By Ben Holcomb
After another uninspired road loss against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, NBA demi-god Kobe Bryant sounded off in the post-game press conference by lamenting the fact that the Washington Generals weren’t on the Lakers upcoming schedule. After all, the Generals are widely respected as America’s favorite losing basketball team. In their 60 year history, they’ve lost over 13,000 games to the Harlem Globetrotters, which is more than 14x the amount of wins Jim Boeheim has managed to compile in his tenure at Syracuse.
Indeed, if you’re down and out, have a lot of money on your hands and a spare arena you can rent, there is no better team to call than the Washington Generals. They’ll let you kick their ass, no questions asked. They’re the hired hands of basketball ineptitude. But it didn’t start out that way.
In 1952, the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association basketball squad 1 defected from the American Basketball League and gave themselves a makeover, in order to tour with the ever-popular Harlem Globetrotters across the country. Giving kudos to Dwight D. Eisenhower, the SPHAS changed their name to the Washington Generals, and began touring immediately with the Globetrotters.
They’re the hired hands of basketball ineptitude.
And by most occasions, I of course mean damn near every. single. time.
A losing culture like that would likely induce within its players and coaches more than one identity crisis along the way. In one season alone, the Generals tried to rebrand themselves as the “New Jersey Reds”, the “Atlantic City Seagulls”, the “Boston Shamrocks”, and the “Baltimore Rockets”. But to the American populace, they were always the Washington Generals; lovable losers with the heart of Rudy and the basketball acumen of Rudy’s deceased grandmother. In forty two years, the Generals played the Harlem Globetrotters in 13,006 exhibition games.
Their record was 6-13,0002.
You can imagine the type of “leader of men” that would be needed to assume such a powerful and lofty position as the woeful Generals’ head coach. Alas, there are only so many pep talks and game plans you can hash out for a team that’s lost to the same opponent more than 10,000 times in a half century. The act of continuing to trudge in and of itself is deserving of an award. The man behind the flimsy, raggedy curtain was Red Klotz, a former Baltimore Bullets point guard in the NBA and league legend for being “the shortest player to ever win an NBA title”3. Klotz was one of the last great examples of a player-coach, or as I like to cordially refer to the position, a ploach.
You see, Klotz understood quickly that the Washington Generals could be a losing team, but they couldn’t lose with style like they could with him at the helm. And so he coached the team on the floor, running point for the Generals from 1953 until well into the 1980′s. His knees were little more than gelatinous specters of past glory days by the time he hung up the sneakers for good. He played point for the illustriously awful Generals well into his sixties, which pretty much negates the concept of the Generals’ “attempting” to win their games against the Globetrotters. And of course they didn’t. Because of this, Red Klotz will by all accounts go down as the worst basketball coach in the history of the sport4.
But everybody has a moment. A single, isolated time in the thread of human existence where actions seem to occur out of body, and where fate seems to press its thumb down on your soul and control the air around you. For Red Klotz and the Washington Generals, that moment came on January 5th, 1971 in Martin, Tennessee. Klotz was old then, a limber 50 years of age, but he got his minutes 5, and something seemed to be in the air that night.
The Globetrotters came into the affair riding a 2,495 game win streak. But their best player, and captain, Curly Neal, sat out that night due to injury. As the game went on, the rightfully overconfident Globetrotters enjoyed their usual antics of chucking water at referees, dribbling multiple basketballs at once, and entertaining the crowd. But, like tortoises moving slowly toward the finish line as the hare slept, the Washington Generals began to quietly lay the bricks of what would become an insurmountable lead. By the time the fourth quarter came around and the minutes waned, the Globetrotters looked up at the clock and realized they were in quite a hole.
The Globetrotters furiously tried to erase a 12 point deficit in the final 120 seconds, and the goofy tricks they’d grown famous for were immediately supplanted by dead-serious, hard-nosed basketball. After all, this was the Washington Generals, and the Generals weren’t supposed to win. The game eventually went into overtime, which is right about when Washington “ploach” Red Klotz decided it was his time to shine. Tied up with time ticking down, the 50 year old Klotz decided to turn on “Beast Mode” by launching up a fade away, contested jump shot. As fate would have it, the ball went in. Confused by the concept of a Washington Generals player making a clutch jumper, the clock operator struggled to intervene and stop time, but he wasn’t prepared for the moment. Almost 3,000 wins in a row will do that to you. He couldn’t stop the clock in time, and Meadowlark Lemon’s game-tying shot fell short. The horn sounded. Children sobbed. The Washington Generals had won.
But to the American populace, they were always the Washington Generals; lovable losers with the heart of Rudy and the basketball acumen of Rudy’s deceased grandmother.
The Washington Generals still exist today, though they’re currently going through one of their identity crises at the moment. You may know them now as International Elite or the Global Select, but it’s all the same to us. They are little more than the tree stump to which the Harlem Globetrotters’ sharpen their axes on. If you’d like to play for the Generals yourself, they’re currently hiring7 and John Ferrari would love to review your resume and game film at firstname.lastname@example.org.
They may never win another basketball game again, and they may be the WWE of the hoops world, but they’ve secured a winning position in the hearts of every fan of basketball around the world. Everyone needs a lovable loser in their lives to better understand the idea that sometimes, it’s not all about winning.