Jim Heffernan column: When Esko defeated the Globetrotters
It has to be one of the most unlikely upsets in sports history.
So, some people in Duluth’s neighboring community of Esko want to shed their high school’s mascot, and some people don’t. Esko’s teams have been known as the Eskomos for many decades, a slight misspelling of Eskimos, which suggests the Native people of arctic regions.
What is more, the school’s sports logo is an igloo, leaving absolutely no doubt that they seek to honor — or dishonor, in some people’s minds — the real denizens of the arctic.
I do not care to take a stand on this issue, but I will say that in any renaming of their teams, perhaps they should find a way to honor their rich history in basketball dating back to the time an Esko team DEFEATED THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS. Oh, sorry. All caps. The story is so incredible, I got carried away. More on that later.
But first, I can’t see how anyone identified as an actual Eskimo could be insulted by being associated with such a fine community as Esko, but you never know.
As a child, I flirted with the idea of becoming an Eskimo myself. It seemed like such an interesting life, sleeping in igloos, paddling around the Arctic Ocean in kayaks, rubbing noses as a sign of affection, spearfishing, mixing it up with walruses and polar bears. What an exciting life. I figured I could withstand the cold — I lived in Duluth. Then I turned 7.
Closer to home, later I came to be acquainted with some members of the actual Esko family, descendants of the founders of the largely Finnish community. Fine people.
But let’s get back to the time — pay attention here now — the Esko Future Farmers of America basketball squad took on and beat the Harlem Globetrotters.
The story is told in a book published in 2013 called “Esko’s Corner: An Illustrated History of Esko and Thomson Township” under the auspices of the Esko Historical Society. The book was edited by my close friend and Esko native, the late Davis Helberg, longtime director of the Seaway Port Authority of Duluth and earlier a journalist at the Duluth Herald and News Tribune, where we were colleagues.
There were several contributors to the book, but Helberg wrote the FFA vs. Globetrotters story himself. Here’s how he started out in telling the story given the title, “Just Farm Boys, Playin’ Ball”:
“You might not know what the score was (42-41) or when it happened (January 26, 1938) but if you’ve lived in Thomson Township for longer than 10 minutes you probably know the Esko FFA basketball team once defeated the Harlem Globetrotters.”
Helberg’s account is longer than we have space for here, but I’ll quote liberally from it. As he points out:
“The Harlem Globetrotters today, known for their comedic routines as much as their basketball wizardry, were once among the elite of professional teams. In 1940 the Globetrotters won what was then deemed to be the pro championship in New York.”
Helberg goes on to relate that the Globetrotters, “an all black team (that) had to combat racism and scheduling issues in the 1930s … played more than 200 games a year as they barnstormed the country. And rarely lost."
Esko’s FFA (remember now, that stands for Future Farmers of America) basketball squad was the first such team in the state, organized a decade earlier for boys who were not on the high school team, Helberg relates, as well as for “honorary and part-time students in agriculture (a definition that seemed to have a certain elasticity).
Helberg’s account includes the names of Esko players and coaches too numerous to include here. He goes on: “The old Esko gym seated about 800 people. Based on a later story about the Globetrotters in Collier’s, a major magazine of the era, Esko in 1938 was ‘a pinpoint on the map with a grand total of 60 inhabitants — and 1,000 people paid to see the (Globetrotters) magic.’”
In one account by a witness to the game, “The Globetrotters led by a point and they had the ball, and then they started clowning around. Time was running out, and … (Esko player) Les Knuti stole the ball and sank a basket from half-court right as it ended.”
Well, there it is. It has to be one of the most unlikely upsets in sports history. And it happened in Esko, home of the Eskomos.
Finally, I’m pleased to include here, for one last time, some writing of Davis Helberg, who got his start not long after high school (Esko, class of ‘58) at this newspaper, after serving on a Great Lakes ore carrier for one season. At first he wrote sports, and later covered government beats and wrote colorful features before joining the Port Authority, ending up as its longest-serving director. He died in 2018.
Davis’ heart was in writing, but Lake Superior was in his blood.
Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at jimheffernan.org and can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.