Forget all the fancy dribbling and the supernatural ease with which he can spin a basketball on his nose and forehead.
Scooter Christensen’s real talent is making fluttering, upraised hands magically appear, each of them attached to a kid desperate to be called on to join a scaled-down re-creation of the Harlem Globetrotters’ famed Magic Circle routine.
For students at Bonner Elementary School, 765 Crestdale Lane, Christensen’s demonstration of his world-record basketball balancing talents is just one part of what had to be the best assembly ever, when Christensen stopped by to talk about the Globetrotters’ SPIN— Some Playtime Is Necessary — initiative and upcoming basketball camps here.
Christensen is a born-and-bred Las Vegan who played at Bishop Gorman High School and was a member of the Gaels’ 1997 state championship team. He has been a member of the Harlem Globetrotters for eight years, and absolutely nobody mistook him for anything but that when he visited the school just over two weeks ago.
While Christensen has spoken at Bonner before, even new students knew something was up when the 6-foot-1 guy in the red, white and blue warm-ups walked through the door.
“I watched the Globetrotters play,” a star-struck kid standing in line gasps to his equally impressed classmate.
“I saw you last year,” another kid is compelled to tell a smiling Christensen.
As the kindergartners-through-second graders arrive for the day’s first assembly, they drop down to sit cross-legged on the floor of the school’s multipurpose room and pass the time doing kidlike things — who knew that kids still play patty-cake? — and enjoying a welcome break in their school day routine.
When Christensen is introduced, he’s greeted by hoots and cheers. Christensen says later that he’s not surprised that the Harlem Globetrotters continue to enjoy such powerful name recognition.
“I’ll tell you what: You know that if your kids are familiar with the Globetrotters, that means their parents know,” he says, perhaps from their own memories of watching Meadowlark Lemon or Curly Neal play. “We’re just trying to keep that tradition alive.”
Christensen laughs. “Actually, Curly Neal is still with us, still with the organization,” he says. “He looks good, man.”
Christensen introduces himself to the students and offers a few informational tidbits about the Harlem Globetrotters. That this is the team’s 87th season. That, as a Globetrotter, he has traveled the world and even played on an aircraft carrier. That the team plays more than 300 games each year, sometimes more than one a day. And that the Harlem Globetrotters have lost over 350 games over the years, but have won more than 23,000.
Christensen’s mission today is to urge students to keep their bodies healthy by doing something physical every day. It doesn’t even have to be anything big-time, he adds, but just something as simple as walking the dog, playing Frisbee or swimming.
Christensen asks for volunteers, prompting that sudden forest of upraised hands, and demonstrates with a few students drills that, he says, Globetrotters do on the road “to stay active.”
Often, Christensen explains later, kids are “so wound up with the technology and texting and tweeting and all that stuff that they don’t go outside and have fun playing. You have to make time for staying active and keeping your body healthy.”
Was he an active kid? “Oh yeah,” Christensen says. “I had a skateboard, a bike, a scooter. I played outside with the dog and was swimming and all kinds of stuff.
“But my main thing was basketball. I played every day as a kid. I started at age 5 and I knew I wanted to do something in basketball, whether it be coaching, playing overseas or the NBA.”
Scooter Christensen — known back then as Shane Christensen — played at the University of Montana, then played minor league ball and in the ABA. While breaking down videotape for the Phoenix Suns, he played on the team’s practice squad and was spotted by a Globetrotters scout.
All of which segues nicely into Christensen’s other messages to Bonner students: That they also strive to keep their minds healthy by, for example, “reading something positive every day” and that they pursue whatever it is they’re passionate about with hard work and perseverance.
“And it doesn’t have to be basketball,” he tells the kids. “It could be (being) a doctor or a lawyer or a singer or an actress or a veterinarian. Just find something you’re passionate about and put effort into it because, if it’s something you love to do, you’re going to find a way to excel.”
“I’ve failed over and over in basketball,” he confesses to the kids. Now, he’s not only a Harlem Globetrotter, but holds two Guinness world records (for the longest time spinning a basketball on both one’s head and one’s nose).
Then, Christensen asks for volunteers — and a teacher, too — to join him in learning the “Magic Circle” routine. Each volunteer is given a few easy moves — behind-the-back passes, elbow passes, head passes, through-the-leg dribbles, bounces off the knee, bounces off the butt, even a climactic shimmy or shake — to learn.
When Christensen puts on the now iconic “Sweet Georgia Brown” — not thinking about the Harlem Globetrotters when you hear it is as impossible as not thinking about The Lone Ranger when you hear the “William Tell Overture” — and combines everybody’s moves, the haphazard results elicit lusty laughs from the crowd.
Finally, Christensen demonstrates a few of his own smooth and amazing moves. He notes that learning them wasn’t easy, but that, as with anything else, effort and determination make all the difference.
Then Christensen leaves his audience with a final thought.
“In this world, you’re born with two ends, one to think with and one to sit on,” he says. “Which one you guys use the most will determine how successful you’ll be in life.”
When he’s not traveling with the Globetrotters, Christensen still lives in Las Vegas. From June 10-15, he’ll participate in the Harlem Globetrotters’ basketball camps here, which are open to boys and girls ages 6 to 12 and require no basketball skills on the part of participants.
During the clinics, children will learn shooting, dribbling, passing and ball handling skills and play in scrimmages and games. They’ll even learn a few Globetrotters tricks to create their own signature moves.
After the assembly, Christensen poses for a few photos and shakes many hands. As impressive as his basketball skills are, they’re not half as impressive as Christensen’s ability to connect with kids.
“Kids ask, ‘Are you famous?’ ” he says. “I always tell them, ‘No, I’m not famous. The team I play for is famous.’ ”
Just the fact that kids ask the question is, Christensen figures, “testament to what we do on the court.
“They’ll come to a game and they’ll never remember the score. They’ll all remember laughing and smiling, and that’s the message we send.”
Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@review journal.com or 702-383-0280.