The Harlem Globetrotters have had more famous players than Julian “Zeus” McClurkin. The famous team of basketball barnstormers has had taller players, faster players, niftier ballhandlers and better shooters.
But they may have never had anyone who wanted to play basketball more than this rookie forward.
McClurkin, 28, will be part of the hoops and hilarity when the Globetrotters come to Baton Rouge’s River Center Arena at 7 p.m. Saturday for a game against the Washington Generals.
A Columbus, Ohio, native, McClurkin loved sports as a youth, participating in swimming, baseball, football, tennis and soccer. Had it not been for his big brother, Robert, he might have settled on one of those. But, Robert McClurkin had been an excellent high school basketball player, and his kid brother wanted to follow in those footsteps.
So, he tried out in seventh grade. He didn’t make the team.
And in eighth grade. Same result.
And ninth grade. Ditto.
And 10th grade. Cut again.
“I guess basketball is the only sport everybody told me I was not good at, and I love proving people wrong,” McClurkin said. “For the longest time, everybody told me, ‘Julian, you’ve got to have a mean streak. You’ve got to have this killer instinct,’ and I never developed that. It wasn’t part of my personality.”
But determination was part of his personality, and before 11th grade, his body decided to cooperate. A five-inch growth spurt lifted McClurkin to his current 6-foot-8 height. And, while that didn’t make him a superstar, it got him on the varsity.
McClurkin went to Tiffin University in Ohio and, after the head coach left, transferred to North Carolina A&T, where he became a team manager before convincing the coach to let him try out. It took some doing. Having broken a foot, he had a walking boot, but McClurkin took advantage of an opportune moment when he was on the court.
“I dunked … when I saw him walking by going to his office,” McClurkin said. “He’s going, ‘Who’s this kid who can dunk in a boot?’ I ended up impressing him, made the team. About 30 people tried out that year, and he only accepted me.”
McClurkin didn’t earn a scholarship, but in his senior season he said he played ahead of more talented players because he was coachable. One of his final college games was televised by ESPN, and McClurkin saw this as an opportunity to go out with a bang.
“I told my coach and all of the guys, ‘This is my last ESPN game. I’m getting on ‘SportsCenter.’ I’m either getting dunked on or I’m dunking on somebody, but I’m getting on ‘SportsCenter,’” he said.
On a fast break, McClurkin slammed home a dunk over a South Carolina State guard who tried to block it. McClurkin said it was No. 7 on ESPN’s Top 10 plays of the day.
“As soon as I dunked it, some of their fans ran up and gave me a high five,” he said. “Even they were excited.”
McClurkin played pro basketball in Paraguay, but didn’t enjoy it. Returning home, a friend suggested he try out for the Washington Generals.
“I’m, like, ‘Who are they? What’s a Washington General?’” McClurkin said. “He said, ‘They travel and play the Globetrotters.’ I’m, like, ‘Who are they? Who are the Globetrotters?’ I had no idea who they were, not realizing I had seen them before on ‘Scooby-Doo’ when I was younger, watching cartoons.”
He made the Generals lineup and set a new goal — to be a Globetrotter, part of a team that plays 310 games a year in 250 cities all over the world.
“I got a chance to see the reception the Globetrotters get everywhere they go,” he said. “They’re the hometown team. The kids love them, and everybody loves them. I want to be a part of that, and they’re making people happy and get to be themselves, and that’s all I ever wanted to do in basketball.
“I guess when they got tired of me dunking on them they signed me to a contract.”
It’s not a typical route to become a Globetrotter, but nothing about McClurkin’s career is typical. In his last year of college, he learned he had exercise-induced asthma, which created shortness of breath that forced him out of games. Now, he uses an inhaler two hours before any strenuous exercise, and keeps one with him at all times.
“I tell kids everywhere, just know your triggers and you can manage it,” he said. “Don’t let it be a hindrance to you, because you can make it as far as you like.”
In his case, that has meant an unlikely basketball career.