Thomas Lorenzo Spencer
Way Ahead of His Time
By MARK BERMAN / THE ROANOKE TIMES
ROANOKE, VA. (March 23, 2002) – The Harlem Globetrotters will play at the Roanoke Civic Center tonight, but Thomas Spencer won’t be there to watch his old team. ·
Spencer, who was a member of the Globetrotters for three years, lived in Roanoke from 1980 until his death on March 5. Spencer had the nickname "Tarzan" when he played for the basketball team from 1956-58. He was a 6-foot-7, 245-pound force in the paint.
Tom "Tarzan" Spencer, right, with Abe Saperstein, founder of the Harlem Globetrotters
"He was so huge," Globetrotter coach Tex Harrison, a teammate of Spencer, said in a phone interview this week from an Augusta, Ga. hotel. "In that day, he was considered an extraordinary big man. He was so much bigger and stronger than anybody on the floor."
"He was like Charles Atlas – a physique beyond physique," said former teammate John Kline, a Detroit resident. "He was a very strong person."
NBA scouting director Marty Blake, who was the general manger of the NBA's St. Louis Hawks in the 1950s, said Spencer was a terrific player. But the NBA had only eight teams then, so opportunities were limited.
"Today he'd be a star," Blake said. "He was a heck of a player. He was just born too soon. There weren't enough [NBA] teams in those days. He was a center and a power forward. Not a great shooter, but he could rebound and block shots."
There weren't as many black players in the NBA then as there are today. Bill Russell was the only black member of the Boston Celtics team that won the 1957 NBA championship. He had three black teammates when the Celtics won the 1959 crown. St. Louis won the 1958 title with an all-white team.
''Playing with the Globetrotters was such an enjoyable experience; we never really talked about the NBA,” said Kline, a seven-year Globetrotter. "For example, the year I played with Tarzan, we traveled all over the Far East, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippine Islands. It was very exciting. A lot of good basketball … and you're seeing the world."
Spencer, a Washington, D.C., native, died of a heart attack at the age of 70. Funeral services were held in Roanoke last week, and he was buried in Suitland, Md. Among his survivors were three Troutville residents – daughter-in-law Reva Spencer, the widow of the late Rev. Steven Spencer, and grandchildren Brian and Stephanie Spencer.
Wilt Chamberlain played for the Globetrotters in 1958 before beginning his legendary NBA career. Brian Spencer said his grandfather played with Chamberlain on the Globetrotters team that toured Europe that summer.
"They were in Italy and a trolley stopped in the middle of the road because they had never seen huge, 7-foot black guys walking down the street," Brian Spencer said.
Thomas Spencer, who wore a size-14 shoe, played college basketball in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association at Maryland State, which is now NCAA Division I member Maryland-Eastern Shore. He joined the Globetrotters at the age of 24. Then, like now, the Globetrotters had several teams because of their many appearances.
Spencer concentrated on playing basketball, and left the crowd-pleasing comedy to his Globetrotters teammates.
"He would react to some of the antics, but was not necessarily an intricate part of them," Harrison said. "He was one that made it possible for those who wanted to fool around to have time to fool around.”
"He was a very physical player. He had exceptionally good hands and was well-coordinated and agile, so he was able to maneuver around that basket quite well, so that made him a formidable force in the paint."
Brian Spencer said his grandfather left the Globetrotters to stay home with his family. Spencer worked for the U.S. Postal Service before moving to Roanoke, where he owned a custodial business before his retirement.
Spencer kept his No.35 Globetrotters jersey and his old warm-up jacket at his Roanoke home. Brian Spencer said his grandfather used to take the family to Globetrotters games at the Roanoke Civic Center. They would go into the locker room, and Brian would get the players' autographs.
"That was really cool. That's such a good memory," Brian Spencer said.
This news obituary is reproduced in its entirety with permission of The Roanoke Times. Photo courtesy of the Harlem Globetrotters.