Arts and Culture

The Harlem Globetrotters, the exhibition basketball team known for its comedic antics as well as its dexterity on the court, has been around for more than 90 years. NBA greats like Wilt Chamberlain have played for the team as well as players with ties to Kentucky universities, including Wayne Turner, DuJuan Wheat, Cliff Rozier, Alex “Big Ticket” Sanders and Cameron Murray.

The globetrotters are currently on their 2017 world tour and will play at the KFC Yum Center on Friday, Jan. 13.

Current globetrotter, forward Orlando “El Gato” Meléndez, recently paid a visit to the WFPL newsroom. Meléndez is the only Puerto Rican-born member to ever be on the team. I spoke with him about the process of becoming a Harlem Globetrotter, college basketball and how he got his nickname.

Listen to our conversation in the audio player above. And check out the video below to see “El Gato” teaching me how to do one of the globetrotters’ best-known tricks:

On how he got his nickname, “El Gato,” which is Spanish for cat:

“Well, growing up in Puerto Rico the basketball court was far from my house. And I asked my dad, ‘Dad, I need a shortcut, this is taking forever.’ And he said cut through the sugarcane field. So one day I got a little snack — I got a little sandwich with ham. And some of the ham fell off. Next thing I know, I hear something behind me. And when I looked back, there were like six cats following me to the basketball court. I get there, cats kept going. My friends kept asking me, ‘What’s going on with the cats?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, they’re just following me.’ So from that point on, they started calling me ‘el gato.’”

On the Harlem Globetrotter tryout process:

“The most impressive part is, when you’re in the job interview, which is after your ball tryout. You know, they test your basketball skills — how fast you can go, what kind of things you can do, what kind of things you cannot do, how high you can jump. They don’t even worry about the tricks. If you have tricks, like basic things, they will love that. But they don’t even worry about it. They’ll just teach you later on. So that part is easy. But the roundtable part, you have people there who are legends.

“They know everything about you already. They’ve talked to people already in your hometown. They talk to your coaches. They know your nickname. They know everything about you. But they ask you [questions] like they don’t know. And see where you’re gonna go — kind of like a parent.”

On training, once you make the team:

“The ball becomes your companion for a long time. We have a training camp for like two weeks. Then we have double practice every day, about four hours each practice. So basically it’s like a whole entire day of practice. Then you have a lot of workshops and things like that later on. You have basketball practice, game practice and then you have all the tricks practice. That’s stuff that you’re constantly working on, even when you’re sitting down on the bench you’re working on that. You go into your room, you’re working on it. And you get together with older players that have been doing it for a long time to learn from previous players on how to set up your routine.”