Converses and Leotards: The Harlem Globetrotters Revisit Their Fashion Influence
When Louis “Sweet Lou” Dunbar first donned the blue star-spangled Harlem Globetrotters jersey in 1977, the current head coach knew he was joining the team who looked as good as they played. The theatrics of spinning no-look passes and playing catch with the referee in the middle of a fastbreak captured the imagination but doing so in remixed versions of the American flag captured the eye. The DNA of today’s NBA fashions has roots in the Globetrotters daring to experiment when no one else would.
On or off the court, their style was revered. Their jerseys have graced New York Fashion Week runways. Dunbar remembers his teammate Dallas Thorton traveling from New York City to London to style himself in clothes from a tailor he knew out there. The team has never been confined to conventions, not even their own. In October 2021, they changed their iconic jerseys to an all-black version for the first time in its 95+ year history. Some of the new-generation Globetrotters have already seen a shift in the perception of the team’s style from vintage to fashion-forward.
“Usually, I’d see people wear Globetrotters’ uniforms during Halloween; they dress up to be Harlem Globetrotters. But now, some of my friends just go out to have lunch in my jersey,” Globetrotters guard Rock “Wham” Middleton says to Men’s Health.
These days, basketball’s lords of the ludicrous have been spreading more than fashion tips for those in need; they’ve been showing the goodwill they’ve brought around the country. In 2022, the Harlem Globetrotters returned to broadcast network television in the NBC series Harlem Globetrotters: Play It Foward, an exclusive partnership with Hearst Media Production Group. Every week, the team showcased the half-court heaves and acrobatic dunks that made them spectacles, along with the community work they do to make them heroes.
Coach Dunbar and rising star Middleton represent two different Globetrotters generations and chatted with Men’s Health about how the team’s style influence has evolved over the years, how leotards play a part in that style history, and what touched their heart from their time on Play It Forward.
How important was style to The Harlem Globetrotters?
Dunbar: The guys always had pride in how they presented themselves because they were not only representing themselves, they were representing The Harlem Globetrotters. That’s the way we felt when I was coming up. We changed with the times. I had one of my teammates who came in with me, who’s no longer with us—rest in peace to Billy Ray [Hobley]. He once said, “We don’t follow trends; we set them (laughs).” That’s the way we rolled.
Middleton: I feel it’s very important to what the Globetrotters try to do because it shows our personality and connects us with the crowd and our fans even more. They’ll be like, “Oh snap, he’s wearing an arm sleeve and a leg sleeve. That’s what I do. And it just brings us a little bit more together.
Coach Dunbar, you joined The Harlem Globetrotters in 1977. What trends do you think The Harlem Globetrotters set?
Dunbar: We set the trend with long socks. I think we came here with long socks in the beginning. We had those short shorts back in the day. If you look back in time, we had buckles on in the front of our shorts. Nobody else did that. When I joined the Globetrotters in 1977, we had a little buckle in front of red and white shorts.
Coach Dunbar, The Harlem Globetrotters’ red, white, and blue jerseys were their iconic look. What are your thoughts on the change to the black jerseys?
Dunbar: I thought they were tripping (laughs). I’m old school. I’ve been around for 40+ years, man. Frankie Beverly and Maze made “Before I Let Go” over 40 years ago, and it still gets played now. But you can’t tell people what to do with their own stuff. You have to go with the flow. I mean, one particular time, we had a uniform changed, but it was a one-piece. We had these one-pieces and had to ask guys, “Hey, would you zip me up in the back (laughs)?
Wham: Wait, y’all had a onesie on?
Dunbar: And we had shorts on over it.
Wham: Y’all were wearing leotards (laughs)?
Dunbar: This was back when the Globetrotters owner [Metromedia] owned Ice Capades too. So, they had the costume people from Ice Capades make the uniforms. Trust me; it was a disaster.
Was it hard to play in?
Dunbar: It was hard for you to come out there in that onesie.
Wham, in all your travels, are there any international instances where you’ve seen the Globetrotters’ style show up?
Wham: Definitely in Australia in 2022. We had a few games out there for a couple of weeks. After those weeks, everybody went home. But I stayed back and got the chance to have my own basketball camps throughout Australia. As I basically doubled back to those same cities where we had our games, I saw kids coming to my basketball camp and the school visits wearing our jerseys. They went to the game not only to watch it; they took a piece of it home with them.
Coach Dunbar, when you were playing in the 1970s, you all were playing in Converses. Those were definitely in style, but how did they affect your game?
Dunbar: No discomfort. You have to remember; we didn’t have an option. That’s all we knew.
What was it like working on Play It Forward?
Dunbar: It’s great. It’s great being on there with the players and getting a chance to interact with the players. But I think it’s great. It’s showing what these guys do on the court and some of the things they do off the court. It’s very educational.
Wham: It’s amazing how it’s highlighting organizations and small businesses doing something positive for their communities and involving them. Putting them on national television so that other people are more knowledgeable about them is amazing.
What were some of your favorite moments of Play It Forward?
Wham: I would have to say that we went to the Georgia Aquarium and spent time with the Wounded Warrior Project. Those are people who’ve been wounded, and they usually suffer from PTSD and don’t really get out of the house much. This project got them out of the house, brought them to the Georgia Aquarium, and put them in the water with over 100 different fish species. It felt like they were at peace. It was a life-changing experience.
Dunbar: We did a thing in Chicago where we went to a hockey arena at a little college with disabled people playing hockey on sleds. Some of the guys had the opportunity to get out there. It was great to see that people have developed those programs for those who cannot do it on their own two limbs. I thought it was something awesome, man.
What is the Globetrotter’s lasting impact on basketball fashion overall?
Dunbar: We revolutionized the game. We opened the door for them to experiment more with fashion on the court. We had buckles (laughs). If you looked around, you had never seen anybody’s uniforms look like the Harlem Globetrotters.
Wham: We helped integrate the NBA and so much more into the world of basketball.
Keith Nelson is a writer by fate and journalist by passion, who has connected dots to form the bigger picture for Men’s Health, Vibe Magazine, LEVEL MAG, REVOLT TV, Complex, Grammys.com, Red Bull, Okayplayer, and Mic, to name a few.