Legendary NBA player agent and daughter of Harlem Globetrotters’ founder Abe Saperstein dead at 81

by Peter von Buol

Eloise Saperstein Berkley, who was one of the first women to pursue a career in the front office of a professional sports team, died July 15 in Chicago at age 81.

Saperstein Berkley, daughter of Abe Saperstein, who had founded the Harlem Globetrotters in 1927, assumed the leadership of the pro basketball team after the death of her father in 1966.
The elder Saperstein had grown up on Chicago’s North Side. When the Globetrotters debuted on Jan. 7, 1927, the Saperstein family lived at 3828 N. Hermitage Ave. He was an alumnus of Lake View High School, where he played nine different sports. A marker still stands outside the house today noting the legacy of the family that lived there.

His family had moved to Chicago from London in 1907, when Abe was five years old.

Abe was working as a basketball coach at Welles Park when he developed the concept for what would become the Harlem Globetrotters. Using some of Chicago’s best African-American basketball players, he formed a team of barnstorming professionals. At the time of Saperstein’s death, the team, whose players emphasized skill and showmanship, had achieved the popularity he had only dreamed about in the team’s early years.

Under Saperstein Berkley’s leadership, the team’s popularity continued to grow, not only in the United States but also around the world. Often, she accompanied a team which included Globetrotters legends Meadowlark Lemon and Fred “Curly” Neal on its world tours.

In addition to her work with the Globetrotters, Saperstein Berkley was also the benefactor of numerous charitable ventures, including the Abe Saperstein Foundation which established free basketball summer camps for Chicago’s youths. At these camps, Saperstein Berkley would bring in NBA stars, high-school and college coaches to help youth leverage their basketball skills into college opportunities and post-basketball careers.

Under her leadership, the Saperstein Foundation hosted basketball clinics throughout Chicago’s inner-city neighborhoods. Their purpose was always the same. Sports was a ladder of educational advancement. Some of the professional players who joined Saperstein Berkley in her summer trek of basketball/education clinics throughout Chicago’s South and West sides were Bob Love, Norm Van Lier, Artis Gilmore and Harlem Globetrotter stars Leon Hillard, Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal. 

Her career as a player-agent was not planned. When several players she had known since grade school complained of being taken advantage of by their agents, Saperstein Berkley became the first woman certified by the National Basketball Players Assoc. to represent players. She successfully represented several NBA players as well as foreign professional players, including first round draft pick Alfrederick “The Great” Hughes from Loyola College. Her former clients also included Arne Duncan, who served as Secretary of Education during the Obama Administration. After graduating from Harvard, Duncan played professional basketball in Australia.

Saperstein Berkley is survived by her three children and five grandchildren.

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