The game was arranged in a hurry and sold out in 48 hours. The Harlem Globetrotters, everybody's favorite basketball team when it came to fun, were coming to Seattle. Their opponent would be Seattle University in a semi-serious game.
The Globetrotters didn't lose. They toyed with opponents and made them look silly. They turned businesslike only when a game got close, and that wasn't often.
In the midst of a 108-game worldwide tour celebrating their silver anniversary, the popular Globetrotters agreed to a three-game exhibition series against college teams in the East, Midwest and West, honoring a request to raise proceeds for the U.S. Olympic Team competing that summer in Helsinki, Finland.
On Jan. 15, 1952, however, the showboat team gave back more to its country than envisioned: Seattle U, inspired by Johnny O'Brien's 43 points, pulled a shocking 84-81 upset before a sellout crowd of 12,500 in a raucous atmosphere at Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
"[Al] Brightman kept telling us how we can win the game," O'Brien said, referring to his SU coach. "Everything he said was positive. It was, 'Don't think about who they are, think about what we're doing.' That was the catalyst."
With Seattle U returning to full Division I championship eligibility for the first time in 33 years -- when the Redhawks host Washington in a women's soccer match at Championship Field on Aug. 17 -- this is the 14th in a series of 33 stories replaying memorable SU events previously held at the NCAA's top level (1952-80).
The Globetrotters-SU game was a huge spectacle. Famed trumpeter Louis Armstrong, singer Velma Middleton and actress Joan Caulfield were brought in to entertain the crowd. There were so many people jammed into the arena O'Brien remembers having trouble finding a path from the locker room to the court.
The teams played under college rules, except for fouls, choosing to adhere to the pro game's six. Officials allowed the game to get rough. Screens were physical. There was a lot of pushing. Seattle U never once backed down.
"I think we kind of surprised them in the beginning with our quickness and we jumped on them," O'Brien said. "We took them out of their game. They never did get to do any of the clowning-around stuff."
O'Brien, the nation's leading college scorer at the time, was continually fed the ball inside and a host of defenders, including the great Goose Tatum, couldn't stop his short hook shots.
"One time, I had the ball in the three-second lane and had to get rid of it, everybody was covered, so I flipped it through Goose's arms and it went into the hoop, " he said. "Goose came running down the floor and said, 'Knock that off, little guy, that's my shot.' I started laughing and he started laughing."
The Chieftains were mobbed once the game ended. The Globetrotters were respectful, but chagrined by the outcome. Owner/promoter Abe Saperstein promptly canceled the other two charity games against Notre Dame and either Army or Navy.
"We ran into the Globetrotters again in Philly, when they were playing St. Joseph's, and they were still unhappy about losing that ballgame," O'Brien said.
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