New Orleanian goes from public housing to Globetrotters and on to 'Amazing Race'
By Dave Walker
September 26, 2009, 5:00AM
Nathaniel Lofton’s personality spark was unmistakable, even back in college.
"The Amazing Race"
Sunday, 7 p.m., Channel 4
“He always was that type on the floor,” said Roman Banks, Southeastern’s associate men’s basketball coach. “He’d block a shot, (then) give people in the stands a high five. He always had showmanship.”
Starting tonight, the nation gets to sample some of that high style, as Lofton and his Harlem Globetrotters teammate Herbert “Flight Time” Lang take on 11 other teams in the CBS reality-TV series “The Amazing Race.”
The trek starts in Los Angeles and eventually winds through eight countries during 21 days.
The competing teams — playing for a $1 million prize — comprise the usual reality-TV mixture of good and evil.
Sweet young couples and a former Miss America occupy one end of the likeability spectrum.
On the other end: two conniving professional poker players and a blowhard lawyer who apparently can’t utter any statement without first saying, “I’m a lawyer.”
So Lofton – whose Globetrotters nickname is “Big Easy” — and Lang are a team to cheer for without reservation.
Semi-spoiler, though the competition’s first foreign destination is mentioned in listings log-lines: The title of tonight’s two-hour premiere episode — actually a line uttered by Lang referencing his 6-foot-9 partner — is, “They Thought Godzilla Was Walking Down the Street.”
A graduate of L.E. Rabouin High School, Lofton came of age in public housing in Central City — the Guste Apartments — and had returned to his hometown after college at the time of Hurricane Katrina.
According to his official Globetrotters bio, Lofton and friends pushed a pickup truck full of folks out of peril after the levees broke. From there, he landed in Houston.
And from there, with the Globetrotters.
“The Globetrotters have been around for a long time,” Lofton said. “As far as basketball, they introduced it to a lot of people. Seeing it on TV, it was a different type of basketball. I saw the comedy, but I also realized how good they were as athletes.
“It was a dream for me to play professional basketball. For me to be in the Globetrotters, that’s amazing, especially for me, being from New Orleans and growing up in the projects.”
Watching Louisiana locals on reality TV can sometimes be a cringe-inducing experience, even for contestants watching after-the-fact.
Not so here, at least based on a preview disc of the season premiere double episode.
“I don’t fake like I’m nice,” Lofton said. “You are what you are. As I say on the show, what you are and who you are is going to come out no matter what. You can’t hide it. I’m naturally a good person. I’m naturally a nice dude. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be able to be a Globetrotter from the start. It was easy for me to be myself.
“I’m looking forward to watching it. If you represent yourself, if you represent your family and you represent your organization, it doesn’t matter how something is perceived. Only so much can be done. If you can handle yourself well, it doesn’t matter how it’s shown on TV. It’s going to come across well if you handled yourself well.
“I’m ready for anything to be seen.
“My nickname is Big Easy. Everything I’m doing is representing New Orleans. I couldn’t have that name if I didn’t go through what I went through coming up in the city.”
Lofton visited his New Orleans home last week between a cameo promotional appearance on CBS’s Emmy Awards telecast and departing for the Globetrotters preseason training camp.
“It was my first time doing the awards thing. It was cool,” Lofton said of the Emmys, for which he and Lang were involved in a brief sight-gag. “(Host) Neil Patrick (Harris) did a great job. It moved well — not too many dead spots. Everybody was nice. It was cool.”
After the two-week camp, Lofton, age 28, will depart with his teammates on tour. Typically, the Globetrotters travel nine months of each year (with two units on the road at a time), and Europe is one of the organization’s destinations during the upcoming season.
It’s a life that likely once seemed so distant to Lofton, who didn’t advance to college ball right out of high school, instead working at Acme Oyster House in the French Quarter as an oyster-shucker and food server.
But he worked his way back onto the court, first at Independence (Kan.) College, then Arkansas-Fort Smith, then Southeastern.
Now, with the Globetrotters, he’s attained one of the marquee positions in all of popular culture – the “Showman” position once occupied by icons Meadowlark Lemon, Geese Ausbie and Sweet Lou Dunbar. The Showman wears a microphone during games, triggering comedy bits, dishing dunks and directing the trademark. Globetrotter weave from the top of the key.
Dunbar, who last season mentored Lofton in the Showman slot, said Lofton has the potential to join the ranks of the team’s all-time greats.
“It’s hard not to like Big Easy,” Dunbar said. “The kid is very humble, and he’s enjoying what he’s doing. He’s just that kind of guy, which makes him a great Globetrotter. “Let me tell you, the kid did a great job.”
Without divulging any specifics about his pre-taped “Amazing Race” season, Lofton said his barnstorming basketball experience served him well.
“Certain things you’re going to come across as a Globetrotter and doing the traveling — what to eat, what not to eat; how to prepare myself for sleep — it helps somewhat,” he said. “Definitely, it was harder than I expected. It was super-fun, but yes it was harder than I expected it to be.
“I went into the game respecting it. I knew it was going to be hard, but I respected it from the jump. When it got hard, I was prepared for it.”
Southeastern’s Banks won’t be surprised by Lofton’s cool approach to adversity on the road.
“He’s always been a guy who’s kind of out there on his own, but took care of his business,” Banks said. “He was a mature-type guy.”
At Southeastern, “Everybody knew who he was, the big guy walking across campus,” Banks continued. “In a two-year span at Southeastern, he took the program (from one) that wasn’t going anywhere (to) a program that’s respectable today.
“When you think about the type of charm he had on campus, and take his basketball — a little trash-talking, laughing and joking, pushing his teammates — then you see him as a Globetrotter.
“When you take him as a Globetrotter and see how successful he’s been and what he enjoyed doing, then take him to a reality show where his personality now can be seen nationally, you really find out what type of guy this young man is.
“Coming out of the projects of New Orleans, a lot of people thought he wasn’t going to amount to too much. But he kept working at it ... and his personality was great. It’s just a great story to tell people.
“When you look at Nathaniel Lofton and you talk about people in despair, you can tell youth you can be anything you want to be and all you have to do is look at Nathaniel Lofton.”
TV columnist Dave Walker appears every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday in the Living section. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
or 504.826.3429. Comment or read past columns and new blogs at NOLA.com/tv.