Select Page

In the past decade or so, Sioux Falls has become a hot spot for March Madness!  With multiple premiere (no pun intended) venues, it is no strange thing to see weekends in March go from Boys State Basketball tournament, to Girls State Basketball tournament, to big time NSIC Conference collegiate action, to the crown jewel Summit League Tournament play, all in March… all right here in Sioux Falls.  It is amazing and a true paradise to basketball fans all over the region!

Over the years there have been some great matchups, stunning finishes, and stellar storylines, with the likes of local favorites SDSU and USD facing off against each other, and national talent, all for a bid in the NCAA Division I March Madness tournament!

But… on a March evening… long before the Summit League, NSIC, the Premier Center, or the Pentagon… I think the best basketball game ever played in Sioux Falls, took place at the old Sioux Falls Coliseum (now the Multi-Cultural Center in Downtown Sioux Falls).

On March 16th, 1939 less than 400 fans turned filed in to the stands at the Coliseum, the atmosphere was electric!  On the court that day the Harlem Globetrotters would be taking on the Jessie Owens Olympians in basketball!  Yes… you heard that right the world renown track star Jessie Owens – 4 time gold medal winner at the 1936 Olympics now owned a basketball team and it was coming to Sioux Falls!

We should note, it wasn’t entirely by choice that Jessie Owens found himself in the basketball business.  The official record is that following the Olympics Jessie took endorsements and sponsorship deals from people and businesses back in America and was therefore no longer eligible to compete in Amateur Track and Field competitions (which was the only type of competition available at the time).  More disturbing and probably more accurate stories tell of racism and back room deals being struck intentionally to keep the Black World Record holder off the track for good!

Jessie then had to trade on his famous name to draw crowds, to make a living.  Enter his foray on to the hardwood!  Jessie lent his name and on occasion his athletic prowess as a player to the brand new Jessie Owens Olympian basketball team, as they barnstormed across the nation!  Sometimes they would play local college teams, sometimes they faced off against a hodge podge team of the “best ballers in town,” and on the bests of evenings they would match up against another nationally acclaimed barnstorming team, as they found themselves barnstorming in the same neck of the woods!

That was the fortune of Sioux Falls in the spring of 1939 – when Owens and his Olympians set a date to play the Harlem Globetrotters right here in our fair town!  Now the Globetrotters loved Sioux Falls!  They had been here before and would return many times again.  Before WWII there wasn’t any racism to speak of on our streets, the environment was friendly, ticket sales were great, and the players were appreciated for the fantastic display of basketball skills they put on!  Owens would learn this, and return to Sioux Falls 2 different times in 1939 and once a few years later, each time with different “acts.”

So with the stage set, the crowd settled in, and the spotlights on… (maybe not spotlights at the Coliseum in 1939 that’s a little much… just imagine spotlights!) the teams took the court.  The Globetrotters had been at this shtick for over 12 years now, and they knew the way to get invited back to a town or venue was to put on a great show… so that is what they did.  They did their trick shots, quirky passes, and other gimmicks for laughs and applause… But then they got down to business.  These guys could really play, and gym full of fans who had only ever seen high schoolers in high shorts play the game, got to witness grown men jumping out of the gym, dunking basketballs, aerial maneuvers, outside shooting, and all around stellar play!  I could only image what a sight it was for the fans that night… and perhaps the players got a show too, seeing the astounded look on the spectator’s faces one ridiculous display of athleticism after another!

Was this game truly the greatest basketball display in Sioux Falls history? I honestly don’t know, there is no film, or even photographic record I can find to confirm that.  But it was great in that it brought major… big time basketball to Sioux Falls way back in the early years.  It made life-long basketball fans right here in our local community, it welcomed two teams of mostly black men in the late 1930’s into our town with open arms.

The games we see today are outstanding… I don’t know if they can hold a candle to this one!