When the Harlem Globetrotters entered Harvard University’s Malkin Athletic Center on Monday afternoon, one of them smiled at the children packed into the courtside bleacher and shouted “How’s everybody feeling?”

Everybody was feeling just fine. How else would a room full of students from the Martin Luther King. Jr. Elementary School feel at the sight of the Harlem Globetrotters?

The kids couldn’t wait to see the Globetrotters perform their sleight of hand, and foot, and head with the basketball. But first, there were more serious matters to consider. One of the players spoke to the children about character, and then another led them in a chant: “Healthy mind, healthy body,” he shouted, encouraging them to shout back.

For the past seven years, various and numerous manifestations of the Globetrotters have had a mission beyond showmanship. They have brought the children a program the Globies call “CHEER.” The letters in that word stand for “character,” “healthy mind and body,” “effort,” “enthusiasm,” and “responsibility.”

On Monday, the Globies picked four children and one teacher to step down out of the bleacher and define those words, after which everybody clapped, and the four lucky children and one parent formed an amateur version of the Globetrotters’ famous “magic circle.” To the familiar strains of the Globetrotters’ theme song, “Sweet Georgia Brown,” the kids struggled to pass the basketball around their backs or balance it on their heads.

When the Globies performed their own “magic circle,” the show was as impressive as it has been for the past 85 years, and the kids enjoyed it, much as their parents and grandparents had enjoyed it when Meadowlark Lemon and Goose Tatum were still clowning, though I can’t remember either of them doing backwards handsprings.

A seven-year-old first grader named Destini told me she’d especially enjoyed those flips. Her mom, Lidia Wharton, was probably impressed by the acrobatics, too, but what she spoke to me about was the CHEERS program.

“It was an educational thing for the kids,” she said. “I hope what they learned will help them to be more into going to school, to get that education, and to look forward to it.”

Bill Littlefield interviews Annelise Aminoff. (Photo by Jesse Costa.)

Annelise Aminoff was another of the youngsters with a parent in tow on Monday. She’s also a first grader, and she provided evidence that for a seven year old, even the oldest basketball trick in the book can seem new:

“Yeah,” she told me, “I liked it when they spun the basketballs. I really want to learn to spin a basketball on my finger.”

At this, Annelise’s dad shrugged. “Not my skill set,” he said, “but I’ll try to help her learn that.”

“Responsibility, thy name is helping your daughter learn to spin a basketball on her finger,” I thought. Or something like that.

As the kids gathered around the Globetrotters to get autographs at the end of the program, Anthony Blakes, aka “Buckets,” explained why he and his teammates focused on “character,” the first concern of the CHEER program:

“You know, you can be the most talented, the most popular, the smartest kid in the class, but without character, none of that matters,” he said. “So that’s what it’s all about: trying to make sure that these kids know character can take them a long way in life.”

“Buckets” has been a Globetrotter for nine years, during the last seven of which he has been an ambassador for CHEER. He has no doubt that the program is working:

“When you look at these kids, you can see them engaged in what we’re saying, and it’s something simple for them to remember, as well,” he said. “Not only that, they get to have a little fun at the same time. So it’s not just us coming in with a speech about character. We also involve the kids by letting them do a little ball handling, as well as pulling out a teacher. Sometimes the kids need to see the teacher having a little fun.”

“Right,” I said. “And sometimes they get to see the teachers trying to dance, which puts the teachers in exactly the spot where the kids would like to see them.”

Buckets smiled. “Exactly,” he said. “They have to know that their teachers are human beings, and they’re vulnerable, too, and they’re not spooky. You can go talk to them any time you want to. So we pull the teacher out and get him to dance and do some tricks with the basketball, and that’s what it’s all about. We’re all human beings here. We just want to be the best human beings we can be, each and every day.”

The Globetrotters proudly consider themselves role models. But anybody familiar with the history of this team, which travels with a personal patsy squad, the Washington Generals, knows the Trotters are never defeated. So I asked “Buckets” Blakes how he and his teammates could teach children what it means to lose with grace:

“You know what?” he said. “We don’t know how to lose. I’ve never lost a game since I’ve been on the Harlem Globetrotters.”

Photo: Jesse Costa

“This astonishes me,” I said.

“You know, this is my ninth season, and I lost in college, I lost on other professional teams, but going nine years without a loss! I mean, I don’t even know…what does it look like? What does it feel like? Does it smell?”

One of the other Globetrotters, Nate “Big Easy” Lofton, overheard that last business. When he’d completed the autograph he was in the process of signing, he offered some of his thoughts about the unimaginable: losing:

“The Globetrotters are winners,” he said. “The last time we lost was in 1971. But I was born in 1981, so I had nothing to do with that.”

So the CHEER program does not talk about accepting defeat with equanimity, but Buckets and Big Easy and the rest of the ‘Trotters at Harvard on Monday made a good case for the rest of the components of CHEER, and they made lots of young friends, as well.

“We sign autographs for 30 minutes after every game,” Buckets told me. “And then these kids will walk up to you after the game asking for autographs, and they’re like ‘Hey, you came to my school last year, and you talked about CHEER.’ And that gives you the chills. You actually got through, and our whole point is, if we’ve only touched five or six children out of these one hundred fifty, two hundred kids, we’ve done our job for the day, because those five kids will be our messengers for the time when we’re not around.”

Members of the Harlem Globetrotters will next be delighting and inspiring children of all ages in Asheville, North Carolina; Macon, Georgia; Bangor, Maine; Montreal, and Minneapolis.