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“Listen,” says Red Klotz, a man who’s given his life to basketball, “I coach just like Larry Brown does. I stress fundamentals. I may have a hard time winning, but…”
Washington has always been a town for losers. In George Abbott’s Damn Yankees, as in real life, the pitiful Washington Senators were the major-league squad most in need of the Devil’s help. The Redskins were the laughingstock of the NFL for decades before George Allen got here. The 1974–75 Washington Capitals went 8-67-5, still the worst record in NHL history. The Bullets/Wizards have only recently snapped out of a 23-year streak of not winning a playoff series.
But Klotz was the driving force behind the losingest losers ever to represent our town or any other. He’s the man who more than a half-century ago gave the world the Washington Generals, the longest-running and most-famous foil the Harlem Globetrotters ever saw.
Klotz led his squad to several thousand defeats. And one win.
Yet, at 86, he’s not about to apologize to this city.
“I was trying to win every night,” he says. “I just didn’t have much luck against the Globetrotters.”
Klotz wasn’t always a loser. He was a schoolboy hoops superstar in his native Philadelphia in the late 1930s, playing for South Philadelphia High School, then the dominant team in that city. He went on to play for Villanova and later toured the East Coast with various semi-pro teams with mostly Jewish rosters.
When integrated competitions were extremely rare here and everywhere else, Klotz’s teams were playing black opponents. In April 1942, Klotz’s Philly team defeated a squad of Howard and Morgan State alums at Turner’s Arena off 14th Street NW. In January 1943, he came back to the same building with a team called the New York Hebrews and lost to D.C.-based powerhouse the Lichtman Bears before a sold-out house.
The best of Klotz’s barnstorming teams was the Philadelphia Sphas, a squad named for its sponsor, the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association. The Sphas had a large following in many Eastern cities and were able to draw sellout D.C. crowds at Uline Arena. A Washington Post story about a 1950 game between the Sphas and the New York Renaissance, an all-black squad, reported that the game attracted the largest basketball crowd of the year, with “about 2,500 fans” left outside Uline as the game went on before a packed house of nearly 7,000. Klotz, already the star player and coach, bought the team.
Abe Saperstein, the Chicagoan who founded the Globetrotters in 1926, noticed the Sphas’ drawing power. The Globetrotters were the most popular basketball team in the land at that time, far more renowned than any of the franchises in various NBA precursors, many of which scheduled doubleheaders with Saperstein’s bunch—one league game, followed by a Globetrotters contest to boost the gate.
For the first 25 years of their existence, the Globetrotters, who weren’t part of any league, faced mostly ad hoc squads from whatever town they were visiting. In a March 1941 appearance in a sold-out Turner’s Arena, for example, the Globetrotters defeated a similarly all-black D.C.-based team, the Washington Bruins.
But Saperstein realized his life would be a lot easier if he took the same opponent on the road night after night. In 1952, he approached Klotz and asked if he wanted his squad to be the sanctioned opposition to his gold mine of a team.
“He knew we were good,” says Klotz of Saperstein, who died in 1966. “He wanted some competition for his Globetrotters and asked me to form a team.”
Klotz’s team needed a name: Though he intended to use the same players he’d been coaching and playing alongside, Klotz knew “Philadelphia Sphas” wouldn’t work. Philly didn’t have the national appeal that the outfit needed. Besides, in 1952, Klotz’s hometown already had another established pro basketball franchise—the Philadelphia Warriors—and Saperstein didn’t want his customers confused.
“Washington,” however, exuded the all-American vibe Klotz and Saperstein were going for. And, as luck would have it, the nation’s capital was only recently without a big-league squad. The Washington Capitols of the American Professional Basketball Association, a season after being abandoned by coach and future hoops god Red Auerbach, folded in January 1952.
“Red, who was my friend, left for Boston to start his legend, and that team in Washington went bankrupt, so Washington was without a team, and I figured we should use that place,” says Klotz, who had no ties to D.C. other than his occasional visits with barnstorming hoops teams. “If there was still a team there, I don’t know if we’d have used that.”
In essence: D.C. can thank Auerbach for getting saddled with the crappiest squad in sports history.
“Generals,” meanwhile, got the nod due to the popularity of the guy who was about to move into our town’s most famous residence.
“People loved Eisenhower, and he was new then,” says Klotz.
So the Washington Generals were born. And the Globetrotters had a whupping boy unlike any the sports world had ever seen. For the first 19 years the teams played each other, the Generals didn’t win a single game. According to Generals lore, that losing streak ended in January 1971, in Martin, Tenn., when Klotz, the team’s 51-year-old player-coach, hit a half-court shot at the buzzer to beat the Globetrotters by a point.
“I heard Red hit that shot by accident,” says Gene Hudgins, a former General and devoted friend of Klotz’s, with a big laugh.
Despite thousands and thousands of chances, Klotz never won another game while wearing a Washington uniform, nor the uniform of any of the other Globetrotter opponents he’s managed since shelving the Generals name some years ago: the Boston Shamrocks, New Jersey Reds, and, currently, the New York Nationals. (The Globetrotters will face the Nationals at the Verizon Center next week.) He says he has no idea how many games he’s lost.
“I don’t count the losses,” he says. “It’s easier to keep track of the wins.”
Yet Klotz, who on paper sure seems like the worst or unluckiest coach the game has ever seen, insists to this day that he and his charges gave it their all against the Globetrotters night after night, year after year, bucket of confetti after bucket of confetti.
“We weren’t playing just any team. We were playing the Harlem Globetrotters,” he says. “These guys had Wilt Chamberlain, Connie Hawkins, Sweetwater Clifton playing for them before they went to the NBA. These were powerhouse teams. They didn’t need anybody to try to lose.”
“Before every game, we discussed cutting down turnovers, picking your man, everything any coach would discuss with his team,” he says, with admirable earnestness. “Nobody wants to lose.”
In any case, the losing never dimmed Klotz’s love of the game. Before he was sidelined by a circulatory ailment a few months ago, he was playing three times a week in gyms around Margate, N.J., the shore town where he now lives.
The malady has kept him off the court for the longest stretch since he took his first dribble as a kid—even while serving during World War II, he played for a military team. But he plans on getting back as soon as his doctors give him the go-ahead.
He’s never going to even up his lifetime won-lost record, but he’s giving it his best.
“Around here, I win my share,” he says.