When the Harlem Globetrotters play Mississauga’s Hershey Centre in April, not only will they bring their classic brand of basketball skill and magic, they will carry with them an almost 90-year tradition of performing before Canadian audiences.

Formed in the south side Chicago in the 1920s– nowhere near the Harlem neighbourhood of Manhattan – the Globetrotters  barnstormed their way around the U.S. in the early years as a legitimate team, and with Illinois as their base, the Canadian border wasn’t too far off and on any west coast swing Vancouver was always a stop.

Newspaper accounts reveal they criss-crossed the country, showing up in small towns and remote places. For decades, the Harlem Globetrotters would play in desolate towns and cold arenas, places that nobody else was willing to travel to. Ben Green, author of the Globetrotters’ definitive history, says in most cases, the team coming to town was the biggest news of the winter.

“They played in Canada a lot,” says Green from his Florida home. “They played all the tiny towns and took on all comers; teachers, factory teams, you name it. People would come from everywhere to see the world’s greatest players.”

It was during these long tours, both in Canada and the U.S., sometimes playing six or seven times a week, that the Globetrotters began to do more than just play basketball. As Green explains, interrupting the action to pull a few gags and put on a show gave the players time to rest their legs and catch a breather.

“These breaks also helped to keep the game close,” he says. “They were such a good team that it would be easy to run up the score against the competition. They didn’t want to humiliate the local team and not be invited back next year. After all, it was the way they made their money, so there were a few good reasons for the entertainment.”

In his book, Spinning the Globe: The Rise, Fall and Return to Greatness of the Harlem Globetrotters, Green tells the story of how the Globetrotters great play led to the eventual integration of African-American players into league ranks, especially when they defeated the NBA champion Minneapolis Lakers two years in row in 1948 and 1949.

By the 1950s, the Globetrotters lived up to their name, travelling the world, playing before huge crowds and becoming the most famous and beloved sports team both here and abroad. In the 1960s, with the team’s exposure on national television, the Harlem Globetrotters could be seen everywhere with players such as Curly Neal and Meadowlark Lemon becoming household names.

Today, though now eclipsed by the NBA in stature and exposure, the Globetrotters can still found extending their brand most everywhere with a talented cast of both male and female players who can display razzle-dazzle trick shots, gravity defying dunks and inject some good old slapstick comedy. But as Green is quick to point out, at the heart of the Harlem Globetrotters has always been a great basketball team.

The Harlem Globetrotters are in Mississauga at the Hershey Centre for two shows on April 21 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.ca.