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A Visit to 20,000 Main St.

January 13, 1998|BILL PLASCHKE

REMINGTON, Ind. — The string of white lights snake through fog-shrouded cornfields, a traffic jam five farms long, heading toward a bright marquee in the middle of nowhere.

Tri-County Middle-Senior High School

1-5 BB Winomac

1-9 BB Rossville

1-12 Harlem Globetrotters.

Trucks and vans and solid blue Chevrolets, driven by careful men in baseball caps, filled with women wrapping their babies, edge into the lot.

A wet kid with a flashlight takes their two bucks for parking. Smiling folks in flannel take their tickets.

They duck into the gym on this spitting cold January night to unwittingly partake in one of the last perfect marriages in sports.

The Globetrotters, basketball's original barnstorming entertainers, are playing in the franchise's 20,000th game.

In a town with no stoplights.

Ninety minutes before tipoff, the 3,300-seat gym is full.

"Is this the biggest thing we've ever had around here?" asks Joe Broussard, who works in waste removal in nearby Monticello.

"At least since 'Hoosiers,' " says his wife Sharon.

Sixty minutes before tipoff, logger Lewis Hites shakes his head.

"This is the biggest thing around here since that '74 tornado," he said. "And that killed three people."

Thirty minutes before tipoff, the public address announcer exhorts everyone to, "Take your seats and don't be moving around no more. It will look bad for television."

Twenty minutes before tipoff, they play it. A song from your childhood that you can't quite place, but can never forget.

A song that comes to mind whenever you see someone twirling a basketball or dribbling between their legs.

A song played in the phone system of the team's corporate headquarters in Phoenix, making it a pleasure to be put on hold.

A song so powerful, the crowd gives it a standing ovation.

Old ladies sway. Toddlers swing rhythmically in parent's arms. Sno-cones are dropped and popcorn is spilled as everyone claps and stomps and waits.

When the Globetrotters waltz on to this hardwood floor in the heartland, Georgia Brown has never been so Sweet.

"Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods may own Madison Avenue," said team owner Mannie Jackson, eyes red. "But we still have Main Street."

Just so there is no misunderstanding.

Not everybody in the nearby northwest Indiana towns of Remington (population 1,200) and Wolcott (population darn near the same) was at the game.

"You got tickets?" asks Emmma Hinkle, 71, sitting in Clark and Kathie's Country Inn in Wolcott. "I seen them a long time ago, would love to see them again, but went down to the grocery store and couldn't get tickets."

Up on a TV above the bar, a local newscast appears with a Globetrotter and a basketball. A dozen men stop talking and look up from their drinks.

"There, that's it, that twirling thing!" Hinkle says, almost shouting. "Now that's what I like!"

Just so there is no misunderstanding.

The Globetrotters didn't plan to play their historic game in this place.

Of all the acrobatics that have occurred in the franchise's 71-year history, nothing jumps around more than the schedule.

The team originally thought the game was going to be played in December at its Disneyland training camp. Only when some games were cancelled there did they realize it would be here.

That was a month ago. Some club officials immediately asked that it be moved to some place a little more appropriate . . . say, Madison Square Garden?

"From a marketing aspect, we would have loved to see what would have happened in a bigger arena," said marketing director Ray Davidson.

But being a former Globetrotter, Jackson understood that this was about more than simply money and exposure.

The tiny high school, which had cut a deal for this game nine months ago, was like the place in Hinckley, Ill., where Abe Saperstein's original Harlem Globetrotters began touring in 1927.

"This was what brought us to the dance, they were our people," Jackson said. "This was where we belonged."

While his decision was not essential to filling the gym--all tickets at $7 and $12 were sold in two weeks last month--it did mean a slight change in the background.

For the first time in this area's history, an event would be broadcast live on national TV.

This may have accounted for the lack of subtlety in the signs held up by locals, such as the one demanding, "Put Us On ESPN!"

Unfortunately, the game was on ESPN2.

It was also, amazingly, the first time in Globetrotter history that a game would be televised live--all those "Wild World of Sports" telecasts were taped.

None of those facts was deemed pertinent, however, when Jackson gave his pregame speech.

"I told my players to remember that this was about saying 'Thank you.' " he said. "Thank you to the people who built us."

They say that a lot during a four-month period from December to April, when two Globetrotter teams play 100 games each in United States and Canada, at least 20% in small towns.

But they may have never said it like this.

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