Red Klotz, who led basketball’s biggest losers, the Washington Generals, dies at 93


Red Klotz, second from left in front row, coached and played for decades with the Harlem Globetrotters’ perennial opponents, the Washington Generals. He died July 12 at age 93. (Courtesy of Harlem Globetrotters International/ )
July 18

Before he became the biggest loser in sports history, Red Klotz knew how to win. He was a diminutive basketball star in his home town of Philadelphia and played on a championship professional team in the 1940s.

But he didn’t become famous until he became the player-coach of the Washington Generals in 1952. He played with the Generals until he was 63, giving him the longest career by far of any professional basketball player in history, and he coached until he was 75.

The Generals played more than 200 games a year, always against the same opponent: the Harlem Globetrotters, basketball’s road warriors of comedy.

In his time with the Generals, Mr. Klotz lost at least 14,000 games, or 15,000, or, according to some estimates, more than 20,000.

“That sounds about right,” Mr. Klotz would shrug whenever someone tried to calculate the number.

“I don’t count the losses,” he told the Washington City Paper in 2007. “It’s easier to keep track of the wins.”

Mr. Klotz won six games, his biographer concluded. Or maybe it was four. Possibly just two. But definitely, beyond the shadow of any doubt, his team won one game for sure.

The coach who lost more than anyone else in history — and who visited more than 100 countries as one of basketball’s most tireless ambassadors — died July 12 at his home in Margate, N.J. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by a son-in-law, John Ferrari, the current general manager of the Washington Generals. The cause was cancer.

Mr. Klotz commissioned the Washington Generals in 1952 at the request of the Globetrotters’ owner, Abe Saperstein, to play the perennial second fiddle to the main attraction of the Trotters.

The team has never had any affiliation with Washington; Mr. Klotz chose the name because he was an Army veteran and Dwight D. Eisenhower had just been elected president.

The Generals played under other names through the years — 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 of the Globetrotters and, inevitably, the butt of their jokes.

Mr. Klotz played against the Globetrotters for so long that he became almost as familiar as the Trotters’ biggest stars, Goose Tatum , Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal.

Even if fans knew him, in one Globetrotter’s words, only as “that little old man with the red hair,” Mr. Klotz never stopped trying to steal the ball while Neal was putting on a dribbling demonstration, never stopped trying to score points, never stopped trying to win.

To make the Globetrotters look good, he knew that his team would have to put on a credible performance on the court. Mr. Klotz often said he was never told to lose a game. It was the Globetrotters’ responsibility to win the game, not the Generals’ job to lose.

“I don’t want anyone on my team that doesn’t play to win,” he told the Kansas City Star in 2007. “I always tell my players that every time you lose, you should learn something. . . . We should have learned quite a lot by now.”

The Generals were (and still are) made up of former college players who had solid basketball skills, a desire to travel and an understanding of their secondary place in the Globetrotters’ universe. Several units of the Generals 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 a 1995 Sports Illustrated article. “We’re the straight men. Laurel had Hardy, Lewis had Martin, Costello had Abbott, and the Trotters have us.”

Mr. Klotz approached every game with the eagerness of Charlie Brown about to kick the football before Lucy pulls it away. But when he was on the court, the ball would invariably be bounced off his head or stuffed inside his jersey. His shorts were pulled down. Still, he would keep chasing the ball and the ever-elusive victory, because, maybe just once, he might grab it.

Wherever the Globetrotters went, Mr. Klotz and the Generals went with them. (The two organizations are separately owned and do not travel together.) People in many parts of the world had never seen basketball until the Globetrotters and Generals came through.

Mr. Klotz had so many basketball experiences that he could begin a story, “We were playing in a leper colony somewhere in the middle of the Philippine jungle . . .

He played in war zones, before four popes, the queen of England, Eva Peron, Nikita Khrushchev and the shah of Iran — whose guards pulled machine guns on Mr. 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, soccer fields, an empty swimming pool, aircraft carrier flight decks and, before 75,000 people in Germany, plywood atop of beer kegs.

Once, before a game in an ice rink, Mr. Klotz said, with full confidence and no apparent irony, “Our team excels on ice.” The Globetrotters still skated past the Generals.

Mr. Klotz survived three earthquakes, two floods, countless border crossings and losses that mounted into the thousands.

They were all a blur of futility, except for one golden moment on Jan. 5, 1971, at a college gymnasium in Martin, Tenn. Mr. Klotz was 50 at the time, spry and wiry, only 5-foot-7 and still in possession of his remarkable two-handed set shot, which had made him Philadelphia’s two-time player of the year in high school.

The Globetrotters were not at their best that night, but the Generals — playing as the New Jersey Reds — had the game of their lives. They trailed by one point as the clock ticked down. Mr. Klotz asked for the ball.

“With 10 seconds left,” he recalled to Sports Illustrated, “I took a two-hander from 20 feet. Swish. Then Meadowlark’s final shot rimmed out. We won. Everybody was stunned.”

The crowd was silent, looking with disbelief at the scoreboard that showed the Globetrotters losing, 100-99.

“Let me tell you,” Mr. Klotz said, “beating the Globetrotters is like shooting Santa Claus.”

The next night, in another town, the Globetrotters clobbered Mr. Klotz’s team. After 43 years, the Generals are still looking for their next victory.

Louis Herman Klotz was born Oct. 21, 1920, in Philadelphia. His father, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, was a carpenter.

Despite his small stature, Mr. Klotz was a dynamo on the basketball court, nicknamed Red because of his hair. He led his South Philadelphia high school team to two city championships and later played at Villanova University before entering the Army, in which he was a fitness instructor during World War II.

Mr. Klotz played professionally for several teams, including the Philadelphia Sphas — for South Philadelphia Hebrew Association — which once defeated the Globetrotters twice in a three-game series.

During the 1947-1948 season, he was a member of the Baltimore Bullets, champions of the Basketball Association of America, a forerunner of the NBA.

He remains the shortest player on a championship team in the NBA or one of its predecessor leagues.

Mr. Klotz never lost his uncanny ability to shoot a basketball. In his 60s, he regularly bested NBA players in shooting contests. Well into his 80s, he could still embarrass high school and college players in pickup games.

“If Red was coming out of school today,” Lemon told Sports Illustrated in 1995, “he would definitely play in the NBA, because he’s got one of the best three-point shots I’ve ever seen. He was tough in his day, even though he was this little midget among the giants.”

Survivors include his wife of 72 years, Gloria Stein Klotz of Margate; six children; 12 grandchildren; and nine great-
grandchildren.

Mr. 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.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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