By Frank Pingue
Players on what may be the world's most famous basketball team are far more concerned with making audiences smile than they are with stunts and winning, although they do both with ease and boast a .985 winning percentage.
The Globetrotters, who always stop to pose for photographs and sign autographs, maintain a squeaky-clean image in a time when stories of crime and violence seem to cloud sport.
"You have to be an ambassador of goodwill and you have to be good with kids," Blenda Rodriguez, who at five feet and eight inches is the shortest Globetrotter, told Reuters as a red, white and blue basketball twirled on his right index finger.
"Basically you can be the best basketball player in the world but if you don't have the personality to carry a smile and passion in what you do then this is not for you."
The traveling exhibition squad was created in 1926 and is known to generations for near-impossible trickery, uncanny co-ordination, non-stop comedy and the whistled version of "Sweet Georgia Brown" that is the team's theme song.
They are also partly responsible for opening the door to black players getting contracts in the National Basketball Association (NBA) as former Globetrotter Nathaniel Clifton became the first black player to sign an NBA contract in 1950.
Several other players were Globetrotters before excelling in the NBA, including Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain and Connie Hawkins. Jamario Moon, in the midst of a playoff run with the Cleveland Cavaliers, also got his start as a Globetrotter.
Current Globetrotter Herb "Moo Moo" Evans, who earned the nickname because of all the milk he drank as a child, admitted he originally wanted to play in the NBA, but that was before he even knew the Globetrotters were an option.
Evans first saw the Globetrotters on an animated cartoon when he was eight years old and did not know the team actually existed until he saw them live years later. He says he would not swap his place on the team for a shot at the professional level.
"For us to be bringing smiles to faces and happiness to people's lives is a wonderful feeling...I would not trade this for anything."
The team has played in 120 countries and territories across six continents for more than 130 million people -- including several popes -- since its inception. Its players popularized the slam dunk, fast break and figure-eight weave.
The Globetrotters, one of just eight teams inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, are in the midst of a five-year marketing partnership with the NBA to help the game grow around the world.
In September 2005, California-based Shamrock Holdings, an investment fund for the late Roy Disney -- Walt Disney's nephew -- purchased an 80 percent stake in the Globetrotters from a former Globetrotter player who had bought the team in 1993.
While the team's popularity is not at the height it was from the 1950s to 1980s, the players still draw plenty of attention when they appear in public clad in their distinctive blue and red tracksuits and carrying their red, white and blue basketballs.
"The most gratifying thing is that we are kind of like Santa Claus because we come around and put smiles on people's faces and make them happy," Lou Dunbar, a former player on the Globetrotters and now the team's director of player personnel, told Reuters by telephone.
"If we leave the building and there are smiles on those kids' faces and we see those kids happy from something that we did then we did our job."
(Editing by Clare Fallon)