They travel the planet bringing smiles, laughs and looks of wonder to countless people of all ages. With a blend of basketball wizardry and old-fashioned slapstick humor, the Harlem Globetrotters have become a pop cultural icon with a history entwining more than 20,000 games over the past 85 years.
And on a recent morning, the Globetrotter magic arrived at All Children's Hospital in a special way - courtesy of the player known as Special K.
Kevin Daley is walking the hallways of 8 South in the distinctive bright red sweat suit of the Globetrotters, with the name of one of the world's most recognizable sports franchises emblazoned in yellow and black on his jacket.
Forget the Harlem Shake craze. Special K has some cool free-form moves of his own - like spinning a pink basketball (to promote breast cancer awareness) on his forefinger and head in spectacular fashion, or rolling the ball along the length of his extended arms and behind his neck.
The native Panamanian has also had more than a handful of dazzling moves during his career. He portrayed a young Michael Jordan in a famous 2002 TV commercial for Gatorade (playing against the real MJ - with his face digitally replaced by that of a young Jordan). He's appeared in prime-time shows like The Celebrity Apprentice and The Bachelorette to setting the Guinness World Record for the longest hook shot ever recorded (46-feet, 6 inches from half court).
But the best move of all is in the way K connects so naturally with kids.
"Hey, hey, hey!" the 6-foot-5, 210-pound Trotter calls out as he enters his first room, the ball already spinning away. A 16-year-old boy from Bradenton sits on his bed, looking up with a grin.
"Where's John? I'm looking for John?" Special K deadpans. He engages the Bradenton teen in friendly conversation amid a handful of his patented basketball tricks. Then he autographs a team photo and poses for a snapshot with John and his family. "I hope you get better quick, buddy," he tells the awestruck patient before moving on to the next room.
There's a common denominator in each of his stops: mostly speechless, wide-eyed reactions with big smiles from the patients, coupled with laughs and applause from parents who know what it means for a Harlem Globetrotter to show up for a surprise visit. As with every celebrity appearance at ACH, Special K's whirlwind tour on this afternoon is therapeutic for youngsters and grown-ups alike.
He meets a little girl about to be released from the hospital and playfully asks, "Can I go home, too?" She's too shy to pose for a picture with him, but that doesn't dim the excitement of her parents who've seen the Globetrotters many times on television. "This is going to be really a fun story to tell," says the girl's dad, Jeff. One day, his daughter will no doubt enjoy telling it, too - or at least seeing the photo that captured the moment.
The most enthusiastic reaction, as it turns out, comes from an unlikely source. A little boy named Aiden is sitting by himself watching television, while his mother has stepped out to go downstairs to the cafeteria - not wanting to eat in front of her son, whose food intake is limited at the moment.
The on-duty nurse, keeping an eye on Aiden, tells him he has a visitor - and in walks Special K. "Hey, what's going on my man?" he asks. Unfazed, Aiden explains without missing a beat: "My mommy is downstairs eating."
"Well, that means you're a big boy, being here by yourself," says the ballplayer. "How old are you, 12 or 13?
"No, I'm 6," he replies calmly.
Special K proceeds to give Aiden his own personal show and can't contain his own smile when the child belts out an impromptu "Whoaa!" during the ball-spinning trick. When K spins the ball on top of his head, Aiden is even more impressed. "Whooooaaa!!"
"Your mama is not going to believe you when you tell her you had a Harlem Globetrotter visit you when she was out," he tells Aiden. Just to be sure, he helps the boy pronounce the team name - and "Special K" - several times before leaving. Then he hands Aiden a signed photo and extends his hand for a gentle fist-bump - linking a little child experience some tough times and a big-hearted athlete hoping to ease the pain.
When she returns, Aiden's mom is thrilled to hear about the visit and how much her son enjoyed it. That's the kind of thing that means the most to Special K, who has visited countless hospitals, schools and youth centers in his nine years as a Globetrotter. He feels a connection with kids in pain from his own pain he experienced as a child - losing his mother when he was only 3, growing up in Panama.
His dad wound up raising young Kevin and his two old brothers by himself. "My father never remarried, so he did it all on his own," he recalls.
Believing that America would provide more opportunities for his boys, their father moved with them to the United States in 1989. Kevin excelled in soccer, baseball and football, but his passion had always been basketball. He went on to star at Artesia High School near Los Angeles and then at Azusa Pacific University in California.
Still known as Kevin Daley, he made a run at a National Basketball Association career, playing the high-profile NBA Summer League. That door didn't open, but the Globetrotters were wowed by his amazing array of ball-handling skills - along with his equally impressive people skills: a must for the organization that spreads cheer and goodwill on the hardwood.
Kevin Daley became Special K (the initial standing for his first name) and a new star was born for a franchise known for such legends as Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal.
"You've got to be a people person to be part of this team," he said. "You won't make it otherwise, no matter how many baskets you make. I never had a dream of being a Harlem Globetrotter growing up. And actually, when I joined them, I had several choices. But I felt they were the best fit for me. I really believe that I ended up exactly where I'm supposed to be."
His decision has given him plenty of exciting and gratifying opportunities along the way. He got to play basketball with President Obama ("I know how much he loves basketball, so I think he was as excited to meet us as we were to meet him."). He gave Justin Bieber some basketball pointers before the pop star played in the 2011 NBA Celebrity All-Star Game (Bieber wound up MVP, thank you very much). And he's made multiple appearances on television shows, including Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?
"Turns out I was smarter than a fourth grader," he jokes.
But his greatest thrill was returning in 2010 with the Globetrotters to play a game in his native Panama. Special K received a hero's welcome upon his return to Panama City. A dual-citizen of the U.S. and Panama, he received a raucous ovation playing in front of 10,000 fans from his home country. That was followed by one-on-one visit with Panama's president, Ricardo Martinelli, and a tour of his old school, where a huge celebration unfolded American Idol-style.
"The entire student body was there and they had a band playing - it was unreal," he said. "I cried."
On the court, Special K is known for his ultra-long hook shot - a "four-pointer" from 35 feet or longer according to Globetrotter rules. He says he's made a full-court hook in Argentina, but since it wasn't on video tape, Guinness only recognizes his half-court hook as the world's longest.
Still, the highlights that mean the most and truly touch his heart at the visits like the one he made to All Children's in advance of an exhibition at the University of South Florida's Sun Dome.
"Smiles are a cure for so many things," he says. "And for some reason, when the kids see us, they just light up. And the parents often tell me that it's the first time they've seen their child smile since they've been in the hospital. So that's really special."
And the man called Special K knows special when he sees it.
"Faces and Places" is a regular column highlighting those people, places and things that make All Children's Hospital special. If you have an idea for a story, please contact writer Dave Scheiber at ext. 72490 or email@example.com. For a full archive, click on the Faces and Places icon on allkids.org.