The bench is no place for a teenager who typically stars on the court. To watch him dribble is to witness magic. His control and finesse prompt his friends to joke that, in his hands, the ball has handles. But none of that matters today, as the region’s best high school basketball players take the court to play an All-Star game without him.
A senior at Susquehanna Township High School, Chris Franklin loved basketball—but classes, not so much. He achieved grades just barely eligible for sports competition. But his coach knew Franklin could do better, so he benched the teen to offer a valuable lesson about the realities demanded by success in life.
The strategy worked. “After that, I said for the next big game, I would decide whether I would play or not,” says Franklin. That meant keeping his grades up, working even harder, and reaching for his dreams.
Today, “Handles” Franklin, as his fans know him, is seldom found on any bench. Instead, he’s busy traveling the world as a basketball star with the Harlem Globetrotters, the famed exhibition team known for athletes with fancy footwork and phenomenal ball-handling skills. When he’s not on the court, he’s volunteering with the Harlem Globetrotters Basketball Camp and after-school programs across the country, motivating and inspiring hundreds of young people to be their best.
It’s a life he envisioned early on. To this day, he recalls in his childhood watching a Scooby-Doo cartoon that featured animation portraying famous Harlem Globetrotters. As he watched the characters toss alley-oop passes and dribble figure eights around each other, he thought, That’s what I want to do.
His parents—a father who was a police officer and a mother who worked in a local hospital—were a big influence, too. Growing up in Harrisburg, Pa., Franklin saw the value in service to the community and in helping others.
Eventually, Franklin’s path in life brought both of these aspirations together.
After high school, he earned an undergraduate degree from Lock Haven State University, where he also played basketball. He auditioned for the Globetrotters but didn’t make the squad. So, he acted on his call to serve others. He earned a Pitt master’s degree in social work with a focus in community organizing while continuing to stoke his love of basketball. He simply couldn’t stay off the court.
Eventually, his impressive performance in a dunking and dribbling contest sponsored by Nike put him on the path to fame. On the court during the event, Franklin slid forward and backward on one knee then dipped onto his back to spin in a circle, all while dribbling the ball. The feat cinched his role in a number of commercials for the athletic brand. Before long, the Globetrotters noticed. In 2007, at age 34, Franklin signed with the team, achieving his long-sought goal.
Since then, Franklin (SOC WK ’98G) has played in nearly every state and more than 69 countries, and he has even hit the courts at the White House with President Obama. But one of the best parts of the gig, he says, is being able to apply his Pitt education to achieving his other lifelong goal: helping others.
“It’s important to reach out to young people on and off the court to let them know their dreams and goals are attainable with hard work and doing the right thing,” he says. “I’m a living testimony of that.”