Hinckley’s excitement over sports goes back to the early 1900s when town teams in baseball and then basketball were recognized as some of the best anywhere in the state.
The 1926 high school basketball team was especially talented and won second place among much larger schools in an invitational tournament at Bloomington. Members of that high school team also played on the town team called the Hinckley Merchants. When the town heard that a team of professional black basketball players from Chicago was looking for teams to play outside of the city, they accepted the challenge.
An invitation was sent to Abe Saperstein – owner, coach and player on the team called the Savoy Big Five (later to be named the Harlem Globetrotters). They could play in Hinckley’s new high school gym.
Saperstein depended on gate receipts to pay his players so he demanded $75 before the team would agree to play in the small town of Hinckley. The money was raised quickly among town residents. Saperstein had no bus transportation for his team so they took a train to Aurora and rode the final distance to Hinckley in cars driven by the Merchant players.
The game on Jan. 7, 1927 was the first for Saperstein’s team outside of Chicago so it was taken seriously. The contest was played under the old rules of basketball where there was a center jump after each basket. The two forwards stayed on their respective sides of the court and the guards ran where they were needed. The basketball was larger than balls today and quite heavy so that two-handed shots were common.
The Hinckley Merchants won that first game 43 to 34. They played four more games between the two teams that year. The Hinckley Merchants team consisted of Harold Bish, Tom Lewis, Ed King, Carlos Powelson, Loren Strever and Clarence Wielert – men who went on to farm, run businesses in town, and sell real estate.
At that time in history, relationships with a black team were uncommon and the town’s warm reception made an impression on Saperstein. Out of Abe’s appreciation, the team has returned to Hinckley for exhibition games on their 40th, 60th and 90th anniversaries of the first game. Each time they only charged $75 – like the first game – with the balance of gate receipts going to the high school.
Saperstein was a promoter and soon changed the name of the team to the Harlem Globetrotters to market African-American athletes. The Globetrotters were based in Chicago from 1926 to 1976.
Saperstein altered the style of play to be entertaining as well as athletic and traveled around the world sharing their love of basketball and being ambassadors of goodwill.
Bob Pritchard, President of the Hinckley Historical Society
Visit the Hinckley Historical Society and the DeKalb County History Center to see related items currently on exhibit.