Globetrotters to honor star today at halftime of game at Conseco Fieldhouse
By Steve Ballard
When the Harlem Globetrotters first tried to honor Hallie Bryant in 1998, he respectfully declined, not because he didn't believe he deserved it, but because he felt someone else deserved it more.
Willie Gardner, a teammate at Crispus Attucks High School and with the Globetrotters, was suffering from diabetes and would die of a heart condition two years later. At Bryant's urging, his boyhood friend was honored by the Globetrotters during their visit to Market Square Arena on Jan. 17 of that year.
Today, almost exactly 11 years later, Bryant will take his turn and join the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Meadowlark Lemon, Curly Neal, Connie Hawkins -- and Gardner -- as the 28th player in the Globetrotters' 83-year history to be added to their ring of legends.
"I feel better about it now," said Bryant, who will be honored at halftime of the 2 p.m. game at Conseco Fieldhouse. "Willie and I were like brothers and I felt good about him getting his dues. I don't want to take credit for being some goody-goody, but it was the right thing to do."
Cleveland Harp, another former Globetrotter and Attucks alum, hadn't planned on attending today's game until he heard Bryant was going to be honored.
"He deserves it," said Harp, who works as an usher at the fieldhouse. "He's a class act and a professional in all that he does. He knows what he wants and is willing to work until he gets it. He's been that way since we were kids.
"Today everybody's a superstar, but in our day you had to be the real deal. He was the real deal."
Bryant, who is in his 70s, was born in South Carolina but has called Indianapolis home for most of his life. With two older brothers and two younger sisters, his family moved to Indy when he was in grade school and in the fifth grade he met legendary basketball coach Ray Crowe. That's when his life began to take shape.
"That was a turning point. He was like a surrogate father and one of those teachers you look at and want to be like," Bryant said. "He made basketball something you could feel good about and taught us the three R's -- respect for yourself, respect for others and responsibility for your actions."
Bryant was Indiana's Mr. Basketball in 1953 at Attucks. None of the teams on which he played won a state title, but as a senior he spent a lot of time on the playground with a freshman who would finish the job that Bryant, Harp, Gardner and Bailey Robertson, another future Globetrotter, had started.
That would be Robertson's little brother, Oscar, who in 1955 helped Attucks become the first all-black school in the nation to win a state title and a year later led them to a repeat with the first unbeaten team in state history.
"Oscar had everything. He had the whole package," said Bryant, who on Feb. 19 will be joined by Robertson and former Washington stars George McGinnis, Billy Keller and Cheryl Cook in having their high school jerseys retired during an Attucks-Washington game at the fieldhouse.
Bryant was a three-year letter winner at Indiana University and helped the Hoosiers to a share of the Big Ten title in 1957. His ROTC involvement required a two-year stint in the U.S. Army upon graduation. That plus limited opportunities in the NBA -- "There were only nine teams, 11 players per team, so you're talking about 99 players and only four or five who were black," he said -- steered him toward the Globetrotters.
He wound up staying for 27 years, 13 as a player and 14 in a variety of capacities, including public relations. By his count, he visited 87 countries but always found his way home. He and his partner of more than 50 years, Deloris Hayes, just moved into a custom-designed new home on the near Northside.
"I was blessed to be with the Globetrotters," he said. "It was like a dream come true getting paid for doing something you love to do and traveling all over the world to do it."
For the past several years, he has forged a career as a motivational speaker, addressing groups large and small, from schools to prisons to corporations.
Growing up in the racially-charged '50s, Bryant was exposed to racism but dealt with it philosophically, as he does most things.
"If you're angry going through life, you're not going to set the right example," he said. "That doesn't mean you let someone walk all over you, but there's a way to handle stupidity. It's an opportunity for the mature mind to teach. I just use my two favorite words: 'My, my.' You can't fight with that."
Bryant's resolve was tested in 1953 prior to the Indiana-Kentucky All-Star Game when he received a written death threat. He not only played but scored 21 points and was named MVP in Indiana's win.
Bill Shover was director of the All-Star Game from 1953-62 and remembers the incident well. For security reasons, the team was moved from the YMCA into a posh Downtown hotel. While hardly humorous at the time, Shover said Bryant was teased later about having written the letter himself to get the team better accommodations.
Although Shover moved to Phoenix several years ago, he and Bryant have remained close. Shover is hardly surprised at Bryant's off-court success, which includes authoring a self-help book.
"He came from a very impoverished family, but you could tell from his resolve he was going to make something of his life," Shover said. "He's very careful about his demeanor, his dress, his responsibilities as a role model. He has influenced many lives."
Hallie Bryant at a glance
â€¢ Age: He is coy about it, placing it at "somewhere between 9 and 93." He graduated from Attucks in 1953, which would likely put him at 73 or 74.
â€¢ Family: He and Deloris Hayes met in high school and have been together since. They have two daughters, one in Indianapolis and one in San Francisco.
â€¢ Best basketball attribute: He could shoot. His career free throw percentage at Indiana University was .817, a school record at the time. According to former high school teammate Cleveland Harp, Bryant had a deadly set shot. "He could shoot the eyes out of the basket. If they would have had the 3-point line back then, he would have been unreal."
â€¢ Fellow Globies: Four players from the 1953 Attucks team went on to play for the Harlem Globetrotters: Bryant, Harp, Willie Gardner and Bailey Robertson. Other locals on the 'Trotters all-time roster include Johnny Wilson (Anderson), Bill Garrett (Shelbyville) and George "Sonny" Smith, a Kentucky native who later moved to Indianapolis.
â€¢ Author: Published in 2002, "Hallie's Comet -- Breaking the Code. What Successful People Know and Others are Trying to Find Out" espouses his belief that life is about finding harmony and turning thoughts into actions.
â€¢ On the popularity of the Globetrotters: "They make people feel good because for that moment, they distract them from other things. They speak the universal language: laughter."