Ernest Wagner remembers it all like it was yesterday. A kid on the mean streets of inner-city Detroit, he was the chosen one. However, “I couldn’t stay off the streets,” he admits. He attended Northeastern High School. He described it as “mostly Italian. I had never been around white people that much.”
Early on, he played baseball and some football. Then he found basketball. It was the late ’40s, early ’50s. He could play his butt off. He made All-City and All-State in basketball and got offers from a number of colleges, including the University of Michigan and all-Black West Virginia State. However, disappointment came early in his life as a senior in high school.
“They had this All-City banquet,” said Wagner. “I was supposed to get a Gold Basketball and a certificate. They refused to give it to me. They gave everything to the white kids. I got nothing. I was really hurt.”
Now some 75-plus years, he still recalls every detail of that snub in his young life. “My childhood friend Johnny Klein (a former Globetrotter) was a year or two ahead of me,” said Wagner. “He talked me into going to Wayne State. I became ineligible.”
Wagner again hit the streets as if he had never left. “I was running with a fast crowd, not doing anything positive.
“Klein told me about the Globetrotters holding tryouts. There were more than 100 guys trying out. They kept 10 that day. I was one of the 10. That was in 1953. I made the team after they cut down. I was a Harlem Globetrotter and happy to get out of Detroit.
“They sent me out to play with the West team, which was coached by Bob Hall. He also played and was a great coach,” said an admiring Wagner. No player in Globetrotter history played more years and more games than Bob “Showboat” Hall, some 27 years.
In contrast, Abe Saperstein was a cagy and cheap owner, according to the vast majority of the Trotters.
“We played two and three times a day-the day games for Blacks and the night games for the whites,” said Wagner.
Concerned about his marriage, Wagner sent for his first wife when he was in Seattle. “She got on a bus and came to see me. It took her two and a half days getting to Seattle.”
Wagner recalled those days traveling in the South. “One time, we stopped at a filling station (gas station). Guy came out and told us we had to go around to the back.”
Eventually, Wagner made the international team and traveled all over the world. “We went to Europe in 1955, it was exciting. We had clothes made in China, Japan and other countries, then we came home and played those NBA doubleheaders. We saved the NBA because the people wanted to see more than the NBA teams. We beat up on a number of NBA teams.”
In 1965, he left the Trotters and came home. “I was trying to save my second marriage.” He came back to an America where he couldn’t even get a job. “I got caught up in the fast life and it was about the money. It was always about the money,” he said.
He decided to come back to New York-a bad decision. He began hanging with the fast crowd in Harlem, which almost cost him his life.
On the advice of former Trotters living in New York, he went back to Detroit and got a call from the Trotters. They needed help. He went back on the road
“But I was done. I wasn’t in any condition to play ball,” he said.
After a 13-year career playing around the world, his Globetrotter career came to a screeching halt after playing with Wilt Chamberlain. Wags then began another career-as a locker room attendant in Detroit’s school system.