The greatest loser in sports is fighting for a second win
PHOTO: Andrea Blum
Louis "Red" Klotz, 83, is the coach for the New York Nationals, the opponents of the Harlem Globetrotters. Klotz began his career playing basktball in the 1940s and has been in the game ever since traveling worldwide as coach, owner and player. (CNS/Andrea Blum)
Louis "Red" Klotz is the greatest loser in sports history, but that is not going to stop him from winning the next game, he says.
As the player/coach/owner for more than 50 years of the teams that play the Harlem Globetrotters, Klotz, 83, is still trying to get a second win.
"I've become the losingest coach in basketball, but don't let that fool you," he said recently in an austere visitors' locker room at New York's Madison Square Garden. "I teach fundamental basketball, and I love the game."
Klotz's newest team, the New York Nationals, was preparing to play the Globetrotters during the middle of a season that has 113 games in 108 days.
The Globetrotters are seeing a resurgence in popularity under their new owner, Mannie Jackson, and the Nationals, who have not won a game since the team was created almost 10 years ago, have been the butt of jokes in front of hundreds of thousands of fans on almost every continent. They are the away team wherever they go, getting booed and yelled at, but the Nationals' first goal is to make the audience smile. Still, they cling to the quixotic goal of earning a victory this year or next year. And if not next year, definitely the year after that.
As a point guard with the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association in the 1940s, Klotz first faced the Globetrotters and beat them. He played with that team until 1947, when he joined the National Basketball Association's Baltimore Bullets. At 5 feet 7 inches tall, he is the third-shortest person to play in the NBA, and that year, he was the shortest ever to be part of a championship team.
"It's not like I've always been a loser," Klotz said, "but I've always had more fun losing than winning."
Five years after Klotz won the championship, the Globetrotters, who were becoming so good they started doing stunts during games to keep the score relatively close, invited Klotz to form a team to tour with them.
In 1953, under player/coach Klotz, the Washington Generals (named after Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower) lost the first of their more than 13,000 defeats. Their one victory came in 1971 when Klotz, 50 years old at the time, hit the game-winning shot with three seconds left. He retired as a point guard at 62, having played on both sides of the Iron Curtain and in front of two popes and hundreds of world leaders.
In 1995, Klotz disbanded the Generals and started the Nationals to clear the benches and erase a dismal record. The Nationals have lost thousands of games since then.
As the seats at the Garden began to fill, the Nationals players sat quietly in their locker room, playing dominoes, chewing tobacco and getting haircuts. There were no actual lockers, so they hung their jackets and bags on hooks.
The players had a light covering of sweat from their warm-up games, but Klotz, who played with them and still plays pickup games at least three times a week, was already showered and dressed in a suit for the game. His big ears contrasted with the small features on his nearly wrinkleless face, and his shock of red hair, for which his nickname was bestowed upon him, has patches of gray.
Most of the players were chatting, joking, fighting over the last Red Bull in the cooler, but Juwan Justice was meditating silently with his head down. Justice, 24, played for an NBA development league in Florida, the Eastern Basketball Association and a professional team in Trinidad before coming to the Nationals. This was his first game for the team.
He insisted that he was calm, but the moment someone mentioned the venue, he unleashed a big smile and said, "You've got to be excited to play in the Garden."
Turnover for the team is high, but the competition for spots is intense, and there are always men waiting to join. The pay is not much. Most Nationals take odd jobs, like painting houses, in their time off to make ends meet, but the opportunity to travel, entertain and play the game they love is worth the sacrifice, the players said.
Before the game, Klotz offered one of his mantras. It did not inspire victory, but it helped his players understand that they are not alone: "When the season ends, there's only going to be one winner," he said. "The rest are losers. That doesn't mean they're not good."
By the time the Nationals ran onto the court, the Garden seats were three-quarters full. The crowd remained silent as the team was introduced. The Globetrotters got a standing ovation and put on a show with six balls during warm-ups. The Nationals had only one ball with which to warm up.
It was an "off" night for the Globetrotters. In between Globetrotter stunts, when the teams were actually playing basketball, the Nationals were scoring. When the Globetrotters were showing off, they did not hit a single half-court shot. The referee blew his whistle at a Globetrotter for pinching a National player's bottom during free throws, and a 9-year-old girl in the crowd turned to her father and said, "That man in the black stripes is mean," dismissing the "good guy's" transgression.
The Nationals played hard, panting and sweating as they approached the bench during time-outs. But the Globetrotters' size and talent overwhelmed them; they lost 70-40.
The locker room was silent. Like the thousands of games before this one, there was not much to celebrate, but Justice had a good first game, shooting 2 for 5 from behind the 3-point line.
He was sitting in the same position as he was before the game. The big smile returned as he thought about what he had just accomplished: "It don't get no better than that," he said. "It was cold, and I was nervous, but once the people came, then you felt the love."
Klotz was proud of the effort the team gave. Although he wants to win, he needs players like Justice who can find comfort in making an audience laugh.
"I need a player who No. 1 has a sense of humor," Klotz said. "You're playing the Harlem Globetrotters. They've got everything in the world going for them. There's no disgrace in losing."