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Can Generals put Globetrotters on ice? The odds sure are against it


I love the Harlem Globetrotters. Well, more to the point, I love the Washington Generals,* the team that always loses to the Globetrotters, those players who game after game, year after year, decade after decade fall for the ball-on-the-string trick, search hopelessly for the ball under the shirt, and aimlessly chase the Globetrotters through their unstoppable weave offense.

*Or the New York Nationals or whatever they happen to be called that day.

One of my favorite newspaper columns was one I did on Generals coach Red Klotz a couple of years ago. It's a story that has been done many times -- and I have no illusions that I did it any better than it had been done before. But it's like walking on the Great Wall or trying to catch a taxi in the New York rain, the point is not how well you do it. The point is to do it. The point is every sportswriter, at some point in his or her life, should write about Red Klotz.

"I don't want anyone on my team that doesn't play to win," Klotz told me. He lived a winners' life long before he started coaching the Generals. He was a 5-foot-7 guard with a deadly two-hand set shot; he played for the famous Philadelphia Sphas, perhaps the best professional basketball team in the world before the NBA began. The Sphas beat the Globetrotters a couple of times in those years before Sweet Georgia Brown and the games were entirely on the level. He played briefly in 1948 for the Baltimore Bullets of the old Basketball Association of America -- the league that would become the NBA. And, as he said, he fought in World War II and helped "win the big one."

Abe Saberstein asked him to create a team that would travel around with the Globetrotters. In the 58 years since, Klotz's teams have beaten the Globetrotters twice. And they have lost more than 13,000 times. Even Rod Marinelli winces.

Of course, you want to know about the two victories. Everybody does. The first happened in St. Joseph, Mich., in 1962. The scoreboard operators at Globetrotters games are not, as you might have guessed, especially vigilant during games. And in this game the score was actually quite close and the Generals hit a couple of shots at the end that the scoreboard people did not bother to register. Everybody left the arena assuming -- and as assumptions go this seemed pretty valid -- that the Globetrotters won. But Klotz showed the Globetrotters the scorebook afterward and, in his own words, "They admitted it." I have not actually heard anyone from the Globetrotters admit it, however.

The second time is more real. It happened at the University of Tennessee-Martin in 1971. There were 3,600 people in the stands, and the game was going as these games always go. The Globetrotters had a 23-point lead in the second quarter, they were weaving and playing around and getting ready for the water bucket gag. But there are two things many people don't know about Globetrotters-Generals games:

1. There are only so many gag periods. During those gag periods, things are a bit scripted and the Generals play the dupe on defense. But the rest of the time, the two teams are really playing basketball.

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2. The Generals are not hindered in any way on the offensive end for the entire game. That is -- if they can score every single time down the floor, they are welcome to do that. The fun stuff only happens on the Globetrotters' side of the court.

So, the Generals kept playing. And they got hot. Really hot. Klotz at age 51, made a few long shots. They came all the way back. They took the lead. And suddenly, the Globetrotters realized that they were in danger of actually losing and started to play hard. The crowd realized it too. They started to boo mercilessly. "It was like killing Santa Claus," Klotz said merrily more than three decades later. The Generals killed the clock, won the game 100-99, and ran off the court to the most beautiful sounding boos that Red Klotz ever heard. It was a bit of a scandal, and Globetrotters owner George Gillett met his team in Arkansas to scream at them. The Globetrotters destroyed the Generals that next night.

And... the Globetrotters have won easily pretty much every night since. Klotz listed off for me some of the places where his teams lost. They lost in 97 countries. They lost in Attica. They lost in a bullfighter's ring. They lost on a floating basketball court in African waters. They lost in Lenin Square. They lost inside the DMZ during the Vietnam War. They lost at a leper colony in the Phillipines. They lost under different names -- Klotz actually retired the name "Washington Generals" in 1995 because, well, you have to change your luck somehow.

Funny thing is, the Generals are back now, which leads to the whole point -- the greatest quote ever. One of the perks of being a writer at Sports Illustrated is that I get flooded with press releases. Many of these offer experts that I might use in my stories, or they tell me about exotic sporting events that I probably cannot attend, or they introduce me to remarkable or semi-remarkable athletes I may consider writing about. On Monday I got a press release announcing that the Globetrotters will play the Washington Generals in New York City. At Central Park. On ice.

Yes, the Globetrotters on ice. Well, why not? As Globetrotters CEO Kurt Schneider says in the release, the Globetrotters have played on battleships and in empty swimming pools, so playing a basketball game on ice is really just the next thing. And if you are going to play on ice, you have to play in Central Park. I mean, that's obvious. The game is scheduled for Feb. 9, if you plan to be in the City on that day.

So, OK, it's a publicity stunt for a team that has, over its long history, excelled at publicity stunts. But the point is not exactly the game. The point is the Red Klotz quote about the game... pulled from the press release.

"We excel on ice," Generals owner Red Klotz said. "I've been asking for this game for years, and I'm glad the Globetrotters have finally given in."

We excel on ice. I laugh happily every single time I read that quote. We excel on ice. I'm laughing again. Has there ever been a more joyful and more hopeful statement uttered? We excel on ice. You know, I have tried hard to write about the fun side of sports, the optimistic side of sports, the bright side of the street. But I don't think I have ever captured it quite like four words from an 88-year-old man who has lost more than 13,000 games in his career -- that's almost 36 straight years of losing one game every day.

We excel on ice. I have no doubt that they do.