The Harlem Globetrotters return to Austin Wednesday. The organization that helped shatter the color barrier in the NBA is being led on the court by a man who helped break racial barriers in Austin.
For decades, the Harlem Globetrotters have been wowing kids and adults alike with trick shots, comedic timing and buckets… sometimes filled with water.
For the better part of this decade, Jimmy Blacklock has been coaching the Globetrotters – drawing from his own 13-plus years playing for the organization. But before touring 98 countries and countless television appearances, Blacklock’s career got its start right here in Austin at the University of Texas.
“Well, he was the quickest guard I ever coached, and I coached some good ones,” said Leon Black, who coached the University of Texas basketball team from 1967 to 1976. He recruited Blacklock from Tyler Junior College for the 1970-71 season.
“He was quick to a point that the other players in the conference couldn’t defend him and he scored a lot of points,” said Black.
Blacklock led the team in scoring his junior season, averaging more than 16-and-a-half points a game. He became the first African-American to lead the Longhorns in scoring.
The desegregation of Texas athletics had really just taken its first big steps. The Board of Regents officially deemed it okay for blacks and whites to play varsity sports together back in 1963, but the school had trouble getting past its reputation. There were trailblazers, like Sam Bradley, who entered UT on a track scholarship, but also played some on Coach Black’s first three basketball teams. But the big breakthroughs came in 1970.
Julius Whittier had just become the first African-American to play for the Longhorn football team that fall. That spring, Larry Robinson became the first African-American to sign a letter of intent to play basketball at UT. Blacklock says he came to Texas to be an impact player on the basketball team, not thinking about his place in school history.
It didn’t dawn on me at the time, but after looking back on it, being asked about it a lot, I’ve had a chance to reflect on it and say, ‘Well, I stayed the course and made it through,’” said Blacklock. “I came out unscathed. There were some rough patches, but it worked out for the best.”
But it was almost not to be.
“My ambition was not to attend the University of Texas,” he recalled. “Actually, it was really Michigan State where I really wanted to go.”
He says in the end, the distance from home was the reason he didn’t end up in East Lansing, Michigan.
“The coach told me, he says, ‘Well, you’ll be here all year round. You won’t be able to go home until the summer time.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a long time. And you got a lot of ice and snow there buddy.’ And a brother from Texas? It just didn’t register.”
Blacklock went on to be a team captain his senior season. And little did he realize then that the decision to be closer to home would set him on a course to travel the world.
In 1974, Blacklock joined the Harlem Globetrotters as they were rising to their pop culture zenith. In the 1970s, the Globetrotters were regulars on TV, everything from their own variety show – the Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Variety Machine – to cartoons – like the Super Globetrotters – to cameos on the Love Boat, Gilligan’s Island and the White Shadow.
They even played an entire game for the Pope – just the Pope.
Blacklock played with the team until 1987. He later rejoined them for a year as a player-coach in 1997.
Since 2011, he’s been the head coach of the group.
“It is a legendary team, a very proud and prestigious organization and people still know and look to it as a form of entertainment for family,” said Blacklock.
Just two months ago, the University of Texas recognized Blacklock’s accomplishments on its campus by inducting him into the Longhorn Hall of Honor. The recognition at UT still amazes him.
“Other than being born, knowing Christ and being part of the Harlem Globetrotters for years, to be honored at my university – I can’t put into words – it’s incredible.”
Blacklock will return to the campus Wednesday as the Harlem Globetrotters begin this leg of their tour at the Erwin Center.
Video: Globetrotter Buckets Blakes makes a trick shot from the top of the Tower of the Americas in San Antonio December 6, 2016.