Joe Throwback: Red Klotz
In my life, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet many of the greatest winners in sports history. Among them was the late Red Klotz, who played for and coached the renowned Washington Generals and, in the process of losing more than 14,000 games, won as much as anybody. I believe there should be a movie about him.
Red Klotz points out the sliding glass door at the ocean just 100 yards away.
Red: Look out there.
Me: Yes. It’s beautiful.
Red: You know, every day it looks different. Every single day.
Me: Because of the weather?
Red: Because of the ocean.
The Washington Generals always lose: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. They lose on indoor basketball courts and outdoor courts. They lose on ships, they lose on aircraft carriers, they lose in prisons, and they lose on the back of trucks. They lose in front of popes, in front of kings, in front of queens, in front of dictators, in front of presidents. They lose in Beijing, and they lose in Moscow, and they lose in Rio, and they lose in Mumbai, and they lose in Tulsa.
They lose as the Washington Generals, mostly, but they also lose under different names like the Boston Shamrocks or the Atlantic City Seagulls or the Baltimore Rockets or the Chicago Demons or the New Jersey Reds or New York Nationals or an all-encompassing name of losers: The International All-Stars.
In the end, aren’t we all International All-Stars just trying to win one time?
They even lose on ice. Last year, the Generals played the Harlem Globetrotters in a basketball game on an ice pond in Central Park, and before the game, their coach and founder, Red Klotz, perhaps rashly, boasted: “We excel on ice.” They lost, of course. The Washington Generals always lose.
This must be distinctly understood or nothing wonderful can come from the story I'm about to relate. If we were to believe that the Generals mostly lost to the Harlem Globetrotters, or almost always lost, or even won only as rarely as the Detroit Lions, then there would be nothing more remarkable about that day 40 years ago than a Lions’ upset victory over one of the unlucky three or four or five teams that wake up on the wrong side of things on some random Sunday afternoon.
This office where Red Klotz sits at this very moment is a testament to all that losing. On the walls are photographs of the players and friends who have shared the losing with him. He sits behind a desk piled high with newspaper clippings and magazine articles, all of them about his incessant losing. He stares out the window while a feature about him plays on television.
“Red Klotz,” the woman’s voice on the television says, “is the biggest loser who ever lived.”
This rather unsympathetic summation of an 89-year life does not make Red Klotz turn away from the window. He has heard it many times before. On the edge of his desk is a newspaper collage, which features pictures of Al Gore, Charlie Brown, Thomas Dewey, Rodney Dangerfield, the horse called Sham. It is a collage of famous losers. Red Klotz’s picture is the largest one, and it is at the center.
Red Klotz’s office is at the top of the stairs of a comfortable home by the Atlantic Ocean in a secluded New Jersey place called Margate. From his window, he can see the ocean, which looks different every day, and he can see the beach, which looks the same. He met Gloria on this beach 73 years ago. She noticed him because of the red sweater he wore. "Who wears a sweater on a beach?" she thought. Red had earned the sweater by leading his high school team to the Philadelphia city basketball championship. He never took it off. The sweater, he believed, defined him. He believed himself a winner then.
Red Klotz (pointing to a photograph on his office wall): That is me on a camel.
Red: And that is me on the Great Wall of China.
Me: And what’s this?
Red: That is the Sports Illustrated cover of me that they never used.
Me: They never used this?
Red: No. You know what they used instead?
Red: A beautiful woman in a bathing suit!
Me: I think that cover is ...
Red: What chance did I stand against a beautiful woman in a bathing suit?
Once upon a time — in early January, with the last of the Christmas lights smoldering and the final whiff of New Year's Eve champagne lingering in the air — Red Klotz sat on a metal chair in a gymnasium in a small Tennessee town called Martin and prepared for the show. He would not remember feeling anything special that day. The days and games had long before bled into each other, one after another — a blur of airports and bus rides and hotel lobbies and giddy crowds filled with shrieking children and Red always getting his pants pulled down. The sameness of it is what he remembered. He felt no premonitions. He had no special feeling in the bones.
Red was 50 years old, and he was, as he had been for almost 20 years, a player and a coach of a team most often called the Washington Generals. As the years passed by, there would be much disagreement about what his team's name was on that night. In different versions of the story, they were the Atlantic City Seagulls or the less formal Atlanta Gulls or the New York Nationals or perhaps the traditional Washington Generals.
They were actually called the New Jersey Reds. On this night, they were named for the man himself.
By any name, Red Klotz’s teams had lost 2,495 games in a row, not that he knew the number. He was not a self-conscious man, this Red Klotz, which is to say that he did not spend a lot of time wondering how his life had turned this way. Maybe he believed in fate. Maybe he simply didn’t think about it much. He’d simply followed the game of basketball. When he was young and was still called Louis or Herman or Herm, he would sneak out of his house in South Philly and head to the cage on the corner of Fifth and Bainbridge. That’s where he first played ball.
He would, all his life, remember everything about the first shot he took on that court, age 12, all the colors and odors and sounds of the basketball echoing inside the cage, though what he remembered most was the ball going in. Perhaps this is simple romanticism, or perhaps this is a natural reaction for a man who in his life has made more long jump shots than anyone in the history of world. For little Louis Klotz could, as they say, shoot the eyes out of the ball.
He never did grow too much -- he generously measured 5-foot-7 at his athletic and physical height — but soon Louis was called Red, and his two-hand set shot grew deadly. He twice led his Philadelphia team to the city championship and was twice named the city's player of the year. The championship earned him the sweater that won him the girl on the beach near Atlantic City. The set-shot won him a scholarship to Villanova, where he joined his friend and roommate and the best young basketball player he knew, Chuck Drizen. Together, their freshman team was invincible. They did not lose a single game — and that included games against the Villanova varsity. And then, like all the young men of their time, they went to war.
“There he is,” Red Klotz is saying now, and we are back in his office, and he points at a man inside a simple black and white photograph inside a simple gold frame. “He was a great player,” Red says as he looks at the photograph. “He would have gone to the Hall of Fame.”
But if Red Klotz believes in fate, it is because he and Chuck Drizen had different fates. Red stayed stateside during the war and was recruited by company commanders who wanted his two-hand set shot. Chuck Drizen joined the Marines, and he died at Iwo Jima. In the last letter he sent to his friend, Chuck told Red: “You will go far with basketball.”
When the war ended, Red Klotz went back to playing. He still could shoot the eyes out of the ball. He played for a number of teams in those early and turbulent days of professional basketball, and along the way joined a team called the Baltimore Bullets in a new league called the Basketball Association of America. He was the shortest player in the league, and he played in 11 regular-season games and six playoff games. The Bullets won what is now considered an NBA championship. For this, Red Klotz got $1,700 and a free dinner. The record book even now, more than 60 years later, calls Red Klotz the shortest NBA championship player ever.
Red Klotz points to a set of drink coasters on his desk. They are labeled “Losing:”
Red: Take a look at those.
Me: What are these?
Red: Just read them.
Me: Hmm. “Our greatest glory is not in falling but in rising every time we fall.” That’s from Confucius.
Red: Read the next one.
Me: The Dalai Lama: “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.”
Red: What do you think?
Me: I don’t know. What do you think?
Red: I’ve had those on my desk for 40 years.
Red: Losing isn’t always losing.
On that night in Tennessee, Red Klotz's team was shorthanded. Their big center, Dennis Witkowski, had asked for the day off to spend with his family. Red's players got so little time with their families. Red himself got so little time with family. He was 50 years old, and Gloria was back home in Margate, their six children were mostly grown. Homesickness, if you could call it that, would flare up daily, like an ulcer.
Though they may have had Washington and Atlanta and Boston and Atlantic City in their names, Red’s teams played no home games. Every night it was another town, and another round of boos, and another game spent playing as straight men to the Harlem Globetrotters’ joyful antics. The yo-yo ball. The deflated ball. The football set. The water bucket. The ball under the shirt. The pants pulldown. They called the Globetrotter skits “reams,” and occasionally there would be new reams added. But, for the most part, the reams did not change, and the games did not change, and the only way to know where they were being played was a favorite restaurant or quirks in the local customs. Red came to know, for instance, that if the crowd did not laugh, they were probably playing basketball in the Soviet Union.
A couple of Red’s players would remember that they felt edgy in Tennessee. The players had been on the road for months. They were growing tired of each other and, even more, they were growing tired of the Globetrotters. If we wake up with the urge to tell off our bosses, you can only imagine how badly the Washington Generals wanted to JUST ONCE punch that hidden ball out from under the Globetrotters’ jersey. Red Klotz does not remember what he said to his players before the game, but he feels sure he said some of the same things he always said before games: “Take good shots. Make them respect you. Play to win.”
Nobody in the locker room found those words “Play to win” ridiculous — they had heard Red say it so many times that they came to understand him. No, they would not win the game. They never won the game. Not by the score. But they had come to understand that Red had a different idea of what winning meant.
“I cannot stand losers,” Red is saying now, and we are back in his home, back in his office, and out the window the ocean is still crashing into the Jersey shore, and it is clear he does not mean this with any irony or sarcasm, either.
After he won the BAA championship, he played for and coached and soon bought the Philadelphia Sphas, a team that once had its own claim as the greatest basketball team in the world. The Sphas were a predominantly Jewish team — SPHA stands for South Philadelphia Hebrew Association. At the time, basketball was a Jewish game, as well as an African-American game. The famous sportswriter Paul Gallico spoke the bigotry of the time when he said that that basketball was favored by Jews because the sport appealed to “alert, scheming mind(s), flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart aleckness.”
Red won practically every time with the Sphas; they were that good. One day, on the ballroom at the old Broadwood Hotel in Philadelphia, they even beat the Harlem Globetrotters. The Globetrotters’ star, 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.” But the next time they played, the Sphas won again.
And that is 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 had to be an understanding. People were coming, after all, to see the World Famous Harlem Globetrotters play … and win.
This was the pivotal moment in Red Klotz’s life. What to do? He loved to play basketball. He loved to coach basketball. And he loved to win. Playing the Globetrotters night after night would give him a chance to do the first two.
Plus, there was this beautiful little brick house along the Atlantic Ocean that the woman of his dreams wanted to buy ...
“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.
“Some people dig ditches,” the Boston Celtics’ own Red, Red Auerbach, would say of his friend Klotz. ‘Some people work on skyscrapers. Red’s business is basketball. It’s a job for him. He does it to put food on the table.”
Red: I like to walk on the beach every day. I think about things.
Me: Do you ever think about the losses?
Red: Never. Sometimes I think about the places I have been.
Me: Which places?
Red: All of them. Name a place.
Me: Kansas City.
Red: I used to eat at President Truman’s favorite seafood place. I ate in his booth. Give me another.
Red: Played in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.
Red: We played for the Shah of Iran. I met him.
Me: That’s amazing.
Red: When I was a kid I wanted to travel around the world. But who gets to travel around the world?
The Globetrotters led the Reds on that January night by 23 points in the second quarter, or anyway that’s what the Globetrotters’ ace PR man. Joe Anzivino, would tell the papers. Nobody notices the scoreboard during a Globetrotters game. Well, two people would sometimes notice, one of those being Red, and the other being his wife, Gloria. She would sit behind the bench and do crossword puzzles, and every now and again she would tap her husband on the shoulder, point to the scoreboard and say: “You’re down 20 points, you think now’s a good time to call timeout?”
There are rules for being a Washington General.
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 are allowed to 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 as a player had his pants pulled down thousands of times — he would always take pants duty for the 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.
The Globetrotters might tell you that making them look good was the Generals’ No. 1 job, but Klotz never saw it that way. That's what he meant by “play to win.” Their job was to bring the best out of the Globetrotters — the best basketball, the most-inspired effort, the most-intense joy, the most-heated competition. He told his players that if the Globetrotters got sloppy passing the ball around in their famous weave offense, the Generals should “slap the ball away.” He told them if the Globetrotters got lazy on defense, they should drive the ball right down their throats.
And Klotz followed his own advice. He once sensed some sluggishness in the Globetrotters’ man-to-man defense, and he attacked the basket, and he was in the clear, and he shot a layup — only then he looked up and saw a giant hand way above his head. The giant hand caught the ball in midair before it reached the rim and held it there for a moment.
“Where ya going, little man?” the legendary Connie Hawkins said to his friend Red Klotz.
Well, 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 in the paint. The Globetrotters seemed weary or uninterested. And nobody noticed the scoreboard.
Nobody noticed, that is, except for Red Klotz.
Red: You know, we beat the Globetrotters once in St. Joseph, Michigan.
Me: Yes, I think you told me this once.
Red: The scoreboard showed we had lost. But the scoreboard operators had missed a couple of our baskets. The scorebook had it right.
Me: Didn’t you show the scorebook to the Globetrotters?
Red: I did. I showed it to them more than once. Showed them we had won.
Me: But they didn’t believe you.
Red: No, they didn’t believe it.
Me: Did they ever believe you?
Red: No. But we won. It doesn’t matter if they believed it or not. We won.
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 had an injury of some sort — and the showman Meadowlark Lemon seemed to Klotz and others to be in a bit of a fog. So they played straight-up 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 for real. 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 exact 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 just 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 thousands of times. The buzzer sounded. The ball bounced off the rim. 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 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.
In the locker room afterward, they threw Red into the shower, and they poured orange soda on each other’s heads. There was no beer to be had in the arena in Martin, Tenn. — it was a dry town. And it goes without saying that the Reds or the Nationals or the Seagulls or whatever they were called did not travel with champagne.
Red: Everyone has lost at one time or another.
Me: So we are all losers.
Red: No. We’re not losers. We all lose.
Me: What is the difference?
Red: What is the difference between and winner and loser?
Red: A winner is someone who can tell the difference.
The game the Globetrotters lost was 40 years ago today, on Jan. 5, 1971 — the same day that the boxer Sonny Liston was found dead in Las Vegas, though it was actually five days after Liston had died.
For many days, nobody in America seemed to realize that the Globetrotters had lost. The Globetrotters took it badly, and probably tried to cover it up. The owner, George Gillett, met the team in Arkansas the next day and, apparently, screamed at them unmercifully. Some of the Generals would remember Red getting in some trouble as well, though Red always said the Globetrotters never blamed him for winning.
“It has never been our job to lose,” he says. “It is the World Famous Harlem Globetrotters’ job to win.” The only thing he remembered hearing from the Globetrotters was when Meadowlark Lemon came into the locker room after the game to congratulate the players. “You deserved to win,” he said.
After he left, Klotz told them: “That is what it looks like to see a man is lying through his teeth.”
The newspapers did not pick up on the loss for a couple of weeks, until that PR man, Anzivino, decided that they were treating this game all wrong. This was not something to be hidden. This was something to be celebrated. The Globetrotters had finally lost. Even the great Harlem Globetrotters could lose. He made a little noise about it. There were a handful of stories in some of the papers out west about Red Klotz finally beating the Globetrotters. One paper in Nevada wrote a bit about every player on the Generals team: Paul Favorite, a tall guard from New Jersey; Mat Spinall, a one-time star at Jacksonville College; Charles Melvin, a junior college great; Sam Sawyer, John McAndrew, John Healey ...
And, most of all: Red Klotz. He has not beaten the Globetrotters since — and his teams under their many names have played the Globetrotters more than 10,000 times. They have lost on six continents and in more than 100 countries. They have lost underwater, on ice, on cement, on wood, on grass, on mud and on sawdust. Once, in a sawdust game in Germany, Red Klotz stole the ball from Wilt Chamberlain. “You’re in my country now, Wilt,” he cackled as he dribbled away. Next thing he knew, he was on the ground with Wilt Chamberlain’s giant foot on his chest.
“Now,” Wilt said with that big grin on his face, “you're in MY country, Red.”
Red Klotz says he doesn't remember specific games. He remembers moments, thrills, brushes with greatness, chance encounters, the way his family interacted with the games, the way the crowds cheered. Yes, sometimes, when he stopped playing, he would sit in the stands and watch the crowds. He would watch the way the children laughed. Sometimes, he would think, “the timing was JUST OFF, oh, if only they had done that gag a beat quicker.” And sometimes he would see a little girl or a little boy doubled over in laughter, and he would think: This is absolutely perfect.
Red: You will bring your family back with you next time.
Me: Thank you. They would like that.
Gloria: This house was meant for families.
Red: Look out there. Look at the ocean.
Gloria: It’s out there every day.
Red: It’s not bad for a guy who lost a lot of games.
He still plays basketball when he can, half-court only now, at the Jewish Community Center down the street. He still makes the two-hand set shot enough to impress the reporters who come by now and again. At night, he watches the NBA. He likes the little guys. “Steve Nash is fun to watch,” he says. “But he’s not really a little guy. He is in today’s world. I like the Celtics’ little guy, the one who backs up Rondo, Nate Robinson, I like him. There should be room in the game for the little guy.”
He will still go to watch his Generals play now and then, but he’s not nearly as involved. His son-in-law, John Ferrari, runs the business now. Red instead spends his days getting inducted into various Halls of Fame. He points to the wall — there are plaques. He is about to become the first non-Globetrotter to have his jersey retired by the Globetrotters. Some think he should get elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield. I do. Nobody in professional basketball history played longer or brought the game to more places. He has undoubtedly scored more points in his life than Kareem or Wilt or Michael. He would like to be elected, but he does not expect it to happen. He knows people think of him as a loser.
The night after Red Klotz beat the Globetrotters, the Generals (of course) got destroyed by the Globetrotters. That night, the Globetrotters were sharp and alive and determined. Their reams were razor sharp. Their basketball was electric. Red would think that there wasn’t a basketball team on earth that could have beaten the Globetrotters that night.
And when the game was over, Red Klotz looked up at the scoreboard. saw that his team had scored many fewer points than the Globetrotters. Then he looked around and saw how happy everybody looked as they rose from their seats and brushed popcorn off their sweaters and shirts. Nobody was throwing him in a shower or pouring orange soda on his head, and nobody ever would again. But Red Klotz felt as good as he had the night before, maybe better. It was the damndest thing. His team had won again.
This story is from 2011. Red died in 2014, and shortly after that, the Washington Generals were dissolved. Then they were brought back and purchased from the Klotz family by the Harlem Globetrotters.