What started as a high school history project turned into a chance for Alex Nielsen and Koby Deitz to meet a basketball legend.
The freshmen at Charles Wright Academy in University Place were paid a visit Thursday by former Harlem Globetrotter Curly Neal, who played for the famed black exhibition team from 1963 to 1985.
Joining Neal was Buckets Blakes, a player on the current Globetrotters roster.
The two players answered the students’ questions about the team’s influence on basketball and race relations in the 20th century.
Known for his wristbands, shaved head and nifty dribbling, Neal was long one of the most recognizable faces of the Globetrotters, along with Meadowlark Lemon and others.
“We were pioneers,” Neal, now 67, told the students. “We opened up the doors for all the NBA players to receive all the money they do today.”
Later on, the students hit the basketball court for a little two-on-one against Blakes.
Deitz and Nielsen, who both play junior varsity hoops for the Tarriers, attempted to guard Blakes. They were dressed in slacks and ties while Blakes shot baskets over their heads, more comfortable in his red-white-and-blue Globetrotters warm-up suit.
“You’ve got the brains. Now you’ve got to get the game,” Blakes, 32, taunted the boys playfully.
Nielsen and Deitz plan to incorporate parts of their interview with the players into their history project on Globetrotters founder Abe Saperstein.
The students will take a 6-foot-tall exhibit about Saperstein and his team to the state competition for National History Day projects next week. If their project wins first or second place in the state judging, they will go on to compete nationally.
Hundreds of projects will be presented at the state competition in Auburn, including six from Charles Wright.
Deitz said he never imagined he and Nielsen would meet members of the Globetrotters in person when they began their research in November. The project started as a class assignment.
“This is something I’m going to be telling my kids and grandkids about,” said Deitz, 15. “Even if we don’t make it to nationals, I will view this project as a success.”
Nielsen agreed. “How many people can say they’ve played basketball with a Harlem Globetrotter?”
The athletic success of the Globetrotters in the late 1940s helped spur the integration of the National Basketball Association in the early 1950s, Blakes said during his interview with the students.
Though the team always entertained its audience with elaborate dribbling and tricks on the court, its focus on entertainment grew after NBA teams started recruiting black players in the early 1950s, Blakes said.
The team’s success also helped bring together fans of different backgrounds, Neal said.
“Eventually there were people of all walks of life in that crowd,” Blakes said.
Deitz and Nielsen said they wanted to focus their project on Saperstein because of the changes his team spurred in U.S. sports and culture.
“Everybody knows of his creation, but hardly any of our peers know of him,” Nielsen said. “We wanted to increase awareness about everything he did.”
The students and history teacher Nick Coddington contacted the Globetrotters office in Phoenix a few months ago to see if any players would be available for an interview.
Both Blakes and Neal routinely appear at schools on the team’s behalf. The Globetrotters will play at KeyArena in Seattle at 7 p.m. April 25.
Before leaving Charles Wright, Blakes and Neal also met with players on the girls and boys varsity basketball teams.
“It’s about getting to the kids, and teaching them about having positive attitude and respect,” Neal said. “And having fun – that’s the most important thing.”
Melissa Santos: 253-552-7058