Ace Jackson and the Revolutionary Women of the Harlem Globetrotters

Ace Jackson and the Revolutionary Women of the Harlem Globetrotters

"I love the dribble. I love doing ball handling stuff, which is why I fit with the Globetrotters so well," says Ace Jackson. Rob Tringali for Rolling Stone

Continuing to break boundaries, legendary basketball team proves women can play alongside the men

Continuing to break boundaries, legendary basketball team proves women can play alongside the men

Will the Harlem Globetrotters defeat the World All Stars? It's a brisk spring afternoon, and the crowd at Brooklyn's Barclays Center is on the edge of their seats watching a cliffhanger fourth quarter even though in the long, storied history of the team, they've never really been known to lose. Yet the scoreboard is all tied up, 72 to 72, with less than a minute left. A cool 10,000 fans shriek "defense," alternating with the boom-bap drumbeat. Just before the half, it seemed like this would be a blowout, but the opposing team brought out their most menacing player, Cager. At nearly 8-feet tall and wearing a black mask that covers almost his entire face, he gives an almost WWE-style feel to the game. 

Nobody is contending for a playoff spot, world championship or big sneaker endorsement deal. The Globetrotters and their opponents play exhibition ball, over hundreds of events throughout the world each year. Yet to the crowd comprised of young and old (but mostly young), the stakes have never been so high.

A small boy rocking a yarmulke can hardly deal with the excitement. An even smaller voice, from a young girl with short pigtails, escapes the din of the crowd: "Where's Ace? Where's Ace?" She sports the signature blue, red and white headband of the team. Her dad points to the edge of the court, toward the spry Ace Jackson, the Harlem Globetrotter's point guard, who is buoyantly rallying the crowd as Dizzy makes the team's final attempt to seal a lead before the clock runs out.

Crissa "Ace" Jackson is one four women who now grace the roster of one of the oldest basketball clubs in the world. It's a record in the long history of the Harlem Globetrotters. At 5-foot-4, she reminds longtime lovers of the game of Charlotte Hornets' point guard Muggsy Bogues. She is swift and slick and, on the court playing with exclusively men, that swiftness serves her well. Jackson, 27, who grew up in Pennsylvania and California, credits her father for her shaping her into the ballplayer that she is today. Her father once scoffed at the idea, told her she was "too small" and Jackson threatened to tell her mother. Jackson retells this story with humor and pride. She took to the sport when she was six years old and never looked back.

"My dad used to call me 'Iversina,'" she says with a laugh. Jackson studied a lot of players, but paid close attention to Alan Iverson's legendary crossover move when she was in junior high by watching DVDs her parents bought her to support her innate talent and enthusiasm for the sport. Jackson's father played some street ball but responded to his daughter's charge to train her in the game with enthusiasm even after she ratted him out to her mom. In return, Jackson opted out of middle school trips to the mall to train year-round, immersing herself in training videos and perfecting her version of Iverson's crossover dribble. "I love the dribble. I love doing ball handling stuff, which is why I fit with the Globetrotters so well."

The young fans get a taste of that magical ball handling when her teammate passes Ace the ball once the starters are introduced to giddy fans. The Globetrotters twerk, dab and spin balls on their fingertips as their signature tune, the Brother Bones' "Sweet Georgia Brown," fills the stadium. In the first half of the game, Ace sinks not one, but two 4-point shots. The crowd goes wild. It was the Globetrotters that created the 3-point field goal in the early days of professional basketball games. Ace is aware of what this moment means to young girls and boys who watch, this 5-foot-4 phenom play with the big boys.

In the 91st year of the Harlem Globetrotters, while sportsmanship and slapstick entertainment reign in the game, they are still in some ways the vanguard. Their signature attraction is the demonstration of an effortless 4-point shot, which has yet to be adopted in NBA regulation. But most obviously, the presence of women playing alongside male players aligns with the Globetrotters legacy, daring to present an inclusive future in sports.

Once independently owned, they are now under the auspices of Herschend Family Entertainment, a company that manages theme parks, aquariums and vacation resorts in the South and Northeast. The Globetrotters tout themselves as the world's "goodwill ambassadors," and their events draw attention to charity and humanitarian causes while thrilling the crowd with silly gags, theatrics juxtaposed against very serious ballin'. As premier family entertainers, their enthusiastic fan base of school-aged girls and boys are electrified by the presence of "Girl Power" embodied in Jackson.

Meadowlark Lemon, the squad's legendary showman, "The Clown Prince of Basketball," who died in 2015, played for 24 years at the peak of their popularity. The Globetrotters of the mid 1960s through late 1980s were everywhere, charming everyone from variety and late night TV to cartoons – most notably a ridiculous, yet very important crossover Scooby-Doo episode in 1972 where the gang and the squad unmask pirates who were trying to plunder a town's oil reserves.

This may be the story most are familiar with, yet the story of race – or rather the story of the triumph in the face of racism – is a story that's muted in today's Globetrotters. They have transcended it to a certain degree, if such a thing can be said, putting on nearly 400 shows per year for two million audiences around the world.

The Harlem Globetrotters were born during segregation as all-white fledging professional networks teams developed. The Black Fives were African-American exhibition basketball teams who were connected to concert and club venues throughout the North and would play opposite other all-black teams.

When Abe Saperstein, a British-Jewish immigrant, took over management of the five-man, all-black team that hailed from Chicago's South Side in 1926, they were then known as the Savoy Big Five. Their original name, like other Black Fives, was taken from the night club that needed an exhibition basketball team to boost attendance to the venue. Saperstein booked matches with other teams in small towns around Chicago area, Wisconsin and Iowa, before having the temerity and foresight to rename the team the Harlem Globetrotters in 1929. Saperstein believed the name change would knock the sting or "surprise" of the identity of the players for these all-white towns. Harlem remains the symbol of black culture and pride in the American imagination. Adding "Globetrotter" was a marketing invention: He wanted potential spectators to see them as a world traveling, unique novelty. The men traveled and played nearly 200 days out of the year for little pay.

Basketball grew popular in the first-half of the 20th Century, and just like baseball, America's other favorite pastime, it continued to bar African-American players from competition alongside their white counterparts. For 20 years, the Globetrotters survived exclusively by barnstorming, playing exhibition teams across the country, and they perfected their showy antics – as they became confident athletes beating stronger teams along the way.

The team's most crucial contribution in the remaking of sport's history would be the 1948 game between Harlem Globetrotters and Minneapolis Lakers, which paved the way for desegregation of professional men's teams. The Minneapolis Lakers was the strongest team they ever faced. Before 18,000 fans, the all-African-American Globetrotters defeated the all-white Lakers in 61 to 59, where Marques Haynes played the clock before shot clocks, dribbled to maintain possession before passing the ball to Ermer Robinson who sunk a two-pointer with seconds left.

That game – that win – changed everything. The world of men's professional ball changed and the Black Five leagues dwindled and disappeared. "It just revitalized so many of us," former Temple University coach John Chaney told SF Gate in a 2008 story about that history-making game. John Chaney was a teen living in the segregated South at the time, and he would later become one of the greatest coaches in college basketball, leading Temple University to 17 NCAA championships. "[F]rom the fact that [it showed] what we can be, could be," Chaney recalled, "but we needed a chance."

In 1985, fresh off leading the national women's team to their gold medal win at the 1984 Olympics, Lynette Woodard would break another barrier: She became the first woman to join the Harlem Globetrotters. She toured with them for two years, and women continued to play alongside the men of the Globetrotters until 1993. Women wouldn't return to the Globetrotters for another 18 years. In 2011 TNT Maddox joined the team as point guard, followed by Ace in 2015 and rookies Swish Young and Hoops Green in 2016.

People need to see themselves reflected in the world, to imagine what's possible and to recognize and affirm their collective dreaming. The Globetrotters still help many people do that to this day. 

Samaya Clark-Gabriel is a second grader from Bedford Stuyvesant Brooklyn whose dribble game could own most adults. Earlier in the week, the Globetrotters surprised her live on Good Morning America and invited her to their upcoming game at Barclays Center. Ace is her favorite player. Before the match against the All Stars, Jackson shows Samaya some drills and Samaya takes to them like a baby duck to water. "She's only been playing for about a year and a half," her mother says, and everybody looks on in awe. 

There's a moment in the Fox TV series Pitch, where Ginny Baker (played by Kylie Bunbury), the world's first woman pitcher in the major leagues, sees young girl fans holding signs celebrating Baker's breakthrough that read: "I'm Next." Echoes Baker's fictional story are present in Jackson's journey in basketball and, ultimately, the Globetrotters.

The second half opens with a ball handling demonstration from little seven-year-old Samaya. She effortlessly dribbles two balls across the court. The crowd loses their fool mind and the stadium fills with awestruck cheers. She is unfazed and a beast. She is the future.

Everybody on the team has a theatrical role: the Dribbler, the Dunker and the Showman. Players are mic'd to provide narrative for the theater of the game. Has there ever been a woman Showman in the history of the Globetrotters? The clown, the shot caller, the host, like the immortal Meadowlark Lemon? No. And yet the crowd's attention draws back to puckish and athletic Ace, who's perched on top of the rim towards the end of the fourth quarter. 

It's impossible to not watch Ace as the refs plead with her to come down as Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj's "Feelin' Myself" is bumping over the sound system. She's got a mirror, the lights dim, the crowd sways and giggles. It's ridiculous and it doesn't matter. Nobody in the audience will ever be as skilled as any member of this squad who can crossover a player and sink a 4-pointer with the flick of the wrist – and twerk with a wink while doing it.

For Ace Jackson, who had no analogue quite like herself when she first began to play, she is a magical example for kids like Samaya, who now knows that her possibilities are limitless.