If you look up the word “loser” in the dictionary, you should see a picture of Red Klotz. Merriam-Webster’s definition of “a person or thing that loses especially consistently” is perfect for Klotz and his Washington Generals basketball team that has toured with the Harlem Globetrotters for more than half a century, losing more than 13,000 times and winning only once. The only problem is that Merriam-Webster’s second definition of “a person who is incompetent or unable to succeed, something doomed to fail or disappoint” couldn’t be further from the truth about the Jewish Klotz and the Generals.
In 1926, a Jew born in London named Abe Sapertstein founded a basketball team named the Harlem Globetrotters who were made up of the top black players from Chicago. Saperstein called his squad “Harlem” because he thought the name would be synonymous with entertainment given Harlem’s rich cultural tradition. In that sense, Saperstein was ahead of his time in fusing sports and entertainment. Imagine the Super Bowl without the halftime show or the funny commercials or an NBA game without the dancers, mascots, or music. (Actually this year, you’re kind of forced to imagine an NBA game.)
The Globetrotters toured around the country, and one game in 1939 found themselves leading 112-5. They started playing to the crowd and ever since have endeared themselves to fans such as Queen Elizabeth II, Pope John XXIII, and Nikita Khrushchev in more than 100 countries with dribbling, passing and shooting showmanship.
In 1949, Klotz, a former college basketball player at Villanova and NBA player with the Baltimore Bullets where he won a championship in 1948, was part of a team called the Philadelphia SPHAs (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association) that upset the Globetrotters during a tour. Saperstein noticed Klotz’s skill and in 1953 gave him a $1,500 loan to form a team that would tour full time with the Globetrotters. Klotz called the team the Washington Generals for entertainment purposes. “Ike had just thumped Adlai Stevenson, and generals were pretty popular at that time,” Klotz told Sports Illustrated in 1995. “I thought the name might win us some fans.”
Go ahead and cross out the words “win” and “fans” from that last sentence because so began Klotz’s career as a loser. Crowds came to see the Globetrotters, and the Generals assumed the role of the victim and the villain. With the exception of one victory in 1971 when Joshua stopped the sun, the Generals have lost more than any other team has lost before. In the one game Washington won, Klotz hit a go-ahead shot with 10 seconds left, and the clock operator failed to stop time after a Globetrotters shot banked out. The sound of the final buzzer was accompanied by adults aghast and children crying. Even when Basketball Hall of Famers like Rick Barry and Nancy Lieberman have suited up for the Generals, the team still cannot add to this lone victory. Redskins fans could watch Generals’ losses and legitimately say, “You know what, we aren’t that bad.”
Klotz has insisted that the Generals don’t throw games, but they know their role: don’t interfere with the Globetrotters’ “Magic Circle;” have a smile on your face when your shorts get pulled down; be part of the entertainment. But if it takes two to tango and you need two teams to play a basketball game, the Generals are as vital to Globetrotters games as the Trotters themselves. The Globetrotters get their story told all the time, but few actually know about how amazing the lovable losing Generals are.
“The thing about the Generals that always inspires me,” explains Dan Pratt, who founded the “Washington Generals Fan Blog” in May, “is that, as players have said over the years, while they are known as ‘losers’ the truth is they actually do win. Most Washington Generals are kids straight out of college who play for one to three years with the team. They are kids who get to travel the world expenses paid, play basketball in some of the most famous arenas in the U.S. and the world, they help the Trotters bring joy and laughter to kids everywhere they go, and they earn enough to make a living while doing it.”
“I guess Red’s legacy is in how he’s touched my life and the lives of all his players,” Sam Sawyer, a former General from 1958 to 1975, said. “It’s like Red knows the secret to happiness.”
Invoking Grantland Rice, Pratt says, “The Generals are to me the ultimate embodiment of, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”
Klotz played with the Generals until he was 63 and coached for 12 more years, but he and his family still own and run the team. Klotz and the Generals have found creative ways to lose, such as in the middle of a Middle Eastern political standoff after a 1953 game in Syria. The airplane taking the team out of Syria was overweight, and Klotz, two Generals and two Globetrotters got off the plane to drive to Beirut for another fight. “So I get stopped at the Lebanese border,” Klotz recounted to Sports Illustrated in 1995, “and everybody is running around like crazy with machine guns, getting ready to go to war with Israel for the umpteenth time. I’m trying to identify myself by pretending to dribble and shoot, but the guards just keep looking at my visa list that has 42 names on it, and they want to know where we’ve buried the bodies of the other 37 guys. It didn’t help much that the first two names on the list were Saperstein and Klotz.”
At a time when one losing season can cost coaches their jobs or draw the ire of fans, Klotz can offer a sporting and life lesson.
“I guess that’s why I don’t worry too much about being the losingest coach in history,” Klotz said. “It’s like if you come home at four in the morning and you hear the milkman whistling on the job and you wonder what he’s so happy about. It’s because he understands his purpose.”
Sure there’s a difference between the NBA and the Globetrotters, but with the NBA and its players in a standoff that threatens the entire basketball season, Red Klotz and the Washington Generals sure look like winners.
Gather the Jews member Jonathan Horowitz (www.jjhorowitz.com) is the horse race announcer at Arapahoe Park and host of the show “A Day at the Races” on Altitude Sports TV in Denver. He also has authored The ONE and ONLY: A Sports Quiz Deck of Definitive Games, Teams, Players, and Events that will be published by Pomegranate Publishers in January 2012. If you would like to purchase a personal copy ($9.95), please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.