SALISBURY – As if playing in front of millions of fans as a Harlem Globetrotter over the last 12 years wasn’t enough, Herb “Flight Time” Lang has captured the attention and imagination of millions in other ways as well. The Globetrotter was featured on a past season of CBS Television’s “The Amazing Race” and was so popular that he and his fellow Globetrotter Nate “Big Easy” Lofton were asked back this season.
As far as narrative goes, it is just another happenstance chapter in a career that nearly didn’t happen. Lang was a Centenary College standout but graduating during an NBA lockout year he didn’t rate his professional basketball chances as extraordinary. Lang marketed himself to the NBA anyway, sending out highlight and practice tapes for scouts to review in hopes of getting an invitation to camp when the season started back up. In the meanwhile he worked as a teacher and personal trainer.
But one evening his roommate went to see the Harlem Globetrotters – Lang hat to work and couldn’t go – and afterwards approached the team to find about the possibility of getting on the team, which surprised the team manager.
“My roommate was Asian and shorter than me,” the 6 foot 10 inch tall Lang said. “But once he explained that it was me rather than him he was asking for it made more sense.”
It isn’t that Lang never aspired to be a Globetrotter as much as it was an option that hadn’t occurred to him. But it occurred to his roommate who provided Lang with the Globetrotter’s recruitment office number and got him to call. Lang sent the tape and didn’t think much more of it until almost six months later when he got the invite to Globetrotters training camp, where he got his job and his nickname. “Flight Time” was applied to him when one of the members of the coaching staff noted that he should get frequent flier miles each time he leapt, such was his hang time.
The trip from new member to team leader and Globetrotter missionary was a pretty short one for Lang, who is affable and unassuming but has a passion for the game that come across as pretty uncommon. The main thing he learned after being asked to join the team was that being a good Globetrotter meant forgetting much of what he’d been taught since he was a child playing organized basketball.
“This is straight-up showmanship basketball,” Lang now tells new players as they come on board. “All those things you used to get yelled at for doing by your coaches? Behind the back passes and such? Now you can do them again. It made me realize how much fun basketball could be.”
Over his first decade as a team member, he and the others worked out different routines that the team could use over the season but about three years ago they started getting lessons in how not to plan their performance.
As part of each training season Globetrotters take extensive comedy improvisation courses, taught by actor and comedian Matt Walsh, who played the doctor in both “The Hangover” and “Due Date”. He helps them learn how to figure out what’s funny second by second as they perform their on the court antics. But as fun as his job is, it is still a job and that’s part of what the coaches are there to remind them.
Lang said that one of the things that is instilled in each of the Globetrotters is that, unlike in the NBA where one person might slack a bit during the game and have team members pick up the slack, every Globetrotter has to go full tilt all the time.
“Some of the kids out there got these tickets for their birthday or for Christmas,” he said. “Some have been waiting a month to see this, so every show you owe it to those kids to perform at a very high level.”
And as if that wasn’t enough pressure, there is the return of the Washington Generals, the Harlem Globetrotters’ nemeses. Contrary to popular belief, the Generals not only play to win but have actually won on occasion. Lang displayed some cuts he had on his forearm from a recent diving save in a tight game.
“Those guys and play and they can shoot,” he said. “And you don’t want to be on the team that loses to them.”
One of the things that’s made the Generals more competitive is the newly-established four-point shot, circles 35 feet from the rim that count as four. Just as in the NBA the hot hands get to take the big shots and Lang said he’s lately been running hot and cold from four-point land following an 80 percent shooting game with a 20 percent one.
“But we have guys on the team who make them all the time,” he said.
As for this season’s “Amazing Race” Lang won’t talk about how well he finished but he said it was a lot of fun and certainly worth watching. An outtake from the duo’s first appearance might be revelatory given the way the current season is playing out. It began when he and his partner tricked themselves into going beyond the place marker looking for an additional clue.
The rules of the game compel the camera crew to follow the players wherever they go, regardless of how terrible the choice might be. It was this rule that made the crew follow Lang and Lofton into the jungles of Vietnam where they encountered war era booby-traps, snakes and the very real possibility that they might get lost or killed. In the end they were able to extract themselves but the scene was eventually cut.
“All you have is a backpack and a passport,” Lang said. “It’s a month of strategic chaos.”