Until Lynette Woodard came along this year, the only female permitted to play with the Harlem Globetrotters was a nine-foot-tall, four-ton pachyderm named Bertha the Elephant who wore bucket-sized scarlet sneakers. History has it that Bertha could dunk with her trunk.

All things, even the Globetrotters, change. Ever since the team held tryouts for women this year and put Woodard, an Olympic gold medalist, on the roster, the country has been intrigued with the team as it has not been in years. With placards waving in the crowd and butterflies dancing madly in her stomach, she made her debut in the unlikely hoop town of Brisbane, Australia -- where the official city sport is said to be the rapid hoisting of Fosters lagers. On that night she proved herself a wizard among wizards.

"That first night in Australia, I was pretty nervous," she said the other day as she prepared for games at the Patriot Center tonight and tomorrow night and at the Capital Centre Sunday afternoon. "But the guys talked me through it pretty well. It all went just fine."

As anyone who has followed the team knows, the Globetrotters are a goony version of the game of basketball. They are to the Celtics what Spike Jones is to the Vienna Philharmonic. But sometimes Spike Jones is worth a listen and the Globetrotters worth a laugh.

Moving from the highbrow genre to the purely satiric was no problem for the newest Trotter. "Luckily I learned a lot of tricks when I was growing up in Wichita," said Woodard, who is 26. "I'd watch the boys spin the ball on their fingers or roll it along their shoulders. I'd wait for them to go home, and when I was all by myself I'd perfect the tricks. So the transition hasn't been too rough. The toughest thing I had to do was learn how to give every night."

The Globetrotters have been in the one-night-per-city barnstorming business since 1927, when Abe Saperstein hired five players and started zigzagging across the country in a Model T. Over the years the team has featured players blessed with comic genius: Curly Neal, Goose Tatum, Marques Haynes, Meadowlark Lemon. They have played for kings and popes and pie-eyed children. But the act grew weary.

Competition is no factor -- the Globetrotters have not lost to their perennial opposition, the Generals, since 1971. It was the same old "reams," the term the Trotters use for their routines. Buckets of confetti. Pulling down the other guys' trunks. The weave. Hah hah hah. After a while you knew them all. Only Henny Youngman can get away with that.

With gate receipts lagging badly for the last decade, the team desperately needed a novelty. After all, even the Globetrotters could not outdazzle the likes of Julius Erving, Spud Webb and the other professional prestidigitators of the National Basketball Association. Team president Earl Duryea tried to rejuvenate the team by phasing out Neal and Geese Ausbie -- who have since sued the team about their exits -- and by putting a microphone on the team's lead clown, Sweet Lou Dunbar.

Then came Woodard.

Playing on the women's team at the University of Kansas, she broke university scoring records set by Wilt Chamberlain and Jo Jo White. She played for the 1984 gold medal Olympic team. What's more, said Woodard, "my dream has always been to play with the Harlem Globetrotters." Her cousin is the legendary Ausbie. "He inspired me," Woodard said. "He made me want it. I mean, here's something I dreamed about doing all my life and BOOM!, it happens. Can you believe that?"

The Globetrotters conducted a tryout camp for women players last summer in Charlotte, N.C., a three-day session that included the McGee sisters Pam and Paula from USC and a score of other all-Americans. Woodard is six feet tall and has the overall muscle tone of a tennis ball. She lofts her jumper with the sort of gentle, even backspin that reminds one of Bullets scoring star Jeff Malone.

No, the problem wasn't going to be basketball. Woodard had been playing with boys since her backyard days in Wichita and she already had a year of pro ball in Italy on her resume. The problem was acceptance.

"I was crushed, absolutely crushed when I heard about it," former Trotter Larry (Gator) Rivers told Sports Illustrated. "We strive to be recognized as a legitimate team, yet there are those who say we're only a bunch of clowns. This seemed like just another gimmick."

But acceptance came soon. As soon as the Globetrotters saw how fearless she was, how she passed up open jump shots to drive the lane against all the opposing wide-bodies, they took her in. "Almost immediately the guys treated me like one of the family," Woodard said. "I'd get little notes and things encouraging me."

The obvious etiquette problems are no problem at all. The Globetrotters do not have roommates on the road, and Woodard either dresses in a separate room or knocks on the door to see if the main locker room is free.

Trotter Clyde Austin said the men on the team treat Woodard as a teammate but not "exactly as one of the guys."

"I have to treat her like a lady," he said. "I can't help it." The commercial impact has been obvious. "You should see the crowds now that Lynette is with us," said James (Twiggy) Sanders. "We may not have been ready for it -- it was something to get used to -- but the people sure were."

Recently the Minneapolis-based International Broadcasting Co. announced an agreement in principle to pay about $30 million to purchase from Warner Communications a package including the Globetrotters, the Ice Capades and a chain of skating rinks called Ice Capade Chalets. But that sale is unlikely to change Woodard's peripatetic life a whit. She said she is likely to spend "at least the next few years" taking advantage of a rare opportunity -- the chance for a woman to earn her living playing basketball in the United States.

Two women's professional leagues have already failed. Ann Meyers got a tryout several years ago with the NBA's Indianapolis Pacers and Nancy Lieberman has played in summer leagues.

"But so far it's just the Globetrotters," Woodard said. "I'm living a dream."