Harlem Globetrotters ready to entertain Albany

After putting together a YouTube video of his high-rising ability in order to get an invite to the 2011 College Slam Dunk Contest, Jacob “Hops” Tucker, at just 5-foot-10 out of Division III Illinois College, won, getting the attention of the Harlem Globetrotters, who then signed him. Tucker is one the team’s newest signees and is just the fourth white player ever signed by the Globetrotters in history, which dates back to the early 1920 (Photo courtesy of Harlem Globetrotters/Special to The Herald)

After putting together a YouTube video of his high-rising ability in order to get an invite to the 2011 College Slam Dunk Contest, Jacob “Hops” Tucker, at just 5-foot-10 out of Division III Illinois College, won, getting the attention of the Harlem Globetrotters, who then signed him. Tucker is one the team’s newest signees and is just the fourth white player ever signed by the Globetrotters in history, which dates back to the early 1920 (Photo courtesy of Harlem Globetrotters/Special to The Herald)

ALBANY — The Harlem Globetrotters have visited Albany many times over the years.

But never with a cast like this.

Touting its most exciting makeup of talent possibly ever, the Globetrotters roll through Southwest Georgia this evening for a one-night show featuring seven entertaining showmen, trick-shot masters and high-flying dunkers that hoops fans can’t find anywhere else.

“It’s all about the fans,” said Jacob Tucker, the YouTube-famous 5-foot-10 dunker — and newest Globetrotter — from Division III Illinois College who stormed the College Slam Dunk Contest a year ago and dominated from start to finish.

Tucker just graduated in the winter, then was immediately recruited and signed by the Globetrotters. Tucker said he had other offers out of college, thanks to his performance in the dunk contest — a contest he was invited to solely because of his making of a YouTube video of his various dunks, which earned more than 4,000,000 views worldwide — but he chose the

Globetrotters for a variety of reasons.

“It’s something you just don’t turn down. I couldn’t. You get to travel the world and interact with your fans like no other professional sports team does,” Tucker said. “For me, being able to go anywhere in the world and have everyone know who you are just because you’re a Globetrotter — that’s just cool. And to be able to bring smiles to the fans’ faces every time you step on the court, it makes it all worth it.

“It’s a fan experience, and obviously, as a dunker, I enjoy pleasing the fans more than anything else.”

Tucker earned two perfect scores in the 2011 College Slam Dunk Contest, beating out several other more prominent players from much larger Division I and II programs. He understands that because he is both white and much shorter than your average successful hoops player, his ability to rise to the basket and rock the rim like players much taller than him makes him a unique find for the Globetrotters, who have signed just four white players in the organization’s nearly nine-decade history. Bob Karstens was the first in 1943, while Seth Franco (2004) was the second. Tucker and England native Paul “Tiny” Sturgess — who stands a whopping 7 feet, 8 inches tall — were the third and fourth, respectively.

“It’s something I’ve embraced all my life — being short, and having people look at you and automatically put you in a category before ever seeing you play,” said Tucker, who has a staggering 50-inch vertical leap. “I’ve been surprising people all my life, and it’s been fun to fly under the radar for most of my life.”

Tucker than paused before adding with a laugh: “Obviously, those days are over. I can’t do that anymore.”

One of Tucker’s Globetrotters teammates, “Big Easy” Lofton, knows that better than most.

As usual, Lofton (6-foot-9) will be the “Showman” for tonight’s Globetrotters game, carrying the microphone with him at all times as he serves as the hype-man, whipping the crowd into a frenzy over and over during the show. He’s seen the impact Tucker has had on the team since their first show together earlier this year, and he understands why the 23-year-old kid the Globetrotters nicknamed “Hops” has developed such a big following.

“It’s good to have him. He’s a great person, great basketball player. He loves what he does, the fans love what he does and we love what he does. It doesn’t matter what color he is — that doesn’t even matter — he’s a Globetrotter. He’s our teammate. We love him. We ride with him every night,” said Lofton, who starred in college at Southeastern Louisiana before signing with the Globetrotters in 2005. “(Jacob) just fits right in. He’s definitely cut from the mold you need to be cut from to be a Globetrotter. He’s one of us.”

The Globetrotters both recruit and choose players from worldwide tryouts to become members of their elite fraternity. And joining “Hops” and “Big Easy” for today’s 7 p.m. show at the Albany Civic Center will be five other players: “Ant” Atkinson, “Bull” Bullard, “Stretch” Middleton, “Bones” Millien and “Scooter” Christensen.

A First-Team All-American at Barton College, Atkinson (5-10, in his fifth season with the Globetrotters) will long be remembered for leading one of the greatest comebacks in the history of college basketball, scoring 10 points in the last 39 seconds (including a layup at the buzzer) of the Bulldogs’ heart-stopping 77-75 win against top-ranked Winona State in the 2007 NCAA Division II National Championship game.

The rally became a YouTube sensation and gained even more notoriety as a runner-up in the Best Finish category at the 2007 ESPY Awards. The performance also is ranked second on the list of Best Storybook Endings (including all divisions, genders and sports) in the last three decades by NCAA Champion Magazine.

Atkinson, a Wilson, N.C., native, also has the distinction of being the top pick in the Harlem Globetrotters’ first-ever player draft.

The “Bull,” meanwhile, is in his fourth season with the Globetrotters. At 6-4 out of Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, he is a native of Detroit and he brings inspiration to the Globetrotters’ team.

Bullard, who grew up in the foster care system, is proof positive that a person can overcome adversity to achieve his goals. He admittedly grew up in a neighborhood with gang activity, drugs and violence, but was able to stay away from that and cultivate his skills on the basketball court, earning a college scholarship. Like Tucker, he became famous at the College Slam Dunk Contest, taking second place in 2008 before quickly being snatched up by the Globetrotters, who have been thrilled to have Bullard on their team.

“Bull is one of the most versatile Harlem Globetrotter players in the past 25 years,” said arguably the most famous Globetrotter of all, “Sweet Lou” Dunbar, who played for the Globetrotters for 24 seasons before becoming a coach and director of player personnel for the organization. “The Globetrotters originally drafted him as a dunker in 2008, but he has developed his overall game with hard work and has become a terrific dribbler and a consistent long-range shooter.”

As for “Stretch,” it’s not much of a stretch to say this guy is a big deal — literally.

At 7-4, Middleton — a native of Los Angeles and former star for Northwood University in Florida who is in his first season with the team — is the third-tallest player in Globetrotters history.

In his two years at Northwood University, Middleton and the Seahawks won 54 games, were back-to-back Sun Conference regular-season champions, advanced to the NAIA National Tournament Quarterfinals in 2008 and reached the Sweet 16 during the 2009 NAIA National Tournament.

“Bones” is a 6-8 “dunking machine,” say the Globetrotters. He is also in his first season, hails from Queens, N.Y., and is a former standout for Idaho State University, where he led the team in scoring and blocks in his final season at the school.

The final member of tonight’s cast is “Scooter” Christensen, who — like “Big Easy” — is the other elder statesmen on the Globetrotters, having been with the team for seven seasons. “Scooter,” a Las Vegas native who starred at the University of Montana, is the Guinness Book of World Records holder for two unique skills, both of which fans are likely to see this evening: the longest time spinning a basketball on one’s head and on one’s nose.

After winning a state championship and team MVP honors in high school, “Scooter” went on to become a two-time Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year, leading the University of Montana to the NCAA Tournament in 2002. He is also second on the Grizzlies’ all-time assist list.

And while “Scooter” has appeared on such popular TV shows as “The Celebrity Apprentice,” “Hell’s Kitchen,” “The Bachelorette” and “The Wendy Williams Show,” easily the most famous current Globetrotter is Big Easy, who was a member of the two-man team on CBS’ wildly popular reality TV show, “The Amazing Race.”

“Big Easy” and his Globetrotter partner “Flight Time Lang,” finished second on the show’s 16th season, and Lofton told The Herald this week he has zero regrets about coming up short of the $1 million first-place prize because “it was fun and the experience of a lifetime” — during a lifetime that’s had its share of heartbreaking ones.

When Lofton graduated from SE Louisiana in 2005, he and his family — 13 members, to be exact — were victims of Hurricane Katrina, forcing the Loftons to evacuate.

Most of the group lived in New Orleans’ uptown projects — one the areas that was hardest hit — and when the levees broke, everyone was looking to “Big Easy” and his late father to pull everyone together. With his father at the wheel, Lofton and two friends pushed the group in a pickup truck from the middle of the projects to near St. John the Baptist Church. From there, they were able to make it out of the city and evacuate to Houston. As luck would have it, however, it was in Houston where Lofton was discovered by the Globetrotters’ scouting department.

“One of the most difficult times in my life turned into an unbelievably positive twist of fate,” Lofton said.

“I was in Houston and (the Globetrotters) were in town doing a charity event, and they offered me a workout and that’s how I got the job,” he added. “But really, I wouldn’t even call it a job, man. We get to travel the world, play the game we love professionally and make people happy all around the globe. It’s a win-win situation. All of us are living the dream.”

Tucker had never been to a Globetrotters show as a kid — but had seen them on TV — before becoming part of that very same show just recently. So he says it’s hard for him to pick his favorite moment during the course of a show.

“I’m as much of a fan out there myself seeing these great, talented guys, as I am one of the players,” he said. “It’s hard to pick a favorite because they’re all good.”

For the more-seasoned Lofton, however, it was easy to choose a favorite after having been a part of so many over the last seven years.

“My favorite part is when we first walk out. The crowd’s going nuts, the spotlight is going and the smoke is going,” said Lofton, who has been a part of two previous shows in the Good Life City and says it feels like “home” when he gets a chance to return to the South, thanks in large part to the widespread availability of sweet tea. “Being the ‘Showman,’ I’m the first one out. You can just feel the energy. It’s the best feeling in the world to hear those screams from the fans.”

The Globetrotters were in Northern Washington and heading to Canada when The Herald spoke to them earlier this week. Tonight’s show in Albany kicks off a Southern swing for the guys with shows planned afterward throughout Florida and then back in Georgia (Columbus, Milledgeville, Savannah and Augusta between March 13-16) before the crew heads back north.

Tucker said his visit to Albany will be his first — in the city and in the state.

“I can’t wait,” he said. “I’m from a little town (Carlyle, Ill.), so I’m getting to see all kinds of new places. We’ve been on the West Coast for awhile, and I’m seeing mountains and oceans and things I’ve really never seen before in my entire life. Now I’m ready to see what the South has to offer.”

The Globetrotters are famously known for blowing out their opponent over the years during each show — namely the Washington Generals. But the Generals have been retired as of late and the Globetrotters now face two different groups of players on any given night: the Global Elite or the International Select.

Tucker said even though he hasn’t been around too long, he joked it was about time the Globetrotters got a new opponent.

“(The Generals) weren’t putting up too good a fight for the last 30 years, so I guess we had to switch,” he laughed.

And tonight will undoubtedly be no different.

“We put the pedal to the metal every show, every day,” Tucker said.

Lofton would agree.

“This is high-energy basketball. You’re going to see some of the most amazing tricks you’ve ever seen in your life. You’ll see some high jumpers, see a lot of athletic stuff,” he said of tonight’s show. “For a few hours, you can sit back, relax and enjoy the show and forget about any problems or worries you may have. That’s what the Globetrotters are about.”

Information from www.harlemglobetrotters.com was used in this report