Johnson: Globetrotter Handles Franklin living the dream
Famous hoops squad preparing to bring act to Calgary on Jan. 10
Even now, at 39, he’s really not much different from the six-year-old kid perched in front of the TV in Harrisburg, Penn., hooked instantly by the colour, the fun and the gasp-inducing sleight-of-hand.
Sixty-seven countries visited. Hoops with Barack Obama at the White House. Tours of Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan to entertain U.S. troops. Millions of smiles. A lifelong soundtrack of laughter.
“Do I remember the first time I saw the Globetrotters?” repeats Handles Franklin, flopped on a couch in the Wildwood Elementary School staff room. “Of course. Distinctly. When I was six years old, I saw them on Scooby-Do and I was ... mesmerized. I knew right then, right there — I mean I KNEW — that I either wanted to solve mysteries or play for the Trotters. I’ve been dribbling a basketball ever since.
“Never ever wanted to do anything else in life.”
In the gym a quarter-hour earlier, Handles (given name: Chris) had been delivering a new community outreach program, ‘The ABCs of Bullying Prevention’, designed in co-ordination with the National Campaign to Stop Violence (NCSV), deftly mixing the message with the mojo, eliciting shrieks of joy from the kids, then patiently hanging around to sign autographs and pose for pictures, the line snaking through the Wildwood gym (“Hey, pal, gimme five! Here comes my star! Anything for my little star!”).
The Trotters find themselves frozen in a kind of time warp, In world that’s gone PG, edging toward R, they’re still family fare. Brother Bones’s whistled rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown”, their instantly-reconizeable signature tune, has become a part of the schtick.
They play over 250 games a year, different city every night, and practise two hours before each game. As part of the ‘ABC’s” program, Thursday Handles was in Edmonton, the day before that Saskatoon, the day before that Regina, the day before that Winnipeg and the day before that ...
“I’m so passionate about what I do. I love what I do. And I love the fact that we’re able to touch lives in a positive way. The Globetrotters have been around 87 years — think about that — crossing generations. And all the stories are positive.
“To be able to fill those great shoes, continue the legacy, is a blessing. We pride ourselves on not only being great basketball players but ambassadors of good will and role models to kids.”
And that handle ...
“Handles? I’d dribble the ball all kids of ways, and people would say ‘He has handles. He can handle the ball. That ball must have handles on it! Here comes Handles.’ And it stuck. The first person to use it was a coach in high school on my summer-league team, Shawn Broden. He called me Handles and all of a sudden everybody was calling me Handles.”
A Trotter rookie at 34, Handles turned down an offer to teach at the University of Pittsburgh to continue on in hoops and, eventually, play for the Trotters. He sent in a tape of his skills that didn’t immediately work.
“So I played all over the world, did all kinds of things, always working my way back to the Trotters. It’s been my lifelong goal. And now, in the last six years to actually reach it ... that’s why it’s important to tell kids that dreams are attainable. People told me I dribbled too much, that I’d never make it to the Globetrotters. But I believed in myself. And it took me a while to get here. Now I’m one of the old guys, near the end of my career, and they told me I was too old, it was too late. But here I am.
“Culture, race, ethnicity, gender. None of that matters. Go after your dreams.
“A lot of players, their only goal is the NBA. Me, I’ve been lucky enough, I played college ball. I played pro overseas in a bunch of league before I got to the NBA. But my goal was a unique one. The Globetrotters. Curly Neal was my mentor, my idol. So I’m truly living a dream.”
He signed a contract with Nike, was part of LeBron James’ first commercial. For filming, Handles found himself up high in the balcony of a church, James busts in and wheels him a no-look pass. “I knew then,” he laughs, “that he’d be a special talent.”
Among the cameo keepsakes of his half-dozen years as a Trotter, he lists the hijinks with Obama (“He can handle the basketball. He’s really good”), an inspirational visit to children’s cancer hospital in Romania (“They told me I got a bigger reaction than Beyonce, who’d been there the month before”) and his first time in those famous red-white-and-blue Trotter silks in his hometown of Harrisburg.
“That was six years ago, my first year with the team. Those people had been following me my whole life. To perform in front of my mother, my father, everybody, to see them finally achieve my goal, it was very emotional.”
On Jan. 10th, Handles Franklin and the Trotters bring their ‘You Write the Rules’ show to the Scotiabank Saddledome. Old-fashioned? Most assuredly. Corny? Yeah, kinda. But in all the most persuasive ways. Generations come and generations go, but skill and showmanship and the right message never go out of style. At least, not in the 87 years the Harlem Globetrotters have been in business.
“I’m going home to fly home now and be with my family for a few days,” says Handles. “We leave Christmas morning, around 6 a.m., every single year, for a six-month tour.
“You learn to make the world your family. To be part of a group that creates memories that last a lifetime, to be able to put smiles on the faces of people all over the world ... it’s is a feeling I just can’t describe.”
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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