MINNEAPOLIS — The opening toss went up, straight and true, without a flaw. The ref didn't even fake the toss. Nobody stole the tip. The center didn't step on his opponent's toes, either.
This is the new and improved Harlem Globetrotters. That old gag with the ball attached to a rubber band on a free throw? They never even attempt it. They didn't so much as "pants" their teammates at the free throw line.
The Globetrotters of 2001 are working on their new image. They're out to prove they can actually play. How serious are they? Serious enough that they registered a 75-63 win Friday night at the Target Center against a team of college All-Stars in a real game — not the choreographed schtick that made them famous. The game was part of Final Four Weekend festivities. That makes the 'Trotters 2-for-2 against college All-Stars and 4-1 overall since they decided start playing a few of their games for keeps each season.
"There won't be any funny stuff and shenanigans in these games," coach Tex Harrison told USA Today last November. "We are in it to win."
Included on the All-Star team was BYU's Mekeli Wesley, the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year. He logged four points and a rebound in 15 minutes.
Hey, it was the closest thing BYU got to the Final Four, so why complain? Free trip, free food and lodging for three nights. It's better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. And a whole lot better than the way things went when he began at BYU.
"I definitely enjoyed this. It was well worth it," said Wesley. "I enjoyed it all."
It is slightly ironic that Wesley's last college game was against the biggest laugh in basketball history — the Globetrotters. Now both BYU and the Globetrotters have established themselves as serious teams. The only fooling around on Friday came prior to tip-off and after the final horn, when the 'Trotters stood in their traditional circle, passing the ball to the strains of "Sweet Georgia Brown." That was it.
For a time, it was the Cougars who were drawing laughs, going 1-25 in Roger Reid's/Tony Ingle's last season. Welsey came on in 1997, Steve Cleveland's first year, as the Cougars began rebuilding. They went 9-21 that year. Though an improvement, they couldn't have been more embarrassed if someone had actually "pantsed" them at the foul line. They looked a lot like the Globetrotters' longtime foil, the Washington Generals — a bunch of slow-footed guys who stood around while their opponent runs circles around them.
"Of course it was like that," said Wesley. "You win nine games out of 30, there's a lot more downs than ups. But it was definitely fun, and I don't regret any of it."
You kept waiting for an opponent to hide the ball inside the back of his shirt or throw a bucket of confetti into the crowd. But no, it was dead-serious basketball. Which made it even worse for the Cougars. They were trying to get back to respectability, and ended up looking like the whole thing had been staged.
Matters improved his second year at BYU. He missed part of the season due to suspension but came back to play 19 games in a 12-16 campaign. It wasn't until the 1999-2000 season that things started looking good. BYU went 22-10 and made it to the quarterfinals of the NIT in 2000. This year they tied for the MWC title, went 24-9 and made the NCAA Tournament.
No more laugh track when they took the court for warmups. No more playing Ed McMahon to someone else's Carnac the Magnificent.
Thus, Welsey has come full circle. His team was co-conference champs this year and he was among 12 seniors invited to play in an All-Star game that has produced 196 first-round NBA draft picks.
Friday's game wasn't a work of art. In fact, it was typical all-star fare, filled with running, gunning and a dreadful defense. But it wasn't a problem for either Wesley or the Globetrotters. Because once you've been in there mainly for laughs, being taken serious is a reward all its own.