By Kim Constantinesco
Spinning basketballs, high-flying alley-oops, and silly string. Yes, silly string.
It’s all part of the act for the Harlem Wizards, a storied team of tricksters who hoop in front of schools and nonprofits across the country to help them fundraise for their communities.
Smiles outnumber sky-walking dunks, and laughter outweighs the around-the-back passes. That’s because the Wizards shoot for family fun over shooting the three-ball.
It’s feasible for a free throw attempt to be interrupted by an opponent pulling down the shorts of the shooter. Players take foam folding chairs to the back of their heads. Children are pulled from the audience to spin colorful basketballs on their tiny fingers. A dance party breaks out at mid-court before the final buzzer sounds. It’s part traveling circus, part stand-up routine, and part high-caliber basketball all for a good cause.
“They love to see the kids having a great time. They love to see the community showing its spirit,” Wizards’ president and CEO Todd Davis said of the players he employs. “This is more than just a game of basketball. It’s a way to bring communities together to work toward a common goal.”
Wins aren’t measured by the scoreboard, but by the opportunities provided from the efforts surrounding the game itself.
A Magical Start
Todd’s father, Howie Davis, started the Wizards in 1962. He was a New York sports promoter and former semi-pro baseball player who wanted to inject more entertainment into the game of basketball.
“His friends, who were all athletic directors, came up with the idea of doing shows at high schools and colleges, and it just stuck,” Todd said of his father. “I don’t think it was his master plan.”
Before that, however, Howie was a Sergeant and recreation director at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. In 1943, the World Championship of Basketball Tournament asked him to bring an “emergency” eighth team to the tournament. Howie filled the roster within one week, and called them the Dayton Dive Bombers. They went on to upset the Harlem Globetrotters in the first round.
In the 19 years between that game and the Wizards’ first game, Howie managed the Brooklyn Dodgers football team, the Staten Island Stapes, and the Kokomo Clowns. Then he served as a scout for the San Francisco Giants.
Wanting to provide a more competitive and creative team that rivaled the Globetrotters, he waved his “wand” and ignited the Wizards flame with the support of his friends.
After Howie died in 1992, Todd took over.
Today, the Wizards and their three teams play about 150 games across the country in an eight-month span every year. They even travel overseas on occasion. In 2015 alone, they played games in over 400 communities while raising more than $2 million.
Finding the “Right” Player
Players are recruited by Davis out of college gyms or semi-pro leagues.
Now in his third year with the Wizards, Gerald “Sky Walker” Warrick had just returned to the U.S. after playing pro ball in Montenegro when Davis gave him a four-game tryout.
“When you play overseas, it’s very competitive. When you play here, it’s all about making people smile, laugh, and have a great time,” Warrick said. “When I first got here, I didn’t have any tricks. All I could do was spin the ball on my finger and wave to people.”
Practice paid off. With the Wizards, Warrick has played in 20 different countries and even squared off against Kobe Bryant, who was a guest at one of their games.
James “Road Runner” Tyneal has been with the team for seven years. He got his tryout after playing at Buffalo State. While skilled on the court, Tyneal had to work on his showmanship.
“It had to be brought out of me. I’m naturally quiet,” he said. “I like to stay in the background, but watching these guys perform helped me get my confidence up to go in front of kids and big crowds, and have fun.”
Davis looks for players who get a kick out of performing.
“They have to really enjoy getting the crowd to appreciate them,” Davis said. “You could have a guy who can do amazing tricks, but doesn’t care if a crowd is into them. If that’s the case, he’s going to burn out.”
The Jersey Show
On a Saturday evening in early April, the Montclair High School gym in New Jersey was rocking with over 800 people in attendance. Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off bounced off the school’s walls, and close to 30 local teachers, principals, and community supporters were warming up, ready to contend the Wizards as their opponents.
Parents, children, teachers, and small business owners lined the bleachers all to benefit Northeast Elementary School, about two miles away. Their mission: to help support the graduating fifth graders this May.
“Since our town is socially-economically diverse, what we try to do with the fifth graders is not have each family incur the cost of graduation,” parent and PTA chair Jessie Cruz-Troy said. “The purpose of this was to raise funds that would cover yearbook costs, class t-shirts, and the class trip. With any extra money, we will encourage the fifth graders to choose a legacy gift to benefit the school community.”
Maximus Troy, 10, is one of those fifth-graders who is graduating, and with a mother who coordinated the whole event, his input was valued and implemented.
“It makes me feel happy that these families can be helped out,” Maximus said. “Everyone should have the same opportunity to get an education.”
“I think it’s important because they’re helping the community,” his 7-year-old little sister, Gabriella, added.
So, with some basketball magic and Wizardly skill, an entire class will feel supported not just by the “funny team from Harlem,” but by a community that stepped up and came together to uplift the next generation.
That is more impressive than any half court hook shot.