Harlem Globetrotters
The Harlem Globetrotters are returning to the i wireless Center in Moline. Contributed photo

The heyday of the Harlem Globetrotters wasn't in the 1970s when players such as Meadowlark Lemon, Curly Neal and Geese Ausbie were household names - thanks to a Saturday morning cartoon and live-action TV series as well as regular, highly viewed appearances on ABC's "Wide World of Sports."

It's now.

Last year's Globetrotters tour brought about the highest attendance in the team's 85-year history. That includes its annual visit to the i wireless Center in Moline during January 2010 when a crowd of 6,700-plus was the largest ever for a Quad-City stop.

For two of the Globetrotters players - one a rookie, the other an eight-season veteran - it's all about families.

"We still do the things that Meadowlark and all those guys did," said Andre "Hot Shot" Branch, the veteran. "The fans want see something that families can do together, and the Globetrotters still hold onto that family bond.

"Kids can come in and see some nice basketball and have fun. It reaches all different levels in ages of the family," he added.

Hot Shot, a 37-year-old Baylor University grad, said the current team has truly been 85 years in the making.

"It's everything we've ever put into it," he said. "The seed that we laid back in the early days of bringing everyone together is blooming now and producing more fans."

The Globetrotters return to the i wireless Center on Saturday night.

For Eric "Hacksaw" Hall, a 23-year-old who played college ball at Radford University in Virginia, it was a chance to put his basketball skills together with his outgoing personality.

"I just wanted to play basketball, and given this great opportunity, I thought I'd take advantage of it and make the best of it," the Greensboro, N.C., native said.

Players come to realize the storied legacy of the team early in their tenure, Hot Shot said.

"It's a great honor as a basketball player because this team has opened the doors for so many African-American players," he said. "For us to be a part of this team and get the opportunity to be on this team and wear this uniform - not many players can say that."

Being a Globetrotter means being prepared to work, both players said.

During its September-to-July season, the team plays about 400 games.

"That's about three NBA (National Basketball Association) seasons," Hot Shot said. "It's a grind, and that's also being out there with the fans and shaking hands and signing autographs and taking pictures wherever we go.

"There's not much personal time, but being with the fans, that's your time to be happy and be proud of what you do," he added.

Fans never hear reports of any Globetrotters on an injured list or involved in any questionable off-the-court antics.

"You come in and you do what you love to do," Hot Shot said. "When you've got that passion for it, there's no pain. The only pain is having to get up and leave. But it's a bunch of fun. I wouldn't trade it for anything else."

New this season is a "four-point shot." With three minutes left at the end of each quarter, the shot takes effect from 35 feet beyond the basket - a little more than 11 feet farther than an NBA three-point shot.

"It's going to change the game of basketball," Hot Shot said. "It can change the game at any point in time. It's going to be very exciting."

In addition, every four-pointer made will give four pairs of eyeglasses to the eyesight charity Vision Springs through a partnership with the Globetrotters' sponsor, America's Best Eyeglasses and Contact Lenses.

Hot Shot said the goal is to make 5,000 four-pointers this season.

"I'm sure we're going to surpass that goal to get to help as many kids as possible," he said. "We're ready to get those shots up."