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A Journey from the Harlem Clowns to the SFPUC

  • Donovan Gomez
Bob Harrell (far left) and Odell Agnew (far right) with the Harlem Clowns.
Bob Harrell (far left) and Odell Agnew (far right) with the Harlem Clowns.

From the hardwood to the Southeast Treatment Plant, the stories of Bob Harrell and Odell Agnew began well before their careers at the SFPUC.

The Harlem Clowns was an African American exhibition basketball team that played from 1934 to 1983. The team was based in Chicago and was founded by Al “Runt” Pullins in the year 1934. Pullins was an original member of the Harlem Globetrotters but left the team amidst contract disputes with the owner. Pullins immediately formed his own team, calling themselves the “Harlem Globetrotters” in their first Midwest tour, but ultimately changed the name to the Harlem Clowns to avoid confusion. The Clowns played in exhibition basketball games all over the United States, as well as in Canada, Mexico, and Asia. The Harlem Clowns have the distinction of being the second oldest barnstorming comedy basketball team in existence, only behind the Harlem Globetrotters.

Bob “Bruiser” Harrell played with the Harlem Clowns in the late 60s - early 70s and was known to those closest to him as “a funny guy". Harrell was born and raised in Oakland, California and loved playing basketball at an early age. After his basketball career ended, he began working as a Stationary Engineer at the Southeast Treatment Plant. His colleagues explained that he never let issues get in the way of getting the job done. They also explained that he was an easy-going man and an easy person to talk to about anything.

 Harlem Clowns magazine cover.
Harlem Clowns magazine cover.

Odell Agnew was born and raised in Tupelo, Mississippi. Agnew recalled how life was hard growing up in the South. “Everyone wants to mess with the big black guy to prove they are tough, but I didn’t allow that to affect me. I just kept moving on.” He played college basketball at Alcorn State University and amassed 1,633 points in his college career, with a single season record in 1963 of 576 points. He was inducted into Alcorn State University’s Hall of Fame in 2007.

After his collegiate career, Agnew went to New York to tryout with the Knicks. “They drafted me, but then they cut me from the team,” he said. Undiscouraged, Agnew continued to seek out ways to follow his dream. He ultimately earned a role with the Harlem Clowns in the late 60s and played with the team for 17 seasons. After his career with the Clowns, Agnew began working as a Stationary Engineer at the Southeast Treatment Plant. Those closest to him said Agnew was “a great guy and very pleasant.”

Black History Month is a time to celebrate the work and contributions of our Black community throughout the world. Although both men have passed away, their story is alive and well. These two men found a home at the SFPUC after they had lived this historic life prior. Employees at the SFPUC have amazing stories to share and you never quite know how close to history you are until you search for it.

Donovan Gomez