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Three Harlem Globetrotters Come Up Short in a Case of Jewel-Heist Mistaken Identity

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The Harlem Globetrotters are amiable men, beloved the world round for their on-court antics and their wizardry with a basketball performed to the whistled strains of Sweet Georgia Brown. But even the ‘Trotters renowned amiability has limits, and that’s why three of them have taken steps toward filing a multimillion-dollar civil rights suit against the city of Santa Barbara, Calif. and its police force.

While in town for an exhibition game last December, team members Ovie Dotson, 26, Lou Dunbar, 30, and Jimmy Blacklock, 35, telephoned for a cab after shopping in the Santa Barbara business district. A few minutes after getting into the taxi, the trio suddenly found themselves surrounded by nearly a dozen armed cops, who pulled over the vehicle and forced them onto the sidewalk to lie face down and spread-eagled while their hands were cuffed behind their backs. The ordeal lasted almost 30 minutes. That’s how long it took jewelry-store owner George Brooks to arrive and tell police that these were not the men who had pointed guns at him about an hour earlier and relieved him of $400,000 in merchandise.

Initially terrified (“I freaked out,” says Dotson), the players became angry when they learned that Brooks had described the robbers to the Santa Barbara police as black and of average height—one stocky, one with a beard, one with an Afro. The thieves were wearing jumpsuits, two red and one blue, and white tennis shoes. While Dunbar does in fact sport a neat Vandyke, one of the three athletes was wearing a sweat suit, another sweatpants and the third jeans, and none has particularly long hair. “I can see how there might be confusion over the tennis shoes,” adds attorney Edward Bell, who is charging unfair treatment because of color in the suit for the ball players. “But the Globetrotters [the three average over 6’5″] wouldn’t be average height in anyone’s book.”

In short, the three Court Jesters are seeing red because, they say, the city of Santa Barbara could see only black. “They wouldn’t have done this,” says Blacklock, who, like the others, earns more than $100,000 a year, “if we’d been someone like Jerry Lewis.”

Sheila Lodge, the mayor of Santa Barbara, would seem in a sense to agree. In a local television interview Lodge asked the reporter if there would be a similar to-do if a white person with a scarred face had been arrested mistakenly because police were looking for a white person with a scarred face.

“Do you think being black is as distinguishing as having a scar on your face?” the reporter responded.

“It so happens,” said the 54-year-old Lodge, “that in Santa Barbara, yes, it is rather distinguishing.”

Being black is indeed a badge of distinction in the seaside city, whose 74,000 citizens are preponderantly middle-class and upper-middle-class whites (only 2.4 percent are black). But the mayor went further, adding, “Some of us look more like others than others do”—a statement many have interpreted to translate as, all blacks look alike. At least one city official has called the remark “unfortunate.”

In spite of it all, the Santa Barbara police maintain that they followed proper procedures. A source points out that the Globetrotters were first spotted going into another jewelry store, Bryant & Sons, where three years earlier there had been a bloody shoot-out with a group of black bandits. The source notes that just before the athletes emerged from Fifi’s ice cream parlor—the second stop on their itinerary—Blacklock came out and peered up and down the street as if he were nervous. The taxi—the purported getaway car—was also deemed suspicious because of the way it darted in and out of traffic. Scoffs Dotson, “If we were the guys, would we have been so dumb as to rob a jewelry store and then go have some ice cream?”

Why were the players tailed in the first place? “When it comes to an I.D.,” says a veteran news photographer who witnessed the incident, “the police always pay more attention to dress and hair than to height. Anyone under duress of a pointed gun could easily be off by six inches.” Nevertheless, the Globetrotters and their attorney remain convinced that racism colored the police response. The tall and the short of it, according to attorney Bell, is that “when Lou Dunbar got out of the cab, the police should have asked themselves if he fit the description. They should have looked at Lou and said, ‘Now, there’s a big guy!’ ”