Harlem Ambassadors Basketball
“It seems that the only time I hear from you, Dre, is when it’s about your money.”
I joined the Harlem Ambassadors at the beginning of 2006, after a week- long tryout/ training camp period in which my abilities to throw down dunks, recite memorized lines, load and unload heavy equipment, and dance were evaluated. There was no way I wasn’t going to make this team, which was 50% show, 25% fan interaction, and 25% basketball. Our training camp was in Fort Collins, CO, which is VERY cold in January, has a notoriously high altitude, and, in turn, is tougher on the lungs than closer- to- sea- level areas. I joined the other players- about 14 in all, half new, half returnees- in staying at an extended stay hotel near the gym we were using, which was on an Air Force base.
The night our training camp ended- we got to our hotel rooms at about 11 PM that night- the group was split up into two traveling units, and we went straight to the road to begin performing the next day, leaving at 4 AM.
Who the hell are the Harlem Ambassadors, you might ask? In a nutshell, HA is an unaffiliated, unofficial spin-off/ knockoff of the Harlem Globetrotters. We came to your town, played against a group of local heroes (the mayor, high school gym teacher, former small college standout), and put on a show more than we actually played basketball. Skits to involve the kids & adult fans, choreographed alley-oop dunks, and a lot of other shit that would be considered violations in official basketball games. One of my favorites was on defense when I would jump up and hang on the rim with one hand, and block the opponent’s jump shot with the other. Some fans didn’t appreciate this tactic.
We would travel to a city/ town, and do an assembly at a middle school or elementary school to promote the game, usually taking place that night or the next night (occasionally we would promote in a town weeks in advance of the game/ show). We would come running out to crowd applause, do some ball tricks and have someone dunk the ball (we did these assemblies decked in jeans and HA t-shirts, per HA requirements). After the kids calmed down, each player would grab the microphone and speak for 2-3 minutes about a topic of his/her choosing, something like staying in school, listening to parents, not doing drugs, etc. Then we’d open the floor for a question and answer period (handled by our team captain, a female player), then it was over. The games were sorta like what you would see from the Harlem Globetrotters- a lot of dunks and 3-pointers, with plenty game stoppages for our acted- out skits. “It’s Better Than Your Grandfather’s Basketball Show!”
(UPDATE: The Ambassadors’ website “Interested Performers” page now includes this zinger: “Performers with unrealistic NBA or overseas hoop dreams need not apply.”)
The referenced page also takes a dig at professional minor leagues in the U.S. — ‘Our players actually get paid!’ Can’t argue with that. My money — though there were a bunch of backdoor clauses in the contract to fuck you out of it — was always on time. This is an underrated attribute of HA.
UPDATE: Here’s a story on a dispute between the Ambassadors and the Harlem Wizards — another show basketball team which grabbed an Ambassadors player and signed him to a better contract, which Ambassadors owner Dale Moss disputed by suing. The story includes valuable salary details — straight from the mouth of the player in the middle of this — of playing for the Ambassadors that many players want to know about.
The first qualifying question on the page asks if the reader posesses a college degree. With the group I traveled with during my time with HA, exactly one of the five “dunkers” had a college degree: Me. Our tour manager, female player, traveling referee (yeah, that part is rigged, too), and announcer also did.
Now let’s talk about travel with the Harlem Ambassadors. My group was about 8 people deep, and we had a trusty 15 passenger van to ride around in. If you have ever been inside a 15 passenger van, you know good and damned well that there is no way possible that 15 average-sized adults could fit into this vehicle. 7 adults could fit, comfortably, in a 15 passenger van. Now factor in that this is a group of long-limbed basketball players, with knees and legs that require some stretching space, especially when covering 900+ miles per week in this van. Our traveling group included our tour manager, who doubled as a player, and a show leader- a female player. Our show also had a referee who was specific to our performance (i.e., he/she was in on the skits, pranks, and jokes), and that person would work the game along with the refs provided by the venue we were playing in (if any). The rest of the group were male players, mostly designated dunkers. Oh yeah, and the players took turns as driver of the van.
UPDATE: The Ambassadors upgraded to tour buses, though I couldn’t locate photos of them on their site. Hopefully, for the player’s sake, they still have ’em.
Our first stop was a few cities in the grand state of Texas. We continued on to play games in Oklahoma, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Nebraska… you get the picture. I saw some places I would have never otherwise seen, which was… interesting. I saw some of the coldest, windiest nights that have ever been recorded in the 48 contiguous states. I stayed in some hotels I will be completely alright with never staying in again, though we did stay in more than a couple very nice spots. There was, of course, the club and bar hopping, girl-picking-up stuff– though the pickings were much more slim than anything I’d ever seen at Penn State or Philly or Europe– and of course, basketball playing.
On the road, certain HA rule transgressions cost players money; you would be informed of your violation on, or very close to, payday. Profanity; wearing a du-rag; being late to the van; not dumping a bucket of water on a guy’s head at the right moment — and fines would be deducted from your pay before it ever crossed your palm. Fair, as far as I was concerned. Without law, there is no order. I incurred one du-rag fine, one late fine, and nearly wrecked the 15 passenger van twice (no fine for that). I did manage to knock the side mirror off some stranger’s car once on a midwestern USA highway. The guy kept going.
I cut my time with HA short; breaking my contract in order to pursue an opportunity in Mexico and forfeiting some cash per my contractual agreement with HA. I don’t have many vivid on-court memories from my time with HA; any thought about HA that brings a smile to my face happened away from the hardwood. Overall, my time with HA was fun — I got to play basketball, make money, travel the country, and make valuable friendships with people that I otherwise never would have met. I also purchased my first laptop computer while on the road at a Denver area CompUSA (what up Jeff!).
My decision to break the contract led to a run-in with HA owner Dale Moss (see links below).
A few years after this, When I was on my way to Montenegro, I tested Dale — I emailed him and told him I needed a clearance letter from HA so I could sign my European contract. He refused, and said he would only speak with the Montenegrin team directly. Guess Dale doesn’t realize that HA is not FIBA affiliated, like the NBA or any overseas club (you must be cleared of any previous contracts before you sign a new contract in professional basketball — FIBA’s job is to make sure all players are cleared). Here’s Dale’s rarely-updated blog. Crazy how a man holding a journalism degree from the Ohio State University can be such a bad writer. Read it. It sucks. Dale Moss on Facebook. Dale’s wife on Facebook. Oh, you can email Dale directly here.
UPDATE: Dale Moss emailed me directly in 2011, after becoming aware of and reading this very page. I’ll just say that the email ended with,
“Very “high road” of you. Stay classy.”
I kill myself.
Music Of The Moment:
T.I. & DJ Drama’s “Gangsta Grillz: The Leak;” Mary J. Blige’s “The Breakthrough”
The camaraderie with the other players. When you share a “15-passenger” van with 6-8 other people, you aint got no choice but to have a strong sense of togetherness. We spent hours upon hours driving, eating, and in night spots in small-ass towns. The shared hotel rooms. Not to mention the games, which really are an afterthought when I think of my time with the Ambassadors.
The dingy hotels we had to stay in in towns that only had one hotel. Cramped rides in that damned van. The clown owner Dale Moss, who later attempted to smear my name before I signed in Montenegro (see above note). Haha, guess he had good reason to try.