Wardell Chambers hasn’t always been a loser.
“From the time he was five, he could really play basketball,” says his mother, Earline Chambers. “I never saw Wardell play when he wasn’t the best player on the team.” Mom knows what she’s talking about: Chambers was voted most valuable player three years in a row at Severna Park High School from 1987-89, two more at Anne Arundel Community College, and a final two while on scholarship at Bloomsburg University, a Division II school in Bloomsburg, Pa. (He was elected Best Male Athlete at both AACC and Bloomsburg.)
But while his college eligibility ran out, Chambers’ compulsion to play did not. In order to stay in basketball, he became a loser. A full-time, professional loser: He signed with the Washington Generals.
Chambers, now 25, is in his second year as a guard for the Generals, the legendary straight men for the Harlem Globetrotters. The squad, founded in the early 1950s by current coach Red Klotz, has a tradition of losing even the Boston Red Sox could covet. (Klotz, a New Jerseyite, says the team’s nickname was a tribute to war hero and newly elected President Dwight Eisenhower; Washington was cited as the home city because an NBA franchise, the Washington Capitols, had just abandoned the District.)
There generally isn’t much suspense when the Trotters and the Generals mix it up. Last year, while playing in Austria, the Globetrotters lost to a barnstorming squad of NBA alumni assembled by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The defeat, according to the Trotters, ended a string of 8,829 consecutive wins for the team. All but a handful of those victories came over the Generals.
The Generals never played anybody but the Globetrotters. And with one exception, never won. The first and only time Klotz’s team didn’t lose came in 1971, when he was 50 years old. Klotz hit the winning bucket in that game, and he remembers being surprised by how the paying customers in Knoxville, Tenn., reacted to the gargantuan upset.
“You’d have thought we’d killed Santa,” recalls Klotz, now 75. “They came to see the Globetrotters win, I guess, so they booed us off the floor when the game was over. All us Generals ran into the locker room and poured orange soda over each others’ heads.”
The Generals’ locker room never again witnessed a postgame celebration. Before this season, Klotz changed his whupping boys’ name to the International All-Stars “to reflect the global nature of the game today.” But no matter what handle they go by, his players are more acclimated to beatings than Joan Crawford’s kids.
“We lose every night,” Chambers sighs from a hotel outside of Utica, N.Y. A few hours earlier, the Generals came within 15 points of beating the Trotters.
Chambers insists with great sincerity that his team desperately wants, and does everything it can, to win each game. The numbers don’t back him up, but hey, what else is he going to say? The Trotters are the stars and get more preferential treatment from officials than Dean Smith gets in Chapel Hill. When the team goes into its high-flying, the-ball-is-quicker-than-the-eye routines, the refs get out of the way, à la a good pro- wrestling umpire. The Generals, and now the All-Stars, have always been expected to play along, no matter how embarrassing the proceedings get. And they can get pretty darn shameful.
Chambers was the first player Rich Mills ever recruited to Bloomsburg. Mills is still on the coaching staff at the school and caught the Globetrotters’ recent show at Nassau Coliseum. Watching his former MVP forced to play peon for the first time wasn’t an entirely pleasurable experience for Mills.
“I never had a player who hated to lose as much as Wardell hated to lose, and that’s why we made him our captain,” Mills recalls, with palpable affection. “What a great, hard-nosed kid he is. But now he’s losing every night. And not just that: To see him on the court with balls being stuffed down his shirt, and tall guys holding the ball over his head, and people yanking on his trousers when he’s at the foul line—well, I can’t imagine that that would be great fun for Wardell. He’s a good soldier, though.”
The affronts follow the team back to the hotel each night on the road. “There are groupies in the bars in every city, but the women want the Trotters,” says Chambers. “A couple guys on my team try to pretend they’re Trotters, but I just go to my room and go to sleep after the game.”
So why would a guy endure all that?
It’s not about money, certainly: Klotz wouldn’t say how much he pays his charges, but practically choked when asked if All-Stars’ salaries approach $30,000 a year. “Oh, no, no, no!” he guffawed. “We don’t have big money or big sponsors!” Chambers, with the degree in business administration he earned while at Bloomsburg, could surely command as big a wage if he traded in his high-tops for wingtips.
Chambers clearly puts up with all the crap because of how he feels about basketball.
“I love the game,” Chambers says.“I want to stay
Screw all those high-profile posers who show up in slickly produced NBA promos mouthing those same words of love! The sum total of their sacrifice involves showing up courtside for nationally televised games, with the hoi polloi at their backs. They wouldn’t ever go near an arena if it meant that balls would be bounced off their noggins, or that their naughty bits might be exposed before 10,000 pairs of eyes while they shoot a free throw.
Chambers signed with the Generals after exhausting all other playing options. He went on several tryouts with pro leagues of varying levels after Bloomsburg but, at 6-foot-2-inches tall, he didn’t get any offers. The last audition came last year, when he was “the last guard cut” by the Scranton Miners, a semipro club based in the Pennsylvania coal town.
“The Miners coach told me I lacked pro experience,” Chambers huffs. Along with that cruel-to-be-kind-ness, the Scranton coach passed Chambers’ name on to Klotz.
Before Klotz ever saw him dribble or shoot, Chambers was boarding a flight with the rest of the Generals to accompany the Globetrotters on a one-month tour of South America. Not only had Chambers never taken a paycheck to play ball, but before that trip, he’d never been on a plane before. Soon enough, he was taking beatings in Peru, Ecuador, Chile, and Argentina.
“The Globetrotters got to meet the heads of state in every country,” he says. “I didn’t.”
When the teams returned, Klotz offered Chambers another tour of duty for 1996, and the player accepted. Next weekend, that tour comes by the D.C. area for the first time with Chambers. (On March 9, the All-Stars go against the Trotters at the Patriot Center at
1 p.m. and at USAir Arena at 7:30 p.m.) His mother has never seen him play as a pro. She’ll be at the USAir Arena game, which will be played at the arena where Chambers and his father used to watch their favorite NBA team, the Bullets. The senior Chambers died last year before Wardell donned a Generals uniform.
Chambers insists he’s still a hoop dreamer, but concedes that his dreams get less fantastic with each passing city, each passing rout. Only his wildest hallucinations involve the NBA or even a European league. (The jump from General to NBA, however, isn’t unprecedented: Charlie Criss, who played guard for Klotz’s team a decade ago, went on to a modest career with the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks.) There was even a time when Chambers thought he’d be brought up to the Trotters’ roster, but he no longer regards that as likely.
“No matter what happens from here on, I definitely can say I’ve gotten a lot out of basketball,” he says. “I got a scholarship, I’ve seen new places. And I want to stay in it as long as I can.”
Chambers thinks he’ll stick with the All-Stars for another year and then try to get a post in the front office of a pro-basketball franchise, or one on the bench coaching a high-school or college team. If and when a coaching job pops up, Chambers says, this stint with the Generals/All-Stars will factor into his first pep talk, which he’s already written in his head.
“I’m going to tell my players right off that I’ve had enough of losing, and that I’m ready to win one,” he says. “And I’ll mean it. CP