Tis the season for Milwaukee merriment and BMO Harris Bank is bringing you happy holiday stories all season long.
New Year's Eve in Milwaukee always means a few things: it's going to be cold, there's going to be a countdown and the Globetrotters are going to be in town.
The tradition continues this year, as the world-famous Original Harlem Globetrotters return to the BMO Harris Bradley Center for their traditional New Year's Eve tour stop. The star-studded roster always has fans on the edge of their seats as they witness the amazing ball-handling wizardry, basketball artistry and one-of-a-kind family entertainment that thrills people of all ages. Last month, the Globetrotters broke a single-day total of nine Guinness World Records, including the longest basketball hook shot.
Their 2017 World Tour brings its iconic squad and bag of tricks to Milwaukee for two shows on Saturday, Dec. 31, at 1 and 6 p.m. In advance of the annual visit, I recently played H-O-R-S-E with team member Bull Bullard (it went as expected) and then sat down with him to talk about what it's like to play basketball for the planet's most fun team.
OnMilwaukee: How did you get started playing for the Globetrotters?
Bull Bullard: Everybody’s story is a little bit different, but mine is that in 2008 I was in the NCAA College Slam Dunk Contest, where I came in second.
Yeah, I sort of got a sense of that earlier.
(laughs) After that, the Harlem Globetrotters called me in for a tryout/interview as a dunker. I went down, nailed it and here I am. Probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I’ve been playing basketball since I was, like, 12 years old, and it’s just something that I like to do to escape. Whenever I play basketball it is one of those things, I get in the gym and just have fun with it.
What’s a tryout like for the Harlem Globetrotters? It’s got to be more than just, "Can you spin the ball on your finger and make backwards half-court shots?" right?
Well if you’re going to be a dunker, they want to see what you’ve got. They test your limits and everything, and when I went in I just happened to nail everything. For dribblers, when you come in they want to see you dribble and slide on the floor, see how quick you are, see your speed. We’ve got some pretty fast people on the team – Rocket, Firefly and Too Tall. Too Tall’s amazing, man.
Are there any women on the team?
We have four women on the team now. We have TNT, Ace, Hoops and Swish. Two of those are rookies, Ace was a rookie last year and this is her second year, and TNT’s been on the team six years. So we’ve got a lot of girl power too.
You said, looking back on it, joining the Globetrotters was the best decision you’ve ever made. Was it an easy one? Did you ever consider trying to play regular ball overseas or in a lower-level league here or coaching?
When I came out of college at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, I already had a plan. A lot of guys coming out of college, they don’t know what they’re going to do. My plan was to get my degree and be a police officer in Corpus Christi or even the Dallas area, and so I thought I already had my path. But then the Harlem Globetrotters called me and offered me this tryout, and I thought, "You know what, I might as well try it." I went down and I loved it. I could just feel the aura when I walked into the gym and with the other players.
Where was the tryout?
It was in Atlanta. Our head office is in Atlanta, and that’s where we’re based out of now. People think the Harlem Globetrotters are from Harlem, and we do go back there and play in the Harlem area whenever we can. I think my first year on the team we played at the Harlem Armory, which is well known for a lot of cool things.
How long have you been doing this?
I’ve been on the team nine years, been in 69 countries, and I love it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. I get to travel the world, I get to see different things, I get to be a role model for kids, and it’s just fun.
Do you pick your own nickname or they assign it to you?
No, we don’t pick our nicknames. My last name is Bullard so it just comes off my last name. But let’s see, who’s got a good one? Too Tall! Like, he’s 5-foot-2 but his nickname is Too Tall. You can pick yours, it’s allowed. For me, when I was growing up, a lot of people did call me Bull, Bullard, Baily, Bill, Butt. Bull was fitting and fans like it and I like it.
How much of being a Globetrotter is being an entertainer? At the tryout, were they evaluating you on being charismatic and engaging and cool with kids, in addition to just throwing down dunks?
That’s more learned. You can easily learn that stuff. The on-the-court stuff is about 20 percent of what we do. The off-the-court stuff is really big – going to school visits, hospital visits, being able to talk to talk to kids and just going out and being in front of these kids and giving them someone to look up to. Because anyone can go put a Harlem Globetrotters jersey on, but everybody can’t be a Harlem Globetrotter.
We’re just different because we give so much back to the community with everything from the Smile Patrol that we have to the C.H.E.E.R. program to the ABCs of Bullying Prevention, there’s so many things that we do. We’re always out doing something, promoting, trying to change lives, putting a smile on a kid’s face.
Have you ever been to Milwaukee before? What were your memories or reactions?
I’ve been two times. It was cold. It was like this. It was around the time of New Year’s, which is always cold here. I haven’t been in summer yet. It’s always fun to be here.
What’s the crowd like?
From what I can remember, the Milwaukee crowd is always good, everybody was receptive to it, everybody knew what was going on, and it’s a great way to ring in the new year. See some family entertainment, it’s a very uplifting thing, it’s a gift that keeps on giving and a memory that lasts a lifetime.
Do you ever feel bad for the Generals?
We don’t play the Generals anymore! We play the World All-Stars now.
Wow, I'm behind the times. What happened?
They just got tired of it, man (laughs). When we decided to go find another team, the World All-Stars was it; they’ve been all over the place. And this year we’ve got a lot of different stuff going on with the game, it’s amazing. We’ve got a four-point line, which is 30 feet away from the basket, it’s crazy.
Still running the weave though, right?
Oh yeah. We call it the hop.
What’s your favorite thing to do on the court, legitimate or silly? Given the ball, what’s your go-to move?
Honestly, I’d say shooting. It’s not that I’m bored with dunking, I just like the four-point thing. But my favorite thing to do is, when I’m running off the court, take off my wristbands and throw them to kids because they go crazy for it. And then once they catch the wristband, they don’t forget you, so when they come down to the autograph line after the game, they remember you and ask you to sign it and that’s really fun.
For the Milwaukee families coming out on New Year’s, what’s something you suggest they do to make an extra-special memory?
I don’t really know, because everything we do is out of the ordinary. So for us, you might want to always have your camera ready, because you never know what’s going to happen. You never know what we’re going to do. Always have your camera ready. And parents, if you haven’t brought your kids out to the game because they’re not into sports or if you’re trying to get them into sports, this is the perfect way to start. Because it shows kids that they can have fun with sports, no matter what they do, they can have fun with it and enjoy it. It’s like a gateway. It lasts a lifetime.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.