Before he became the biggest loser in sporting history, Red Klotz knew how to win. He was a diminutive basketball star in his home town of Philadelphia and played for a championship professional team in the 1940s. But he didn’t become famous until he became player-coach of the Washington Generals in 1952. He played with the Generals until he was 63 and coached until he was 75.
The Generals played more than 200 games a year, always against the Harlem Globetrotters, basketball’s road warriors of comedy. In his time with the Generals, Klotz lost at least 14,000 games, according to some estimates more than 20,000. “That sounds about right,” Klotz would shrug, whenever someone tried to calculate the number. “I don’t count the losses. It’s easier to keep track of the wins.”
Klotz commissioned the Washington Generals in 1952 at the request of the Globetrotters’ owner, Abe Saperstein, to play perennial second fiddle to the main attraction. The team has never had any affiliation with Washington, DC; Klotz chose the name because he was an Army veteran and Dwight Eisenhower had just been elected president. The Generals played under other names– the New York Nationals, Boston Shamrocks, Atlantic City Seagulls, New Jersey Reds and International All-Stars – but in any guise their role was to be worthy opponents.
Klotz played against the Globetrotters so long that he became almost as familiar as the Trotters’ biggest stars, Goose Tatum, Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal. To make the Globetrotters look good he knew that his team would have to put on credible performances. Klotz often said that he was never told to lose a game. It was the Globetrotters’ responsibility to win the game, not the Generals’ job to lose. “I always tell my players that every time you lose, you should learn something,” he said. “We should have learned quite a lot by now.”
The Generals were (and still are) made up of former college players with solid skills, a desire to travel and an understanding of their secondary place in the Globetrotters’ universe. Several Generals team play the Globetrotters in 400 games around the world each year. “I tell my players that our first priority is always the laughter,” he said in 1995. “We’re the straight men. Laurel had Hardy, Lewis had Martin, Costello had Abbott, and the Trotters have us.”
When we was on the court, the ball would invariably be bounced off his head or stuffed inside his jersey or his shorts pulled down. Wherever the Globetrotters went, Klotz and the Generals went with them. (The two organisations are separately owned and do not travel together.) He played in war zones, before four popes, the Queen, Eva Peron, Nikita Khrushchev and the Shah of Iran – whose guards pulled machine guns on Klotz when he ran back to the bus to retrieve a bag of basketballs. He played or coached in 117 countries, on surfaces that included bull rings, football pitches, an empty swimming pool, aircraft carrier flight decks and, before 75,000 people in Germany, plywood laid on top of beer barrels. Klotz survived three earthquakes and two floods.
There was one golden moment, on 5 January 1971 at a college gymnasium in Martin, Tennessee. Klotz was 50 but still in possession of his remarkable two-handed set shot, which had twice made him Philadelphia’s high school player of the year. The Globetrotters were not at their best, but the Generals, playing as the New Jersey Reds, had the game of their lives. They trailed by one point with 10 seconds left. Klotz asked for the ball.
“I took a two-hander from 20 feet,” he recalled. “Swish. Then Meadowlark’s final shot rimmed out. We won. Everybody was stunned.” The crowd looked with disbelief at the scoreboard that showed the Globetrotters losing 100-99. “Beating the Globetrotters is like shooting Santa Claus,” Klotz said. The Generals are still looking for their next victory.
He was born in Philadelphia in 1920; his father, a Russian Jewish immigrant, was a carpenter. Despite his stature, Klotz was a dynamo on court, nicknamed Red because of his hair. He led his high school team to two city championships and played at Villanova University before serving as an Army fitness instructor during the Second World War.
Klotz played professionally for several teams, and during the 1947-48 season was a member of the Baltimore Bullets, champions of the Basketball Association of America, a forerunner of the NBA. At 5ft 7in he remains the shortest player in a championship team in the NBA or any of its predecessors.
In his 60s, he regularly beat NBA players in shooting contests and well into his 80s, he could still embarrass high school and college players in pick-up games. “If Red was coming out of school today,” Meadowlark Lemon said in 1995, “he would definitely play in the NBA because he’s got one of the best three-point shots I’ve ever seen.”
Klotz retired from full-time coaching in 1995 but remained closely involved in basketball and the Washington Generals until his death. “Somebody has to lose to the Globetrotters,” he said in 2006. “But I was smart enough to make a career out of it.”
Louis Herman Klotz, basketball player and coach: born Philadelphia 21 October 1920; married Gloria Stein (six children); died Margate, New Jersey 12 July 2014.
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