Hoop Dreams

Scooter Christensen dribbles, drives, and dishes his way to stardom with the Harlem Globetrotters


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Shane “Scooter” Christensen, a former point guard for the Montana Grizzlies, has been a part of the Harlem Globetrotters for ten years. (Photo by Harlem Globetrotters International, Inc.)
Shane “Scooter” Christensen, a former point guard for the Montana Grizzlies, has been a part of the Harlem Globetrotters for ten years. (Photo by Harlem Globetrotters International, Inc.)

In 1991, a thirteen-year-old boy with an all-consuming crush on basketball was watching television in his parents’ Las Vegas living room when he came across a movie about legendary shooting guard “Pistol” Pete Maravich.

Shane “Scooter” Christensen was a skinny seventh-grader who looked young for his age and could always be counted on to bring a basketball with him to recess. Maravich, Shane learned, was a scrawny kid from Aliquippa, Pa., who called himself a “human basketball.” As a boy, Maravich could spin a basketball on his nose. He dribbled it in movie theaters and from the backseat of a slow-moving car­ out the window, smack, smack, smack against the asphalt. And he grew up to claim the NCAA’s career scoring record and play ten seasons in the National Basketball Association.

“After the movie, it showed the real Pistol Pete doing his drills,” Christensen, now thirty-six, remembers.

Maravich could pass around his back, behind his head, between his legs. His shots looked scripted by one of those magicians who worked the Vegas Strip just a few miles from Christensen’s house. Just like Maravich’s, Shane’s opponents often underestimated him, assuming from his size that they could run him over­—until he ran around them. You might say the kid liked Maravich’s style.

“You had to call and order the videos” of Maravich’s drills, Christensen says. “So Mom and Dad did.”

Why not? Maybe being able to spin a basketball on his finger, throw it in the air, bounce it off both knees, head it like a soccer ball, then catch it while it continued to spin would pay off for Shane somewhere down the line.

You never know.

Deldre Carr, Shane’s friend since preschool, says he and another boy once tried to hijack Shane’s basketball.If Maravich could carry his basketball everywhere, Shane figured he could, too. He carried it to the YMCA for three- to four-hour practice sessions with his father, Ray, a Clark County firefighter. He carried it through the doors of the Greater Evergreen Missionary Baptist Church, up the aisle and onto the choir risers to sing alongside his mother, Flossie, a human resources director for a bank.

“Let’s just say it almost brought him to tears,” Carr says. “His teddy bear—­his security blanket­—was his basketball. We were all chasing girls, but Scoot’s main girlfriend was his basketball.”

The basketball came along to Shane’s classes at Las Vegas’ elite Bishop Gorman High School, where, as point guard, he led the team to a 1997 Nevada state championship. And when Shane came to Missoula on a basketball recruiting trip in 1996, he carried the ball into The Depot, where he ate dinner with his parents and Grizzlies coach Don Holst.

Ray Christensen wondered if Montana might be a stretch for his only child, a fourth generation Las Vegan accustomed to 109-degree heat, not sub-zero temperatures.

“When we got to Montana, they do it up for you. Everybody was so nice to us. We said, ‘Let’s just take a ride around Montana. Everyone can’t be that nice,’” Ray Christensen says. “So we drove around a little bit, went to a couple of places, and the people were just so nice, it was unbelievable. Shane said, ‘Dad, I think I want to go there.’ And I said, ‘Why? You know it’s gonna be cold up here.’”

Christensen explained that his goal was to graduate, and the Grizzlies coaching staff seemed committed to making sure he did. Besides, he added, there just weren’t as many distractions in a town the size of Missoula.

He signed a letter of intent, and in fall 1997, landed at UM.

“I said, ‘Let me go ahead and get used to this college life,’” Christensen recalls. “So I’m out there [on the Oval], and I’m posted up against a tree, and I hear this noise. It was the biggest squirrel I’d ever seen in my life. I’m from Vegas, and when you see a little chipmunk running across the street here you go, ‘Awwww,’ because you never see them. I had to call my Mom. I’m like, ‘Mom, I just saw the biggest squirrel. You could have put a leash on this thing.’”

During Christensen’s UM career, the Griz won a Big Sky Conference regular-season title in 2000 and a Big Sky tournament title in 2002, which earned them a berth in the NCAA Tournament and a first-round matchup with the Oregon Ducks. As a point guard, Christensen’s ball-handling skills served him well, notching 431 assists­—the second most in Griz history. Captain of the team his junior and senior seasons,

Scooter was regarded by teammates as their on-the-court coach.

Christensen plays defense against the Oregon Ducks in the first round of 2002 NCAA men’s basketball tournament in Sacramento, Calif. (Photo courtesy of UM Athletics)

“I tell my son, who’s fourteen, stories about Shane,” says Holst. “When we would run the Grizzly two-mile or Grizzly mile, which are traditional conditioning runs, Shane always won them. He always set the time record for Grizzly basketball, but he wouldn’t stop. He’d lap the field, and then he’d keep running and help that seven-foot, 300- pound guy in.”

Childhood friend Carr, now an NCAA Division I basketball referee, played two seasons with Christensen at UM and says his friend excelled at things others struggled with, such as the drill where you dribble two balls at once. As a kid, Christensen won his parents a car by hitting a shot from half court, and it seemed like he was always making those during warm-ups.

“He always did those things to warm up before the game,” Ray Christensen says. “They’re tricks. But he’d never do that in the game, because I’d kill him if he did.”

Christensen graduated from UM in 2002 with a sociology degree—and an intense desire to continue playing basketball. He started with the Magic City Snowbears, a Minot, N.Dak., International Basketball Association team.

“I got 200 bucks after a week,” Christensen says. “Man, I just got paid for doing something I’ve been doing since I was five years old!”

The gig in Minot lasted six months before the league tanked. Attempts at playing overseas didn’t pan out. In 2003, Christensen found himself back in Las Vegas, valet

parking for guests of the pirate-themed Treasure Island Hotel and Casino and playing for the Las Vegas Rattlers, an American Basketball Association team that went belly-up after one season. Christensen continued working out, attending camps, and hoping for a break. At an NBA camp later that year, he caught the eye of Marc Iavaroni, an assistant coach for the Phoenix Suns [and later, head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies]. But Christensen was cut on the second day of his tryout for the Suns’ Summer League team. So it was back to parking cars and practicing—playing until he hit 1,000 shots, dribbling for two and a half hours at a stretch, refining his rhythm in pick-up game after pick-up game. A few months later, Iavaroni called. He had a job for Christensen.

Shane “Scooter” Christensen helps a young fan spin a basketball on her finger at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. (Photo by Harlem Globetrotters International, Inc.)Christensen arrived in Phoenix to find he hadn’t been hired for his flair, his crossover move, or his work ethic. He’d been hired as the Suns’ assistant video coordinator.

“I said, ‘Coach, what are you doing?’” Christensen says. “He said, ‘I’m thinking of the big picture here.’ So I decided I’ll roll with it.”

Christensen watched video. He edited video. He got in his shots, speed drills, and dribbling, practicing with one of his idols, two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash. And one day, during a practice where the Suns were preparing to face Allen Iverson—you know, the All-Star, the 2001 MVP with four NBA scoring titles—someone said, “Go get the Video Guy.”

“I was ready,” Christensen says. “Come off a pick. Hit a shot. Boom. So everybody’s saying, ‘OK.’ They’re looking. And I’m just like, ‘They don’t know. They don’t know. They don’t know.’ So I come off another one. Hit another shot. And I’m going hard, too. Come off another one, pump fake. The guy jumps. Do a stepback. Hit another shot. That’s three. I come off a pick, do a little hesitation to throw my defender off, and I pump-faked and dumped it off to somebody. And he dunked it.”

Suns Head Coach Mike D’Antoni called time out.

“‘If we can’t stop the Video Guy,’” Christensen remembers him asking, “‘how are we going to stop Iverson?’”

With that, the Video Guy became a Suns practice player, going up against college recruits who were getting the opportunity he’d chased for years, sometimes outplaying them. At one of those scrimmages, a scout for the Harlem Globetrotters—as in, the Deans of Dribble, the Sultans of the Spin, the gall-dang Scooby-Doobie-Doo dudes—­happened to be watching.

“They were looking at the guy I was defending, and the Globetrotters scout asked the Phoenix organization, ‘Who’s this other kid?’” Christensen says. “They said, “That’s our Video Guy.’”

Who hated being called the Video Guy. And who, it turned out, had been practicing his whole life to be a Harlem Globetrotter.

“Like I said,” says Carr, “he was always spinning the ball.”

A word or two about the Harlem Globetrotters. They’re not from Harlem. Never have been. They started out in 1926 in Chicago as an all-black team formed by Abe Saperstein, and they’re based in Phoenix today. And here’s a badly kept secret: They almost never lose. Their win-loss record stands at 25,231-345, with most of those wins against the congenitally undaunted Washington Generals, and their last loss was to the NABC All-Stars on March 31, 2006.

“The Harlem Globetrotters are wholesome family entertainment, providing great basketball and comedy while displaying amazing basketball skills,” says Brett Meister, the team’s senior vice president of communications.

Forgive Meister if he sounds like he may have said that a few times. The three Globetrotters teams play 310 games on their annual U.S. tour and another 150 games internationally, administering a dose of feel-good antics for forty-eight minutes before moving on to the next town. With 2013 company revenues of $40 million, according to Forbes magazine, you might expect that a Harlem Globetrotter especially one as popular as Christensen, who is entering his tenth year with the team—­makes a decent living.

“That’s something we don’t disclose,” Meister says. “We’re not about millions of dollars. We’re about millions of smiles.”

Christensen’s not about to disclose his salary either. But by all appearances, the team has been good to him. He lives in a sprawling one-story [Read: lower air-conditioning bills. In the desert, this means something.] home in a gated community near Las Vegas, just ten minutes from his parents and most of his extended family. He’s been married since 2012 to Jessica Christensen, whom he met on a Globetrotters stop in Weatherford, Okla. She’s a model and showgirl-impersonator turned stay-at-home mom to their daughter, Huyler, who had her first birthday in September. The Christensens’ living room is a testament to what parents who adore their baby daughter are capable of when set loose in a Disney store.

Every December 26, Christensen packs up his Globetrotters duffle bag and boards a charter bus with his teammates. He’s the guy always singing on the bus. The one who says, “Oh, my goodness,” regularly. The one who holds a Guinness World Record for consecutive seconds spinning a ball on his nose (5.1). The one with one of the longest autograph lines after every game. The one who tells students in the Globetrotters’ frequent anti-bullying assemblies that he always responded to bullies with a smile­—to fake them out. Christensen is, in other words, the quintessential Harlem Globetrotter.

“He’s unbelievable with a basketball,” Meister says. “He’s one of the best in the eighty-nine-year history of the team.”

Christensen won’t really get home from his current tour until the end of April, seeing his wife, daughter, and parents only when he gets a long stretch in one city or comes within a short jaunt of Vegas. And then there’s the international travel—­he’s been to seventy-five countries. One year, he had ten games in five days. That’s a lot of Sweet Georgia Brown.

Ten years is a long stretch in professional sports, longer than many careers of Grizzlies who have gone on to the NBA or played overseas. Some Globetrotters have played sixteen, seventeen, even twenty-five years. The Globetrotters want Christensen around as long as he’s committed and healthy; Scooter says he’ll be with them as long as he’s having fun. Down the road he sees himself coaching, running camps, or perhaps being a motivational speaker.

“I had no intentions of being a Globetrotter. Not one. But I kept thinking any opportunity that jumped my way, I’m going to attack it.

“Because,” Christensen says, “you never know.”

Web Exclusive

Q&A with Shane “Scooter” Christensen

Shane “Scooter” Christensen, a standout point guard for the Grizzlies from 1998 to 2002, has played with the Harlem Globetrotters for ten years. We interviewed the Las Vegas native about life as a Grizzly and a Globetrotter. His answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

What was it like making the adjustment from Las Vegas weather to Montana weather?

When that winter hit I said, “Boy, they got me good.” It was the first time I’d seen a snow blizzard and deer running across the road. I’m like, “What is going on?” I was by those tennis courts and the wind hit. Oh, my goodness. Once, it was a fairly good day and I kept thinking, “Man, when it’s a good day out here, people go throw the Frisbee, they walk the dog, play hackysack.” I’m not used to that. Because when it’s a good day in Vegas, you stay inside, because it’s hot.

How do you feel about entertaining, as opposed to playing competitive basketball?

When I first started it was a huge change for me.  I’ve been competitive all my life. And you’re showing your skills in a different way—as far as entertainment and making people laugh and smile. It kind of forces you to be on your p’s and q’s every night. When I happen to miss a shot, I can’t go down with a scowl on my face or get mad, because you’ve got kids looking at you. In a regular basketball game you’d probably say something you shouldn’t say. But in a Globetrotter game, you’re under a light. When I played competitively, I used to love people talking smack to me.  At practice, sometimes [the Globetrotters coach] will have to stop us because we’ll get too competitive with each other. Because that competitiveness never leaves you.

The Globetrotters have always been about entertainment, but lately they’re doing a lot of work on anti-bullying. Can you tell me about your perspective on the team’s evolution?

The Globetrotters have always been the ambassadors of goodwill. Even back in the Curly Neal and Meadowlark Lemon days, they were ambassadors, visiting kids and doing a lot for their own communities and their cities. Now we have a lot more programs than we’ve had in the past, but that’s only because the atmosphere of the world has changed.  Bullying happens every single day. You see it on the Internet, on the news. It’s just crazy. We feel that we have a lot of kids that look up to us as celebrities. Sometimes, a kid may get the same information that we’re saying from their mom or their coach or their teacher, but it may not register the same way it does when it’s coming from a Globetrotter. My teammates and I do a great job of understanding that and knowing that we can get to a kid in that way. All of us on the team, our aim is to play basketball, have fun, but also give back to the community, and the Globetrotters organization is, by far, the perfect way to do that.

It sounds like church has always been a pretty important part of your life.

I grew up in the church. I sang in the choir. I had an uncle who was a preacher. My grandmother was the clerk of the church. My grandfather was the head of the deacon board. My uncles and cousins played the instruments. I may not go to church now as much as I used to back in the day, but my faith and my belief in God have never left me. You travel so much, and it’s so hard to get to places when you’re on the road. I’ve prayed, and I’ve kept my faith in God, which has helped me through everything. My belief starts with Him first and everything else follows that. If that’s right in my life first then everything else is going to fall into place. 

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