Once upon a time, in a street basketball game in The Bronx, New York, Kenny Rodriguez dribbled up to two defenders. He rapidly switched the ball from one hand to the other in mid-dribble, known in hoops terminology as a crossover. The quickness of his move made the two defenders fall into each other, "like dominos," Rodriguez, 31, says with a grin.
"The man announcing the game said I mixed those guys up," he said. "He said I made a smoothie out of them."
And a nickname was born.
Courtesy photo from Harlem Globetrotters International
Kenny 'The Blenda' Rodriguez is one of the stars of the Harlem Globetrotters.
"He said I was 'The Blenda.'"
Rodriguez, who still goes by the moniker, soon parlayed his streetball skills into his dream, a roster spot on one of the most famous - and funniest - basketball squads in the world, the Harlem Globetrotters.
Rodriguez and the Globetrotters will visit the Bryce Jordan Center in University Park to square off with their perennial foes, the hapless Washington Generals, at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
If you go
What: The Harlem Globetrotters
Where: Bryce Jordan Center,
When: 7 p.m., Tuesday
Tickets: $19 to $78; can be purchased at the Bryce Jordan Center box office, Penn State Altoona, online at www.ticketmaster.com or by phone at 865-5555.
"I never knew I would be on the Globetrotters," Rodriguez, who joined the squad in 2007, said in an interview with the Mirror during a public appearance at Wright Elementary School in Altoona. "That was my dream when I was a kid, to be on the (New York) Knicks or the Globetrotters. If I couldn't play for the Knicks, I'd play for the Globetrotters."
The Harlem Globetrotters were formed in Chicago in 1926, when promoter Abe Saperstein organized a basketball team called the "Savoy Big Five," named after Chicago's famous Savoy Ballroom. In 1927, the team changed its name to the New York Globetrotters, giving crowds the impression that they were from the Big Apple.
In 1930, the team became the Harlem Globetrotters.
"When you thought of Harlem back then, you thought of great music and great poetry," Rodriguez said. "They wanted to give the same impression with their team."
The Globetrotters initially were a serious, competitive team that would only joke around after establishing a safe lead in a game. Among the team's victories were two wins in 1948 and 1949 over the then world champion Minneapolis Lakers (now the Los Angeles Lakers), led by NBA Hall of Famer George Mikan. The Globetrotters' 61-59 win over the Lakers in 1948 is considered a landmark in basketball history, as the all-black Globetrotters showed they were on equal ground with the all-white Lakers.
The Globetrotters gradually worked more comedy into their games until they became what they are today, the clown princes of basketball.
The team has been featured in movies and on television, has won over 23,000 games throughout the eight decades of its existence and has produced players such as Fred "Curly" Neal, Meadowlark Lemon and Marques Haynes. Basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain even played for them in 1958, after his college career at the University of Kansas.
Rodriguez - who, unlike the Globetrotters, is originally from Harlem, growing up in nearby Washington Heights in New York City - started playing basketball when he was 12 years old, finding the blacktop of the court after spending his earlier childhood on the grass of the baseball diamond. He said he was always competitive with his older brother, Elvis, trying to outdo him in every sport he played, which eventually included basketball.
At the age of 19, Rodriguez gave up hoops for a new love, martial arts. For the next four years, he devoted himself to the practice of his craft before the basketball court once again called to him.
"When I got back into it, it was hard," he said, "but I worked really hard at it."
Rodriguez, a small guard at 5-foot-8, developed his ball-handling skills on the storied New York City courts, becoming a streetball wizard, performing incredible tricks with a basketball - something for which the Globetrotters are famous. (There are several videos on YouTube of Rodriguez displaying his ball-handling prowess.)
Despite his skill, Rodriguez never played college basketball.
"I was doing (basketball tricks at) birthday parties, bar mitzvahs," he said. "I was that local guy playing pickup games, playing a lot of street ball."
But one day, "that local guy" got the chance of a lifetime.
"I got a friend named 'Black Jack' Ryan (another streetball player), and he said the Globetrotters were looking for talent," he said. "I sent them a video of me doing tricks with the ball and playing in games. They were impressed, so I went for a tryout.
"It was an interesting tryout. It was a two-day tryout, and there were only 10 guys there. Out of those 10, I was one of only four that made the team."
With the recollection, Rodriguez flashed his constant smile once again.
Just another of a billion smiles the Harlem Globetrotters have caused through the years.
Mirror staff writer Cory Dobrowolsky can be reached at 946-7428