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Korby's Connections: Esko indeed defeated Trotters

There are things happening every day, or that have happened over time in history, that seem hard for us to fathom or believe. The Ripley's Believe It or Not! books and museum are full of snippets that seem misleading, defy logic, or just can't be true.

Sports too can present unbelievable odds of an upset ever occurring - and then, it happens. The Harlem Globetrotters - yes, that team - way back in January 1938 came to the Esko gymnasium and lost 42-41 to the Esko Future Farmers of America team.

The Harlem Globetrotters are still in business. Starting out in 1926 in Chicago, they were known as the Globe Trotters. Sports promoter Abe Saperstein acquired the team soon after and managed the franchise until 1966. The team name changed in 1929 to the New York Harlem Globe Trotters, and later to their current billing. Over the years, the Globetrotters have played more than 26,000 exhibition games in 124 countries and territories ... and in Esko, at least twice. And in Cloquet, and most every small burg in the country in those early years. They were true barnstormers.

It wasn't until about 1950 that the team switched to pure "entertainment" rather than sports competition.

In 1948, the Globetrotters defeated the world champion Minneapolis Lakers, made up of nearly all white players. This was not choreographed basketball. Famous Globetrotter team alumni include NBA Hall of Fame members Wilt Chamberlain and Connie Hawkins. Players over the years included Hubert "Geese" Ausbie, Marques Haynes, Fred "Curly" Neal and Meadowlark Lemon. In the days when baseball players had to have winter jobs to support their families, baseball legends Bob Gibson and Ferguson Jenkins donned the colorful red, white and blue Globetrotters uniforms.

It's hard to picture who or what brought the Globetrotters to Esko in 1938, but the Esko FFA team had gained regional and statewide basketball recognition since becoming the first chapter in the state of Minnesota in 1929.

The modern website declares: "FFA is a dynamic youth organization that changes lives and prepares members for premier leadership, personal growth and career success through agricultural education."

During the Great Depression in the 1930s, many area youths were forced to make the difficult decision of working on the farm full-time and dropping out of school. To play on the FFA team, participants were required to take FFA-sponsored leadership evening courses at the school. They were also not eligible to play on the high school team and could play beyond high school age. Many of the players who suited up for the Esko FFA team played until their late 20s. Most, if not all, were of Finnish descent.

The Esko squad was the 1938 Minnesota State FFA champion and the 1939 Midwest Co-op champs. They defeated the Duluth Teachers College (predecessor to today's University of Minnesota Duluth) as well as teams from Superior, Hinckley, Minneapolis, Virginia and the Iron Range. Star players who became household names in Esko and Carlton County included Les Knuti, Marvin Davidson, Bernie Koivisto, Bill Stenman and Walt Maunu. Many of these players and their heirs were the foundation of future successful Esko basketball teams.

It's difficult to find eyewitnesses to the Globetrotters vs. Esko game; after all, it was nearly 86 years ago. The story goes that the Globetrotters had a comfortable lead and began their "clown princes of basketball" routine.

By all accounts of other games in other towns, there was a sort of arrangement at that time that the pros wouldn't show up a local team, letting them get close, but with the Globetrotters coming out on top with their incredible winning percentage intact. Esko players didn't get the memo. Esko stole the ball and made a shot from midcourt at the buzzer to win by one point. It must have been quite a performance for many of the thousand or so Esko attendees. The box score, in the 1929-1949 Esko FFA history book (loaned to me by John Harney) shows the 42-41 final score.

Pine Knot staffers and I dug into the papers of the time and were surprised that there was always plenty of buildup to the Globetrotters' appearances but not much by way of game descriptions once they left town. The team returned to Esko in December of 1938, but there was no reporting on how the game went. We also found evidence that the Globetrotters played the Cloquet Turcotte team in December 1938.

With the advent of World War II, the Fighting Finns Esko FFA basketball team was disbanded.

Steve Korby's interest in writing goes back to when he was in fourth grade and editor of the Scan-Satellite school newspaper in Scanlon. He welcomes ideas for human interest stories and tales regarding Carlton County residents, projects, history, and plans c/o [email protected].


What's your story?

Steve Korby and the team at the Pine Knot continue to sift through materials to perhaps find more on the Globe Trotters games that were played in Carlton County. If any readers have anecdotes or photos to share, contact us at [email protected].