On New Year's at 12:15 p.m., the Harlem Globetrotter bus ran into a ditch outside Chicago in the midst of an all-might blizzard.

For hours the bus tilted at an angle in the drifting snow as the basketball comedians sat inside -- joking weakly, drinking champagne -- but mostly waiting to see if they would turn over and roll down an embankment.

That was the perfect symbolic way for the Trotters to start their 53rd year. As 1979 began, the Globies had never been so close to blowing themselves to smithereens from internal dissension and open hatred. Never had they been so concerned that they might flunk out of business.

The earth's best-known athletic team, which opens a weekend run tonight at Capital Centre, has been a globe-hopping time bomb of strife for years. But only the insiders knew it.

The Trotters resembled a nuclear family only in the sense that they seemed on the verge of a megaton explosion.

Last fall the Trotters fired their Clown Prince of Basketball -- Meadowlark Lemon -- after 24 years, buying up four years of his $225,000-per-annum contract just, they say, to get rid of him.

"For the last couple of years the Trotters were in big trouble," said the current coach, Nate Branch, an 11-year vet. "Our shows weren't good. Most of the guys, myself included, hated being Globetrotters. Promoters were running away from us. The word was out: We were turning into box-office poison."

Firing Lemon was the most desperate remedy imaginable. "He had become 95 percent of the show," said 16-year Trotter veteran Curly Neal. "Lemon was coach and he would not allow anyone to do anything to rival him."

"We had no idea what would happen to the Trotters," said 10-year-man Dallas Thornton."We all believed that it was possible the team would collapse."

The Globetrotters' bus did not turn over. And neigher have they. In just two months a rapid succession of events has taken the ancient vaudevillians from near despair to the greatest level of success that they believe they have ever had.

"For the first time in 16 years, I'm proud to be a Globetrotter," said Neal. "The last few years prove that it's impossible to kill the Trotters."

"We can't fit another fanny in another seat for the rest of the year," said Coach Branch in mild exaggeration. "Some teams sell out games.We've sold out the entire season worldwide.

"For 15 years the Trotters have been at a standstill. I hate to think how good we could be now. But we've begun to crawl again and soon we'll walk."

"Since Geese Ausbie (18-year veteran) replaced Lemon, we've developed a gentler humor... a better kind of funny... more open," said Thornton. "We've got new reams (gags) and gimmicks, more ad libs, more business with the crowds. It's less wise-guy jokes, less high-pitched.

"For the first time, we all feel like Globetrotters. We feel like we've been set free both as basketball players and entertainers."

Now, once more, Globetrotters stand tall. As Neal, Ausbie, Branch and Thornton -- the team old-timers with 55 years of service among them -- stroll through the door of Maude's in Manhattan, no one at the dining tables can doubt who they are.

Neal, dribbler extraordinaire, takes off his fur coat, doffs his astrakhan Cossack hat, and -- voila -- the bald dome. Branch, Thornton and Ausbie, all 6 1/2 feet tall, enter in a regalia of necklaces, rings and smiles. Thornton wears a head-to-toe orange jump suit.

This is the way it used to be -- from the late '30s to the early '60s when the Trotters were either the best basketball team in the world, the best loved, or both.

The Trotters feel at least some of that pride again. The Teng Show last month in Washington helped. When the Chinese vice premier asked for an audience with the Trotters, mamy were surprised, perhaps even scandalized, that he did not request one of America's "real" teams.

The Trotters weren't. "Our own country doesn't know what we are," said Thornton. "I honestly believe there isn't a country in the world where I can't walk into a restaurant alone and order dinner correctly. "We are the only true athletic citizens of the world. No team is close to us in recognition everywhere."

At their most buoyant, the Trotters can transport themselves. On this particular day last weekend, they had just raised the roof in Madison Square Garden befor a sellout of 19,600.

Neal had started the day by sinking a set shot from beyond midcourt. Branch had drop-kicked in a shot from the same spot. Ausbie had closed the show with a final-second hook shot that swished from the scorer's table.

A rectitation of their comedy reams would be redundant. When an act has played before 90 million people in 53 years and draws audiences of 3 million in-house and 1 billion on TV per year in the '70s, it is safe to say that the team truly is "universally known."

For instance, when the Trotters come to Capital Centre this weekend, they will play three games (tonight, Saturday and Saturday night) in 36 hours because of tiket demand. As of Thurday night tikets were still available for all three games.

This return of adulation has the Trotters acting like the perpetual children that they pretend to be. "We see kids swamping the floor after the show begging for autographs," beamed Branch. "Man, it's been a while since we've seen that."

"There is no better food in the world than having people tell you, Thinks. You made me happy,'" said Neal.

The enduring mass success of the Trotters is one of the sports-and-entertainment field's lasting mysteries.

As one crotchety Garden usher grumbled: "I don't unnerstan' why inna hell these dumb people keep comin' back to see 'em year after year."

The Trotter routines are as hoary as the pick and roll, just as dependable, just as impossible to defend the funny bone against, and just as totally dependent on execution.

When the Trotters' routine is done with snap, enthusiasm, genuine smiles and a trace of ad-libbing confidence, it is a knockout to those who love the Globies, and an upsetting comeuppance to those determined to sneer at such low brow humor.

Their idea of humor can be summed up in pulling down a referee's pants, dousing fans with water-confetti, or enptying a shocked middle-aged lady's purse at midcourt.

Nevertheless, like all comedt theirs has an inner core of tantalizing mystery. Their success is all-dependent on timing, atmosphere and infectious high spirits -- not their ancient and predictable material.

They are funny, not the material -- that's the key.

The Trotters are almost the last in a long tradition of slapstick farce in American comedy. The only replacements for Buster Keaton, Abbott and Costello, the Keystone Kops and the Three Stooges are the Saturday morning kiddie cartoon shows. And one of those cartoon shows is the Harlem Globetroters.

In person, however, the Trotters create a vaster and more significant illusion.

Their act says that the world can be light-hearted, everything a potential joke. The most serious American brand of competition -- "straight ball," as the Trotters call it: a perfect metaphor for the rat race of everyday life -- can be undercut instantly, brought to a halt by a basketball with a rubber band attached to it.

The Globies' secret, their deepest attraction, is not blacks beating whites or even "basketball magic." They hold fast, unconsciously, to a simpler, older and more compelling idea.

They are the quintessential system beaters, the gloriously unregenerate children who have their cake and eat it, too. They break all rules, follow all artistic whims, smell every flower by every road side, even tred on the edge of social bad taste with their "goosing" and pants-dropping gags. Yet, they win every game overwhelmingly. They win affection and give it back.

The Trotters are those renegades, those hippies, those Francois Villon highwaymen who sneak up on success and kick it in the rear when it bends over like a fat referee.

Yet they, in the end, leave the court with the appearance of having everything: athletic success, comedic praise, universal appreciation, even the philosophical weight of being racial groumd-breakers.

And, needless to say, they receive the measureable rewards of the conventional world whose nose they have tweaked -- fame and riches.

This is the Trotters' collective oncourt mask, their act, their basic ream.

Should it be a surprise then to find that, in backsage life, the Trotters are almost none of thest things?

No more perhaps than one should be surprised that gurus, poets and charismatic politicians -- all the men of masks -- have private lives no less shambled than our own. Walter Whitman, government worker, set that standard a century ago when he admitted that the wise poet Walt Whitman was "a character I created."

Far from being athletic successes, most Trotters have had to face the specter that they are basketball failures.

In their home-town parks, as Thornton says, "the dudes say, 'You a Trotter, man? Then you can't play ball. You've sold your soul and lost your games.'"

"Lost your game" -- i.e. threw it away, betrayed it. There is no more damning charge in the places where many Trotters find their roots and rooters.

The Trotters tell no tales with greater pleasure than those parables of their asphalt vindication.

"It's so easy to trick those home boys," said Thornton. "They expect fancy stuff every second, so you kill them with fundamentals. I've never thrown a head fake in (hometown) Louisville where the man on me didn't jump. They just overpsyched for you... gonna eat up a phony Trotter."

Far from being comedy masterminds, the Trotters have often had to fight the feeling that they had not yet left the same "stooge" as their perpetual oppenents -- the Washington Generals.

"In the past sometimes you had so little to do that you'd say 'What the hell am I doing out here,'" said Thornton.

"Off court, everything we said was programmed.We've gone on the Mike Douglas Whow and not been trusted to say our own names. Lemon would say your name for you."

Although it is true that the Trotters are universally known, it is equally true that as individuals they are little-known. In fact, few know that there are two Trotter sauads -- the more famous National team and an International unit. Actually, players change teams and all go overseas.

"I go home and people say, 'You're a Trotter, eh? Then where's Lemon? Where's Goose Tatum? Where's Marquis Haynes'?" Thornton said with a laugh. I tell 'em 'Man, I'm home now. Do you see me trottin' anywhere? Ain't no lemon with me'."

Making the distance between showbiz illusion and private rality hardest to swallow, however, is the question of racial role.

Beloved as the Trotters are, they persistently hear the charge -- muttered usually, occasionally printed -- that their whole act is pure shucking and jiving, Uncle Tomism, just another version of Amos 'n' Andy.

If the Trotters are not reinforcing invidious black stereotypes -- poor speech, bad grammar, shambling walk -- then why are crowds in New York and Washington more than 90 percent white?

Anyone wishing to see a Trotter stand up to full height and remove his genial mask should ask, "Are you guys Toms?"

"I've heard that said, and I don't think we are," said Ausbie. "I do think you'll find people who are jealous of you success.

"But I've never known anyone to really hate the Trotters. I remember once down South I got a white lady to dance with at midcourt. One of the guys said, 'Aw, Geese, don't ever do that again.'

"At halftime this state trooper came in the locker room. Everybody started pointing at me, saying, 'There he is.'

"Well, the cop came over to me and said, 'Mister No. 35, I want you to get my wife and dance with her this half.'"

By and large, the Trotters have the simplest answers for the 'Tom' charge, which infuriates them: "We beat the white team, not the other way 'round; the Trotters were civil rights groundbreakers, not followers; our business is laughter -- judge us by that standard."

Certainly, the founding Trotter teams which faced and surmounted prejudice are forever exempt from answering such nagging questions. But have the modern Trotters made their humor grow with the times -- not just in topical gags but in fundamental viewpoint?

"For 15 years the Trotters were used against each other to keep each other in line. You were paid just enough that you couldn't settle down and make a home," said Coach Branch, as Neal and Thornton nodded their assent.

"With the Trotters, at least you had a chance to hold a basketball job," said Thornton. "Otherwise, you go back home, play in the 'y' once a week, get fat, break your ankle playing against chumps and you're washed up at 25.

"So much dirt has been done in the dark over the years," said Branch. "Meadowlark was a pure product of those old back-stabbing days. He came up in 1954 right out of high school."

"Lemon didn't deteriorate as a showman, but as a player," said Thornton. "And that changed him as a person.

"If anybody made too many good plays, Lemon would bench him for several days as punishment."

Of all the bad-blkood divorces in sports or entertainment, few can match the eye-gouging separation between Lemon and the Trotters.

"It's a fact that the other guys on the team played in my shadow for a lot of years," said Lemon from his ranch in Sierra Vista, Ariz. "There is envy and jealousy on any team.

"I loved my years with the Trotters, but I had done all I could do with them. I wanted to further myself in other areas. That's what caused the conflict... I was just doing too much (280 or more games a year) for too little.

"I want to be an actor and a singer, too. That's something I couldn't do with that 12-month Globetrotters schedule.

"As for the veteran players on the team, I spent time teaching Curly to dribble when there was no one else to give him the time. I saved Branch's job three different times. I went to the front office to keep Thornton on the team when he was a scared rookie. Geese played in my shadow for years and learned all my tricks."

As usual when mud flies, lawyers will be happy. "We expect a great deal of litigation in the next year," says Lemon's manager, Randy Phillips. "Meadowlark is forming a touring team right now for this summer. The Trotters are certain to try to stop hime."

Lemon's replacement, Ausibe, is what the Generals' Sam Sawyer calls "one royal dude."

"In the history of sports, there have been many 'Gooses' but there is only one 'Geese'," Ausbie said laughing.

In the Ausbie era, the Trotters foresee more of everything for everybody -- especially money.

"The average Globetrotter salary is $35,000 to $40,000," said Neal.

"We know somebody's making a lot of money," said Branch, "but it's not the 10 guys on the road who make the wheel turn."

"We want a different future from the Trotters of the past. We all see Sweetwater Clifton driving a taxi in Chicago... If we can't get it ( $ ) now, the way we're packing 'em in, then you're telling me it ain't there to get. And I know that's not true," added Branch.

"In the near future, everybody on this team is going to be satisfied, or we'll see the end of the Trotters. I give management credit for trying to understand that. We would just like a more sane life."

It is 15 minutes before showtime in Madison Square and those certain people are backstage in a drafty tunnel full of trucks and trash cans. Outside, 12,000 people have traveled through the height of a 15-inch snow storm to watch them.

("I had to be here," said fan Mike Goldfarb, NBA season-ticket holder. "This is my only chance to see a team funnier than the Knicks.")

Here, in a crowded tunnel, it is finally clear what the Golbetrotters are.

The girl in pink tights who does the warmup trampoline act, is standing on her head in the dressing room hallway. The world's greatest One-Man Balancing Act is practicing his new halftime ream -- balancing upside down on a platform on one hand while dribbling a tennis ball with the other hand.

"Honey," he says calmly to his wife, "get me a cigarette."

In the midst of this, rookie "General Lee" Holman practices the famous Magic Circle trick passes, bouncing them off a concrete pillar. Young "Fast Eddie" Fields, already named Mr. Ream, is fancy dribbling, dreaming of replacing Neal one day. He hs white tape on every joint of every finger and red-white-and-blue wrist bands from his wrists to his elbows and one around his neck.He just might be one of the certain people.

Red Klotz, eternal coach of the opponent team, mutters to no one imparticular, "I really think we've got a shot at them tonight. They're tired. We look good."

Klotz's coaching record: one win and 5,000-and-some loosses. But on Jan. 5, 1971, a Klotz set shot beat the Trotters, 100-99. The crowd booed.

The newest General, Glenn Kolonics, Washington-area high scorer for Catholic University two seasons ago, worries about staying on the tour.

"I haven't figured out yet how good the Trotters are," he said. "We give 'em the weave, give the veterans a layup whenever they want it. But the rest of the time -- I'd never have believed this -- those guys are really going after each other."

The Trotters' two referees -- 500 pounds between them, "The heavyweights of officiating" -- play a familiar game: "Try to remeber where we were the same day last week."

What we have here, of course, is not sport, comedy or even goodwill ambassadorship. It is the circus.

The life and the rewards are the same; so are the mixture of brutally gained skill disguised under nonchalance linked arm and arm with a shabby but necessary hucksterism.

The Trotters are the trapeze daredevil, the strongman, the juggler, the magician and the clown all wrapped in one.

Circus spectators are fascinated by those acrobatic poets of the body who master the world's beautiful and useless skills. These watchers are always ready to throw their cheers, their coins of joy, at the feet of the performers who can bring' off their bold lofty feats.

The Globetrotters, vagrant harlequins of earth who combine high-wire breathlessness with the sawdust of the clown's ring, travel the world in pursuit of those elusive coins of joy cast in tribute before them.

What makes are Trotters loved and lasting is that they give back more of that coin than they receive.