THE Harlem Globetrotters are up to their old tricks and pleased with the results. Last month they attracted 21,587 to the ThunderDome in St. Petersburg, Fla., the fourth-largest North American crowd in the team's 69-year history.
While giving much credit to the ThunderDome's marketing staff, team owner Mannie Jackson -- who bought the team out of bankruptcy -- says the Globetrotters are experiencing a resurgence of popularity (overall attendance is up 15 percent since last season).
Jackson, a 'Trotter-turned-corporate-executive with Honeywell in Minneapolis, became the team's first African-American owner in 1993. He aims to create a progressive image for an organization that some might say became an anachronism.
Jackson says there was a time when he, too, wondered if the Globetrotters were putting blacks ''in a good light.'' But he's had a change of heart, spurred partly by the new age of black TV sitcoms. ''Maybe we've matured to the point where we say 'it's entertainment; it's all right for us to laugh at ourselves.' ''
So what's new? The team's first mascot (Globie), a rap/hip-hop soundtrack, smoke-and-spotlight player introductions, greater athleticism, and some updated comedy.
Jackson is especially pleased with Paul (Showtime) Gaffney as one of the Globetrotters' featured clown-centers. There are two touring squads, and Gaffney plays for the one that begins a 32-game European swing Saturday. Veteran (Sweet) Lou Dunbar will soon be dispatched with the other unit to South America.
Ironically, Jackson says he almost fired Gaffney last summer. ''He just didn't have it. He was trying too hard, something was not right,'' Jackson says. ''But people kept telling me to 'look at this kid, he's different.' ''
Once Jackson recognized Gaffney's charisma, he was satisfied that a successor to clown kings like Goose Tatum and Meadowlark Lemon had been found.
Much, however, remains the same with the Globetrotters, including the opposition. Red Klotz's Washington Generals haven't beaten the Globetrotters since 1971, and then by the narrowest of margins, 100-99. There's also the team's traditional ambassadorial emphasis and its theme song, ''Sweet Georgia Brown,'' which forms the musical accompaniment for a ball-handling routine and greets those put on hold calling team headquarters in Alhambra, Calif. (The team, never based in Harlem, began in Chicago in 1926 and moved to the Los Angeles area in the 1970s.)
The Globetrotters' reliance on such standbys as the confetti-in-the-bucket trick and the boldly-designed red, white, and blue uniforms is a strategic move to sell the product.
In fact, Jackson says that the team gets hundreds of letters from fans complaining whenever they leave out the confetti gag.
Roughly half of the 2 million people expected to see the Globetrotters this year will be seeing the team for the first time.
Jackson says the team's challenge is not attracting spectators but luring the kind of commercial partners who wield so much clout in today's sports environment. The team has some irons in the fire, though, such as a feature film scheduled to reach theaters in 1996 or 1997 and a few TV projects, possibly including a sitcom.