Created by Abe Saperstein in 1926 in Chicago, Illinois, the team adopted the name Harlem because of its connotations as a major African-American community. Over the years they have played more than 20,000 exhibition games in 118 countries.
The first star player of those early Globe Trotters (the name would be merged into one word later on) was Albert "Runt" Pullins, an adept dribbler and shooter. Soon he would be joined by 6'3" Inman Jackson, who played center and had a flair for showboating. They would originate the two roles that would stay with the 'trotters for decades, the showman and the dribbler.
The Globetrotters were initially a serious competitive team, and despite a flair for entertainment, they would only clown for the audience after establishing a safe lead in the game. In 1939, they accepted an invitation to participate in the World Professional Basketball Tournament, where they met the New York Rens in the semi-finals in the first big clash of the two greatest all-black professional basketball teams. The Rens defeated the Globetrotters and went on to win the Tournament, but in 1940 the Globetrotters avenged their loss by defeating the Rens in the quarterfinals and advancing to the championship game, where they beat the Chicago Bruins in overtime by a score of 37–36.
The Globetrotters beat the premier professional team, the Minneapolis Lakers (led by George Mikan), for two years in a row in 1948 and 1949, with the Lakers winning later contests. The February 1948 win (by a score of 61-59, on a buzzer beater) was a hallmark in professional basketball history, as the all-black Globetrotters proved they were on an equal footing with the all-white Lakers. Momentum for ending the National Basketball Association's color line grew, and in 1950, Chuck Cooper became the first black player drafted by an NBA team, the Boston Celtics. From that time on the Globetrotters had increasing difficulty attracting and retaining top talent.
Tony Peyton was the last living member of the original Globetrotters. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1996. He died in Midland, Texas, on July 23, 2007, at the age of eighty-five.
The Globetrotters gradually worked comic routines into their act until they became known more for entertainment than sports. The Globetrotters' acts often feature incredible coordination and skillful handling of one or more basketballs, such as passing or juggling balls between players, balancing or spinning balls on their fingertips, and making unusual, difficult shots.
Among the players who have been Globetrotters are NBA greats Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain, Connie "The Hawk" Hawkins and Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, as well as Marques Haynes, George "Meadowlark" Lemon, Jerome James, former Temple coach John Chaney, Reece "Goose" Tatum, and Hubert "Geese" Ausbie. Another popular team member in the 1970s and 1980s was Fred "Curly" Neal who was the best dribbler of that era of the team's history and was immediately recognizable due to his shaven head. Baseball Hall of Famers Bob Gibson, Ferguson Jenkins and Lou Brock also played for the team at one time or another. In 1985, the Globetrotters signed their first female player, Olympic gold medalist Lynette Woodard, and their second, Joyce Walker, just three weeks later.
Because virtually all of its players have been African American, and because of the buffoonery involved in many of the Globetrotters' skits, they drew some criticism in the Civil Rights era. The players were derisively accused of "Tomming for Abe", a reference to Uncle Tom and white owner Abe Saperstein. However, prominent civil rights activist Jesse Jackson (who would later be named an Honorary Globetrotter) came to their defense by stating, "I think they've been a positive influence... They did not show blacks as stupid. On the contrary, they were shown as superior."
After losing to the Washington Generals in 1962, the Harlem Globetrotters lost only two more games in the next 38 years (12,596 games). Usually they played a "stooge" team owned by Red Klotz, which also appeared as the Boston Shamrocks, New Jersey Reds, Baltimore Rockets, or the Atlantic City Seagulls. On January 5, 1971 they lost in Martin, Tennessee in overtime to the New Jersey Reds; the 100-99 score ended an alleged 2,495-game winning streak (which meant that the Globetrotters were playing 277 games per year up until that date).
In addition to their hundreds of exhibition games, the Globetrotters have faced some competitive action since the mid-1990s. On September 12, 1995, they lost 91–85 to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's All Star Team in Vienna, Austria ending an alleged run of 8,829 straight victories in going back to 1971 (though 8,829 games in twenty-four years would mean the Globetrotters were playing nearly 368 games per year—or more than one game a day some days, for twenty four years). The 48-year-old Abdul-Jabbar scored 34 points. The Globetrotters won the other 10 games during that European tour.
On Saturday November 15, 2003, the UTEP Miners beat the Harlem Globetrotters 89-88 ending their 288 game win streak.
On February 27, 2006, the Globetrotters extended their overall record to exactly 22,000 wins. Their most recent loss came on March 31, 2006 when they went down 87–83 to the NABC College All-Stars to bring their loss tally to just 345—a winning percentage of 98.4%.
The Globetrotters claim all their exhibition games are "real, competitive" contests.
The Harlem Globetrotters have made multiple appearances on the animated show Futurama. These episodes feature fictional Globetrotters led by Ethan "Bubblegum" Tate (played by Phil LaMarr). These 31st century Globetrotters have their own planet, and are also proficient in science and mathematics. In the episode "Time Keeps on Slippin'", the Globetrotter Homeworld challenges Earth to a basketball game (the only stakes being the shame of defeat). At one point in the episode, "Bubblegum" declares several characters as honorary Globetrotters. The Globetrotters appear again in the feature length episode "Bender's Big Score", in which they assist Professor Farnsworth in figuring out the mechanics of Paradox-free Time Travel. The Globetrotter known as "Curley Joe" is a parody of Curly Neal.
An episode of All in the Family had Lionel Jefferson agreeing with Archie Bunker that racial quotas and affirmative action are not a good idea and making a comment "because 88% of Americans are white, what if there was a law saying the Harlem Globetrotters were forced to have 88% of their team have white players?".
A 1991 episode of Saturday Night Live spoofed desegregation of sports with "The First Black Harlem Globetrotter". Michael Jordan plays a fictional player called "Sweet River Banes", who is supposedly the first black member of the Globetrotters in the 1920s.
The Harlem Globetrotters appeared briefly in The Simpsons episode entitled "Homie the Clown" in which Krusty the Clown foolishly bets all his profits from opening a clown college against the Globetrotters stating that he "thought the Generals were due".
The Harlem Globetrotters have also appeared in a special Scooby Doo episode called "Scooby Doo meets the Harlem Globetrotters".
The Harlem Globetrotters appeared in the 2000 feature film Little Nicky.
The logo and uniforms of the '70s All-Star Team in the NBA Live video game series resemble the Globetrotter uniforms. Former Globetrotter Wilt Chamberlain is a member of the team.
In September 1979, Bally Manufacturing Company, Pinball Division, released a pinball machine called "Harlem Globetrotters On Tour", featuring the members of the Harlem Globetrotters at that time, a pin game that was to become one of Bally's most successful pinball machines ever, with 14,550 units made. The pin game would become a collector's item in later years.