NOW PLAYING for the New Jersey Reds," the announcer roared over the intercom, "Bob Reiss!" A cheer went up from 15,000 fans. Boy, were they about to be disappointed.
It was my first public appearance at the Capital Centre. Garbed in the traditional losing colors of the Reds (the Reds travel around with the Harlem Globetrotters, losing), crimson and gold, I stepped smartly onto the court, then faced the opponent I was told to guard, Larry Rivers. "AH GOT THE GUY WITH THE FUHHNNY LEHHHGGS," he yelled. "HE CAN'T SEE 'CAUSE OF THOSE GLASSES," added Trotter Curley Neil.
If they sought to unnerve me, however, I was an isle of calm. Basketball has been in my blood since high school days, when I belonged to a team aptly named the "Cellar Dwellers." As bad as my fellow players were, they still wouldn't let me off the bench. Spectators generally mistook me for a fan, and often my teammates would lock me out of the gymnasium altogether. On those rare occasions when I did play, my specialty was missing easy lay-up shots. In the game of basketball, in the matter of performance, the difference between Bob Reiss and Ringling Brothers' famed "Armless Wonder" was not spacious, so, frankly, it was pretty nice of Red Klotz and the New Jersey Reds to let me take to the court with them.
A word about the Reds. After five long years of regular play against the Harlem Globetrotters, after 180 games a season, 4,000 games in all, Reds coach, player, owner Red Klotz can describe in detail each and every Red victory.
Both of them.
One . . . well . . . one was a fluke. The Reds were winning going into the final minutes of the game, but due to a broken scoreboard the Globetrotters thought they were ahead, froze the ball and lost.
The other victory, however, was the result of a real feat of accuracy. With only seconds remaining in the game, Klotz sank a long basket, a beauty, a swisher, the kind spectators generally go wild over, leaping and screaming in ecstatic frenzy in the stands, in busses, in bars. The kind of shot generally brought up in World War II movies. ("Okay, Kraut, what year did Klotz sink the big shot?") A great score, a clutcher, and it evoked a powerful audience response.
"They started booing," Klotz says.
Booing! Imagine! He hadn't won a game in a thousand tries and the fans were booing. They didn't want him to win. They wanted him to be what they had paid to see, the eternal straightman to the antics of the Harlem Globetrotters.
On one hand, Klotz can get philosophical about this. What was Laurel without Hardy? he asks. Hope without Crosby? Abbott with Costello?What would the Harlem Globetrotters be without the New Jersey Reds? Who would they beat? Who would they humiliate? The Washington Bullets? Try to kiss a Washington Bullet during a foul shot and you're likely to wind up with a fist in your mouth.
In fact, according to Klotz, the Trotters used to get lots of fists in their mouths before they teamed up with Klotz back in 1951. Previous to that, they were a barnstorming team, coming into towns and challenging the local champs, who would bring their wives and girlfriends to watch them beat the out-of-towners.
Things never seemed to work out that way, though. Imagine the cast of characters here . . . The captain of the local team, that ex-high school basketball great . . . secretary of the Knights of Columbus . . . head of the Grand Moose Lodge . . . with his wife Bernice sitting in the stands waiting for him to cream these show-offs from Chicago . . . and all of a sudden! What's happening here! Some guy is trying to kiss her husband! And not only a guy, a black guy! This is awful! All of a sudden the Globetrotters start dribbling the ball up and down the walls and running around yelling things like "Who da da da" and bouncing the ball off the rear end of Sven Svenson, whose Jaycees and Boy Scouts are watching, horrified, in the bleaches. Worst of all, the Trotters are sinking baskets! Meanwhile, the whole crowd is frantically shouting encouragement to the local heroes. "Go BEERMUGS! GO BEERMUGS!" They yell. But it's no use.
To make matters worse, some jerk is whistling "Sweet Georgia Brown" over the intercom while the Trotters slaughter the Beermugs. "Sweet Georgia Brown" is a great tune to hear when you're winning, but it rubs it in when you're losing. Go ahead, try doing something dumb sometime to the tune of "Sweet Georgia Brown," like tripping over a curb. Don't you feel stupider?
Inevitably, the Beermugs begin to feel humiliated, and then angry . . . and then a fight starts.
But one day this little guy Red Klotz comes along, a former Baltimore Bullet (1947), fanatical basketball player, only five feet seven inches with a slightly bowlegged walk characteristic of short, well-built athletes. He's got a jovial, intelligent attitude, which, coupled with a good sense of perspective, makes dealing with the businessman within a pleasantry. And he's got an idea. "Why take a change on getting the local team angry?" he says. "I've gotten a bunch of players together and I think I can beat you.Want a good contest? Why not travel together?"
Trotter founder Abe Saperstein mulls this over a bit, and by and by his face lights up and he says he'll try the idea for two weeks. Off they go on the road, where Klotz indeed wins two of the games. At the end of the tour, Saperstein's got the idea. "I'll lend you the money to get a team together and we'll play together," he says.
So there you have it, the founding of a great act. Klotz has lost games in mysterious and romantic places all over the world . . . in Hong Kong! Singapore! Fiji! One time in South America a stadium moat broke and he floated out of the locker room on a table. Another time he was stopped at gunpoint by the bodyguards of the Shah of Iran, who didn't believe he was a basketball player. As usual, as always, he lost that night, but does he let his record get him down?
"The only thing we did last night wrong was give the Trotters too many turnovers," he says, pacing in the locker room before a Capital Centre game. He seems to be saying, "The only reason we lost was that we gave them too many turnovers." The players read or look at each other and shake their heads. What is he, kidding? Some of these men have been around for three years without winning a game. Klotz, however, seems oblivious to this.He might be Dick Motta before a Bullets game or Red Holtzman before a Knicks game, and now he turns to me and says, "Stay in the corner." He seems desperate to keep me away from the action. "We'll give you the ball," he says. "Don't worry."
Who's worried? All I want to do is score one basket, get a big ovation and feel like a hero. I swing into action, accidentally messing up one of the Globetrotter routines.In this routine the Trotters weave around at a run in a figure eight, throwing the ball back and forth to Meadowlark Lemon as the Reds helplessly follow. They never seem to get the ball.
"If the Trotters do the figure eight," I'd been advised before the quarter began, "stay on the outside." The truth is that i would have followed these instructions had I realized in the first place that the figure eight was being performed. As it is, the ball narrowly misses my head and the game begins again. Rivers gets the ball. I step in front of him, determined to keep him from the basket. He scores. I take out the ball, throw it to a teammate and run downcourt.
This isn't so different from the Cellar Dwellers after all. The ball gets loose. I grab it, inches away from the out-of-bounds line, turn to shoot and step out of bounds myself. "HE CAN'T SEE!" yells Curley Neil. The crowd laughs. Oh, yeah? A Red steals the ball from the Trotters and I run under the basket. What the hell do I want to do that for? I always miss lay-ups.
Sure enough, the ball comes hurtling through the phalanx of bodies surrounding me. I catch it. "SHOOT! SHOOT!" someone yells. The Reds need points. I throw out my arms in a gesture partially resembling supplication, partly self-defense and partly what might loosely be termed a "shot." This is crucial. The ball flies towards the backboard.
Oh somewhere there is laughter Somewhere children shout But there is no joy in Mudville Cause Bob Reiss has . . .
In the last - ditch effort sportswriters so admire, I manage to charge into Rivers while he is grabbing a rebound, fouling him. I have no recollection of this incident, but referee Riley Pitcoff assures me with disgust that it has occured. I've only been on the court for five minutes, but even the experts are ready to admit that I've made enough mistakes to have been there all season.
I'm taken from the game. "I'm very disappointed in you," Pitcoff tells me in the Globetrotter bus. "Everyone wanted you to make that basket. The whole crowd started cheering and booing when you missed."
"Yeah," says Bernie Lang, Globetrotter business manager. "You've been scouted and you're on the girls' team."
Anyway, what does he know? There's always soccer.