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Larry ‘Gator’ Rivers, Globetrotter who dribbled into history, dies at 73

He played on the first high school basketball team to win an integrated state championship in Georgia. He later starred for the Harlem Globetrotters.

Larry “Gator" Rivers, a former Harlem Globetrotter, shows off his ball-handling skills in 2021. (Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News/AP)
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Larry “Gator” Rivers, a member of the first Georgia high school basketball team to win an integrated state championship and who later wowed fans of the Harlem Globetrotters with his wizardly dribbling skills, died April 29 at a hospital in Savannah, Ga. He was 73.

His death was announced by the Chatham County Board of Commissioners, which did not provide a specific cause. He was elected to the commission in 2021.

Mr. Rivers was a sophomore on the Alfred Ely Beach High School basketball team in 1967, the first year that all-Black squads could compete with White ones for the state championship. The Savannah school beat South Fulton, another all-Black team, to win the title.

Beach High was one of three all-Black teams in the Deep South to win integrated state championships that year, a feat that Sports Illustrated chronicled under the headline “Black Supremacy.”

“Throughout the South, there is suddenly a new group of high school athletes, a second party, if you will — the Negroes,” the magazine said.

After winning the championship, Mr. Rivers and his teammates returned from Atlanta on a steam train at 3 a.m. to a mob of fans.

“When they came home, they were superheroes,” Savannah resident Lawrence Bryan recalled decades later. “It was a fantastic time for Black folks in Savannah. They were so proud of this moment.”

Mr. Rivers played basketball at Missouri Western State University, but standing at 6 feet, he was not sought after by the NBA. After he graduated in 1973, he was offered a tryout by the Globetrotters, a barnstorming exhibition team that hams it up in “games” against the Washington Generals.

“They took me into a dark closet for my tryout to see how I could handle the ball with obstacles in my way,” Mr. Rivers told the Savannah Reporter and Andrew County Democrat. “I made the team that night as a dribbler that does fancy tricks to go along with their comedy routines.”

The team’s stars were floored by his dribbling.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Meadowlark Lemon told the St. Joseph Gazette. Fred “Curly” Neal told the paper, “He’s a natural.”

Mr. Rivers played for the Globetrotters for 16 years, eventually serving as a player-coach. He was instrumental in adding women to the team — an idea he originally opposed.

“I was crushed, absolutely crushed when I heard about the idea,” Mr. Rivers told Sports Illustrated in 1986. “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 during tryouts, Mr. Rivers saw female players “who are going to give our guys fits,” he told the New York Times. One of the players who made the team was Lynette Woodard, who starred at the University of Kansas and later won a gold medal with the U.S. women’s basketball team in the 1984 Olympics.

Larry Darnell Rivers was born in Savannah on May 6, 1949. His nickname Gator derives from the swimming pool game of the same name. The “gator” treads water in the deep end while the other swimmers try to swim past without being tagged. Those who are tagged become “gators.”

As a poor swimmer, Mr. Rivers was “gator” 90 percent of the time, he once recalled.

He was better at basketball. He was a big fan of Marques Haynes, a star dribbler for the Globetrotters.

“When I was seven years old and saw Marques Haynes, I knew that was what I was going to do,” Mr. Rivers later told the New York Daily News. “I took my ball with me everywhere, dribbled it every place.”

At age 14, after Mr. Rivers quit high school to manage a pool hall, Beach High coach Russell Ellington convinced him to re-enroll and play on the basketball team. He also lived with the coach.

After winning all-state honors, he played college basketball in Missouri, first at the school now known as Moberly Area Community College and then at Missouri Western.

Following his retirement from the Globetrotters, Mr. Rivers returned to Missouri, where he coached high school teams. He later moved back to Savannah, volunteering at schools and starting Gatorball Academy to teach the game.

“The Lord blessed me in a special way, and with his blessing I can touch other people and make them smile, bring a little joy into their life if they’re a little sad,” he once said.

A list of survivors was not available.

At the basketball clinics he ran, Mr. Rivers would dribble a basketball and invite every child onto the court to steal the ball.

Asked once whether any child ever succeeded, he replied, “Never.”