The greatest exhibition sports team in history.
The Globetrotters actually got their start in Chicago as a team called the Savoy Big Five, playing exhibition basketball games before dances at the Savoy Ballroom in 1927. They broke up after a team argument in 1928, but a number of the players got back together later that year to form a team called the Globe Trotters. While touring in Southern Illinois, they took on a manager/promoter named Abe Saperstein, who renamed the team as the New York Harlem Globe Trotters -- none of the team was from New York, and in fact, they wouldn't play in Harlem 'til 1968, but with an team of African-Americans, he felt it made good promotional sense to flag them as a Harlem team.
In their early years, the team was a straightforward basketball team, regularly participating in events like the World Professional Basketball Tournament and winning it in 1940. The team started incorporating small comedy routines in the early 1940s, thanks to a new player named Reece "Goose" Tatum, but they remained a serious sports team for a few more years. They got a big boost in 1948 when they defeated the Minneapolis Lakers, considered the best white basketball team in the country, and even as a comic team, their players were still sought after for their phenomenal skills. The very first black player to be drafted in an NBA team (Boston) was Globetrotter Chuck Cooper, and the first black player to sign an NBA contract was Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton -- his contract was bought from the Globetrotters by the Knicks in 1950. Other Globetrotters who've moved on to the NBA are Wilt Chamberlain, Willie Gardner, Connie Hawkins, and Nathaniel Clifton. And Globetrotters have gone on to become stars in other sports, too -- baseball players Ernie Banks, Bob Gibson, and Ferguson Jenkins all wore Globetrotter uniforms.
By the early '50s, the Globetrotters had made a nearly full conversion into a comedy/exhibition team, specializing in general clowning routines, juggling basketballs between players, making extremely difficult trick shots, playing with the crowd (particularly throwing buckets of confetti on people) and spinning balls on their fingers -- and especially spinning balls on young spectators' fingers. Around the same time, the team adopted an instrumental version of the jazz standard "Sweet Georgia Brown," recorded by Brother Bones and His Shadows. This version, performed primarily through whistling and a folk instrument called the bones, was played before games and while the team stood in a circle in center court performing ball-handling stunts while passing the basketball back and forth.
In 1952, the Washington Generals were formed with the assistance of Louis "Red" Klotz. The Generals (with the occasional name change) have been the Globetrotters' primary nemesis almost to the present day. They generally play straightforward, traditional basketball, with maybe the occasional hint of deliberate obtuseness. Parts of the game have been planned and rehearsed in advance, and the Generals never interfere with the shenanigans when the Globetrotters have the ball. But when the Generals are in possession of the ball, they play seriously. At any rate, their primary job is to lose basketball games to the Globetrotters. The Generals have lost about 13,000 games to the Globetrotters while winning only six.
In 1985, the Globetrotters signed Lynette Woodard, a member of the gold medal-winning women's Olympic basketball team and cousin of team stalwart Hubert "Geese" Ausbie, as the team's first female player. The team has had 13 other female players since then. And the team's first Hispanic member, Orlando Antigua, was signed in 1995. The Globetrotters have also had, by my count, two white players -- Bob Karstens, who played in 1942-43 and served as team manager from 1954-94, and team owner Abe Saperstein, who substituted in a game in 1926 after a player was injured.
Plenty of Globetrotters gained significant fame without needing to move on to the NBA -- players like Meadowlark Lemon, Curly Neal, Marques Haynes, Geese Ausbie, Charles "Tex" Harrison, and Goose Tatum were recognized around the world for their skills and showmanship.
And of course, the Globetrotters' fame was driven even higher by the mass media. The Globetrotters played themselves in a 1951 movie called "The Harlem Globetrotters" (Thomas Gomez played Saperstein, with none other than Dorothy Dandridge as the love interest for a fictional Globetrotter). That film was followed by a sequel called "Go, Man, Go!" in 1954, with Dane Clark as Saperstein, Sidney Poitier as a player named Inman Jackson, and Ruby Dee as his wife Irma -- multiple Globetrotters again played themselves.
The team starred in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon that ran from 1970-73. Each episode had the team on their way to a game when they came across a crime or problem that needed to be solved. The solution inevitably involved a basketball game. None of the players voiced themselves -- the most notable voice actor in the cast was Scatman Crothers, who played Meadowlark. They also made three guest appearances in "The New Scooby-Doo Movies." In 1979, "The Super Globetrotters" cast the team as weird superheroes -- Crothers returned as a voice actor, this time playing Nate Branch. A few decades later, the Globetrotters made several appearances on "Futurama" in which they're basketball players and arrogant super-scientists living on the distant Globetrotter Homeworld.
The Globetrotters' fame is nowhere near as great as it was in its heyday, but they still tour and play almost year-round, entertaining crowds with the wildest basketball anyone has ever seen.