staff members kindly corresponded with me for years and supplied fantastic photos for the book.
I kept track of where I found each fact in the story in a “sources document” which eventually grew to 14 pages. (I create a source doc for every book project to preserve my sanity. There’s nothing worse than fact-checking a story before it goes to print, which is often about five years after you finish writing it, and you can’t remember where you found a particular fact.)
So that’s a little bit about my research for Swish!
I hope readers are inspired by this true story of the iconic Globetrotters who …
entertained hundreds of millions of people,
met with popes, princes, and presidents,
and played non-stop, give-it-all-you-got, out-to-win-it, sky’s-the-limit basketball!
Researching and writing Swish! was just the beginning of this story’s journey. Next, the book needed slam-dunking, alley-ooping, high-flying illustrations. It needed Don Tate, a magnificent illustrator who soon began his own research journey.
I (Don Tate) have been a longtime fan of the Harlem Globetrotters. As a kid, they were the closest things to Black superheroes that I knew of. I was excited to attend their games whenever they came to town. Illustrating Swish! was an opportunity to return to the superheroes of my youth.
For research, I turned to a couple of other biographies on the subject. Spinning the Globe: The Rise, Fall, and Return to Greatness of the Harlem Globetrotters by Ben Green, and The Lives, Times and Glory Days of The Harlem Globetrotters 1946-1963 by Dick Burdette. Both books were great, reading them helped inform the art I would create. For instance, when illustrating the early team from Wendell Phillips High School, I had no idea about the colors of the uniforms—photos of the time, of course, were black and white. What I learned is that the early team was referred to as the “red and black machine.” The name of their high school yearbook was “The Red and Black,” which confirmed the school colors.
As I researched on the Internet, I pinned images that I found to a Pinterest page—which served as my visual morgue (https://www.pinterest.com/dontate/visual-reference-used-for-the-book-swish/). I found very early photos of the original team. I discovered images from some of their early media guides (or programs). I even found a 1952 edition of Bill Stern’s Sports Book, which featured a comic book style telling of the original Globetrotters story. It helped me to see how an artist of the time would portray the team and their world visually, although much of the story itself was inaccurate.
Many things surprised me during my research process. For one, many teams claimed the Globetrotter name, and there are several stories about the team’s origins. But I think the thing that surprised me the most—which maybe shouldn’t have, considering the history of racism in the US—was some of the portrayals of the Harlem Globetrotters in early advertising. They were often rendered animal-like. They were portrayed as racist cartoons in blackface. Some illustrations looked like white players with brown skin. Another observation . . . their coach, Abe Saperstein, encouraged the team to perform comedy routines that stereotyped Black people. White audiences laughed at their comic routines inspired by Stepin Fetchit, a popular comedian of the time who used negative stereotypes of Black people for laughs. I’m sure this is not something that the Globetrotters really wanted to do. But it was what white audiences craved. The Globetrotters were a team of Black men trying to survive during the time of Jim Crow—racist laws in the South that bled way beyond. The team did what they needed to do to feed themselves. They were survivors.
A favorite scene to illustrate was of the players performing some of their high-flying hand-ball tricks. I portrayed them flying through the air like birds and dunking a basketball into a hoop—pure joy on their faces. Initially, that was my only goal for that spread. However, an illustrator’s job is to extend the story beyond the text. I wondered what more I could say here to better inform and add context. That’s when I discovered this illustration (on eBay, of all places) of a Globetrotters basketball game inside of a barn. They were barnstormers! They challenged teams all across the Midwest—in cornfields, dried-up swimming pools, and, yes, inside of barns. So, in my final illustration, I imagined a barn as big as the Veterans Memorial Auditorium, where they played when they came to Des Moines when I was a kid.
Lastly . . . the Globetrotter’s striped shorts. In my early sketches, I portraying the team wearing the striped shorts, because they’re almost synonymous to the team. I can’t even imagine seeing a Harlem Globetrotter game without the striped shorts. But they didn’t come along until much later in the team’s history. I couldn’t find an exact date, but I estimated they made their debut sometime in the late 1940s, right before their game against the Minneapolis Lakers.
My only regret is that Swish!: The Slam-Dunking, Alley-Ooping, High-Flying Harlem Globetrotters will publish during a pandemic. In-person author visits are out for a while, and I’d looked forward to showing up at school visits wearing red-and-white candy-striped shorts—er, well, maybe not.
And now for some spectacular Globetrotter action!
Here’s the official book trailer reveal for Swish!: The Slam-Dunking, Alley-Ooping, High-Flying Harlem Globetrotters which releases Nov. 10, 2020 from Little, Brown.
Don Tate is an award-winning illustrator of numerous critically acclaimed books for children, including Carter Reads The Newspaper (Peachtree Publishing, 2019), No Small Potatoes: Junius G. Groves and his Kingdom in Kansas (Knopf, 2018), Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions (Charlesbridge, 2016) and many others. Don is a founding host of the The Brown Bookshelf-–a blog dedicated to books for African American young readers. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his family. https://dontate.com/ @Devas_T
Suzanne Slade is the award-winning author of more than 140 books for children. She enjoys writing about fascinating figures in history. A few of her recents titles which feature heros from her hometown of Chicago include: Swish! The Slam-Dunking, Alley-Ooping, High-Flying Harlem Globetrotters, Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, and Dangerous Jane, a picture book biography of Jane Addams, the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. www.suzanneslade.com @AuthorSSlade
Ha–My dad’s Enderlin, North Dakota high school team played the Globetrotters back in the 1930’s. The Globetrotters simply played whatever team was available. In those days of a center-court tip-off after every basket, the Enderlin Eagles didn’t even touch the ball in the first half, according to my Dad. But they had a lot of laughs. I look forward to your book!
I love that you gave us a peek at all the research that went into this story, Susan. And I totally agree…there is nothing worse than getting down to the wire and a fact-checker asks for verification of something that you researched 5 or more years before…and not having it readily available. I am trying to be better about keeping good research records. And Don…thank you so much for taking us along on your journey as an illustrator for this phenomenal book!