Wednesday, December 31, 2014

  • Wednesday, December 31, 2014
  • Elder of Ziyon
Last night I went to a Harlem Globetrotters game. It was enjoyable, although they did not seem to be quite as skilled as the Globetrotters I had seen on TV decades ago when they had Curly Neal and Meadowlark Lemon. There was some excellent passing and alley-oops, but not too much of the trick shots or dazzling dribbling that I recall seeing as a kid.

But I also watched their opponents, the team that always loses, the Washington Generals.

During this year's tour, the shtick is that the Generals have regrouped and are thirsting for revenge, wanting to recapture the glory of their last win, in 1971. It is called the "Washington Generals Revenge Tour."

Of course, the Generals lost. That's what they are meant to do. They are booed when they are introduced, and in this particular show, they openly "cheated" and lost (of course) anyway.

But I was interested in their history, and the history of the Generals has an interesting tie to US Jewish sports history.

The original owner of the Washington Generals was Louis Herman "Red" Klotz, Klotz was an early basketball star in Philadelphia high schools and colleges, winning player of the year in 1939 and 1940. He was part of the Baltimore Bullets championship team in 1948, making him - at 5'7" - the shortest player ever to win an NBA championship.

Afterwards, Klotz bought one of the original basketball teams, the Philadelphia Sphas. of the now defunct American Basketball Association.

"SPHA" was an acronym for South Philadelphia Hebrew Association. Their original uniforms even had those initials in Hebrew!

In the late 1920s and 1930s, the Sphas were the best basketball team in the world.

The original owner and coach, Eddie Gottlieb, sold the Sphas so he could buy the Philadelphia Warriors in the new NBA, and the ABL became a minor league.

In the early 1950s, the Sphas played the Globetrotters a couple of times:

[Klotz] won many games with the Sphas, and one day on the ballroom at the old Broadwood Hotel in Philadelphia they beat the Harlem Globetrotters in a straight up game. The great Goose Tatum, the first clown prince of basketball, the man who invented the skyhook, met Klotz at half-court and said in a threatening voice: “That will never happen again.” And the next time they played, the Sphas won again. And that is about the time when Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein approached Klotz and asked him to put together a team that would play the Globetrotters night after night all over the country, all over the world. Of course, there would be an understanding. People were coming, after all, to see the World Famous Harlem Globetrotters. It was one of those moments in a man’s life. Red Klotz loved to play basketball. He loved to coach basketball. And he loved to win. The Globetrotters would give him a chance to do the first two.

“We’ll give you a run for your money,” Red Klotz said to Saperstein.

“I’m counting on it,” Saperstein said in return.

Klotz then borrowed some cash to buy a Green De Soto — the Green Hornet, they would all call it — and he began his life as a player, owner, coach, driver, psychiatrist, motivator and inspirational leader for a team he decided to name after Dwight D. Eisenhower: The Washington Generals.

Besides owning and coaching the Generals, Red Klotz was also a player. He would willingly allow the Globetrotters to make a fool out of him. But he always took his role seriously.

There are rules for being a Washington General (to use their most general name).

1. The Generals are allowed — expected, even — to play completely legit on offense. There are no limitations. If they can beat the Globetrotters defense, they can score every single time down the court.

2. The Generals are allowed to play defense as hard as they want when the Globetrotters are not in one of their reams. For about 40% of every Globetrotters game, the basketball is straight up.

3. When the Globetrotters DO go into one of their reams, it is the Generals’ responsibility to play the stooge and make the Globetrotters look as good as possible. They are expected to play their roles with gusto and verve. Red Klotz had his pants pulled down thousands of times — he would always take pants duty first few games of every tour to give the other players time to settle in. He always tried to look as shocked and embarrassed as possible. In his mind, Red often said, his job was to play Ginger Rogers to the Globetrotters’ Fred Astaire, that is to do everything the Globetrotters did with the same joy and expertise but to do it going backward.

Then there was that now legendary game in January, 1971, in Martin, Tennessee - the last game the Generals ever won (possibly under the name the New Jersey Reds; they had a number of different team names even as they never had a home game).

Klotz’s place was not in the paint. He was a shooter, still is a shooter, and on that day in Tennessee he started to make a few long jumpers. Eddie Mahar, a shooting guard from Brooklyn, made a few shots. Sam Sawyer, a forward from Atlantic City and someone who would become one of Klotz’s closest friends, worked hard inside. The Globetrotters seemed weary or uninterested. And nobody noticed the scoreboard.

Nobody noticed, that is, except for Red Klotz.

The game stayed close. The Globetrotters did not do as much show as usual that day in Martin, Tenn. The great dribbler Curly Neal wasn’t playing — he apparently had an injury of some sort — and the showman Meadowlark Lemon seemed to Klotz and others to be in a bit of of a fog. So they played basketball. In the fourth quarter, the New Jersey Reds got hot. Every one of their shots seemed to drop. The Globetrotters kept missing. This much everyone agrees upon. The score tightened.

The Globetrotters could have gone into their show at any point, scored every time down the floor, and put an end to the drama. The Reds would not have been able to do a thing to stop it. But for reasons that were never revealed, and perhaps never quite understood, the Globetrotters played the final minutes straight up. There were 3,600 people in the stands that day, and not one of them was quite sure what was happening. The players themselves were not quite sure what they were doing. Maybe the monotony had simply crumbled their resolve. Maybe they all just wanted something different, something that was unlike the day before and the day before that and the day before that. Whatever, the game grew close.

And then … well, nobody would ever seem to remember the details. In one version of the story, the Reds built a startling 12 point lead in the final minutes and the Globetrotters had to stage a furious comeback. In another, the game was tied at the end of regulation and went into overtime. Fairy tales, you know, have different endings in different parts of the world. The only thing anyone seems certain about is that the Globetrotters led 99-98 with scant seconds left when Red Klotz got the ball about 25 feet away from the basket and fired one of those two-handed set shots that had made him the best in the city and won him the girl and carried him through a war and landed him the childhood dream of traveling around the world. It went in of course, like it went in when he was 12 years old. The Reds led 100-99.

There were, according to the newspapers, three seconds on the clock. The timekeepers stalled the clock long enough for Meadowlark Lemon to take the game-winning shot, a hook shot, the sort he had made about as many times as Red Klotz’s set shot. The buzzer sounded. The ball bounced away. The New Jersey Reds or Washington Generals or International All-Stars or whatever you would like to call them had won the game. It was, mathematically, the greatest upset in the history of sport. Red Klotz and his team ran off the court in triumph. The crowd’s reaction was some mix of shock and uncertainty. In time, Red Klotz would remember them booing (“It was like killing Santa Claus,” he would say many, many times), and certainly most did boo. But in the days afterward, when he talked to the small-town reporters who asked, he would remember that some people cheered too.
Klotz was 50 years old when he made that game-winning shot.

He died this past July, at the age of 93, and I hadn't seen his name in any of the lists of notable people we lost this year. But while he holds the record for the most basketball games lost, he knew exactly what he was doing.

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