Former Harlem Globetrotter John Kline dies

Jared Felkins • Aug 19, 2018 at 7:27 PM

Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of an original story published Sunday at lebanondemocrat.com to reflect John Kline was not the oldest-living Harlem Globetrotter at the time of his death. 

Former Harlem Globetrotter John Kline died recently at his home in Lebanon. 

Kline, who was 86, died July 26 during a stay at the Lebanon Health and Rehabilitation Center on North Castle Heights Avenue in Lebanon.

Kline’s daughter, Sharon Hill, confirmed his death.

In a February interview with The Democrat, Kline said he traveled the country to teach people about the history of African Americans in basketball. Before that, he traveled the world playing the sport he loved with the Harlem Globetrotters.

In the later years of his life, Kline spent most of his time at Lebanon Health and Rehabilitation Center.

When he reflected on his history with the sport, he couldn’t help but smile.

Known as “Jumpin’” John Kline during his playing days at Wayne State University, Kline made a name for himself by outrebounding everyone else on the court, even though he wasn’t always the biggest guy.

“There was a guy by the name of “Jumpin’” Johnny Wilson from Anderson, Indiana. He was a forward,” said Kline in February. “I told him, I said, ‘Well Johnny, it looks like you’re going to lose you’re Jumpin’ Johnny title, because they call me Jumpin’ Johnny. So he laughed at me and said, ‘We’ll have to see.’ I don’t think they ever called him Jumpin’ Johnny again.”

Wilson, 91, is the oldest-living member of the Harlem Globetrotters. 

In 1950, a football coach from Wayne State University noticed Kline while working as a referee during a high school basketball game.

“He saw me playing, and he asked me if I ever thought about going to college,” said Kline. “I said, ‘not really.’ None of my family had been to college before, and I had never heard anybody in the family talk about going to college. So he said, ‘well, I think you’d make a good college basketball player. If you don’t mind, I’d like to refer you to the coach at Wayne University.’”

The next year, Kline walked on to the Wayne State basketball team and quickly gained recognition for his athletic ability. During his sophomore season playing with the school’s varsity team, the school’s track coach approached Kline about competing in some of the jumping events.

“In the two years I was at Wayne University, I broke almost every record in basketball, and I did break every record in the high jump,” said Kline. “So, I was developing quite a career for myself. Sometimes I would fly from a track meet to meet the basketball team and play a basketball game, and vice versa.”

In 1952, Kline was invited to the U.S. Olympic Trials for the high jump, the triple jump and broad jump. Kline didn’t make the Olympic team but felt good about his performance, considering he hadn’t been doing track and field for very long.

Due to his busy athletic schedule, Kline was rarely able to make his classes, and in 1953, after he was named an All-American in basketball, he was ruled academically ineligible because of his grades.

“My coach called me one day and he said, ‘Johnny, now that you’re academically ineligible, what are your plans?’” said Kline. “I said, ‘Gus, I don’t have any plans. I just see that I’m unable to play basketball or run track.’ He said, ‘how would you like to try out for the Harlem Globetrotters?’”

Kline went to Chicago to try out for the team, which, at the time, was one of the few options black players had if they wanted to play professionally. The National Basketball Association only allowed white players.

“There may have been three or four open positions on each of the three teams,” said Kline. “We had guys from all over the country coming to try out that year.”

Kline made the team in 1953 and traveled around the world playing the sport he loved. He said it was a time of great racial tension in the world, but with the Globetrotters, he was able to help break down a lot of barriers.

“Even when we went overseas, we were accepted everywhere,” said Kline. “When Globetrotters played, we couldn’t play against white teams. We’d take our own team called the Kansas City Stars and play against them. I think that restaurants, hotels, different white establishments, we went in them and people recognized who we were, and they didn’t have any problem with it.”

Kline left the Globetrotters in 1959, and it was through some childhood friends in Detroit that he was introduced to heroin, which became an addiction for him until he went back to school determined to get a degree and kick his drug addiction to set an example for others who struggled with a drug habit.

“I just wanted people to see that anybody can do it,” said Kline. “I’m not any smarter than anyone or any stronger than anyone, so if I can do it, anyone can.”

After he graduated with a doctorate, Kline set his sights on his next big project, an organization that recognized the legendary black basketball players, or as he named it the Black Legend of Professional Basketball Foundation. Kline traveled the country for several years with an exhibit that displayed some of the best players to play in the all-black basketball leagues of the 1920s-1960s. One of his biggest successes was a campaign to get Harlem Globetrotters legend Marques Haynes inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame.

“One year, I decided to try to get Marques Haynes, who was the greatest dribbler of all-time, into the NBA Hall of Fame,” said Kline. “The NBA had inducted none of the Harlem Globetrotter players into the Hall of Fame, so this would be the first, if our organization could get him in. So I went around the country, talking to people, writing letters asking for support for Marques Haynes, and I got about 150 letters of support. Two years later, Marques Haynes became the first Harlem Globetrotter inducted into the NBA [Hall of Fame].”

In February, a documentary by Addiction Campuses featured Kline, who talked about his struggle with substance abuse and how he was eventually able to overcome his addiction.

Kline kept all the items from his exhibit and loved any opportunity to talk about his days with the Globetrotters, as well as his work afterward.

In 1996, he published an autobiography titled “Never Lose,” and he felt it was a phrase that meant a lot to him in his life.

“I never cared much about who scored the most points; I just wanted to win,” he said. “So the title, ‘Never Lose,’ I feel like explains a lot about who I am.”

Former Democrat staff writer Jacob Smith contributed to this report. 

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