After watching Otis "Mr. OK" Key play in a college all-star game, the Harlem Globetrotters invited him to try out for the team. Key wasn't interested. He wanted to play real basketball.
"I had a misconception that it was not very serious basketball," said Key, who was in Cape Girardeau Monday to promote the team's appearance Jan. 20 at the Show Me Center. "But they have a rich history."
The competitive part of that history was resurrected after Manny Jackson, a former Globetrotter, bought the team in 1993. Since 1997, the Globetrotters have played against future first-round NBA picks in an event called the World Series of Basketball. In 2000, they began a series pitting them against top college seniors during the NCAA Final Four Weekend.
Key today works as one of the Globetrotters' advance men when he isn't required on the court.
As a boy, Key watched the Harlem Globetrotters cartoon characters play basketball on the "Scooby-Doo" Saturday morning show. When he grew up -- he's now 6 feet 9 inches and 265 pounds -- he played basketball for three years at Austin Peay University and for a year at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., where he earned All-America honors in 1995-96.
Afterward, he played basketball in Spain, where he learned to speak the language fluently. Key planned to stay, but family pressure brought him home. "It's hard when your mom and brothers are calling saying, 'When am I going to get to see you play?'" he said.
The day after he arrived home from Spain, the Globetrotters called.
Not a showy player
As personable as Key is, he isn't one of the showy players the Globetrotters' reputation is based on, such as Paul "Showtime" Gaffney or Matthew "Show Biz" Jackson. The Globetrotters chose him for his rebounding abilities, his personality and for his intelligence. They run more than 100 different plays, almost all of them dependent on careful timing.
Key says he's a competitive person, which makes his current job sweeter, in a sense. "Being with the Globetrotters, you know you're going to win," he said, beaming.
Most of the games the Globetrotters play are against the New York Nationals, a team of ex-college players who are in on the jokes. But Jackson, an Illmo, Mo., native, reinstated the tradition of having the team play competitive games against college all-star teams.
"He wanted to show that we could take the court against anybody and not just be competitive but win," Key said.
Entertainment is the added element with the Globetrotters, but both competitive basketball and Globetrotters performances require a great amount of focus, Key says.
Show business goes with the territory. Members of the Globetrotters appear in a new Burger King commercial. Key participated in the filming but was cut out of the final commercial. Members of the team also are helping plan for a proposed Disney Broadway musical, "Hoopz." Renowned dancer Savion Glover is scheduled to choreograph the musical.
Joy and laughter
In his four years with the team, Key has toured the United States, Europe, Africa and Australia. The Globetrotters even played in beleaguered Beirut, Lebanon. "Joy and laughter translate to any race and language," he said.
He spends summers in his hometown of Russellville, Ky. He plays in summer tournaments where old competitors are constantly challenging him. "They say that playing with the Globetrotters has made me soft," he said. Then he shows them how soft someone is who sometimes must play two games a day.
He loves being able to give kids someone to look up to.
"I tell them, 'You'll always be able to be what you want to be as long as you focus on it,'" he says.
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