Globetrotters rival Red Klotz was 'happiest losingest man in the world'

Red Klotz spent much of his life on the losing side of games to the Harlem Globetrotters. The basketball lifer was so much more, bringing laughter and joy to millions as the head man of the Washington Generals.

Red Klotz poses proudly below his retired No. 3.

If a person should ever have to be described as a “loser,” he or she should hope to be the kind of loser that Red Klotz was.

The founder of the Washington Generals, as well as a longtime player and coach on his own team, Klotz spent the majority of his life trying and almost without exception failing to beat the Harlem Globetrotters.

As friends and family remembered Klotz on Monday in the wake of his death Saturday in New Jersey at the age of 93, they described Klotz as a person who meant more to the game of basketball in defeat after defeat after defeat than most ever do in victory.

“He was a great man,” said “Sweet” Lou Dunbar, a former Globetrotters player and coach, and now the team’s director of player personnel. “Red loved the game of basketball, he loved the Harlem Globetrotters, and he had to be the happiest losingest man in the world.”

That was a sentiment shared by John Ferrari, the Generals’ general manager and Klotz’s son-in-law.

“You know, you meet people that are just genuine and you can tell when you shake their hand or by their smile or when they look you in the eyes, and what you saw with Red was what you got,” Ferrari said. “There was never any malice, always a kind word. When he was asked about so-and-so, everybody was ‘a fine basketball player.’ Positiveness just oozed out of Red.”

Born in Philadelphia, Klotz was a prep star and won two city titles before playing in college at Villanova. At 5-foot-7, Klotz wasn’t a physically imposing man, but he and his automatic two-handed push shot reached the NBA despite his diminutive stature and won a championship with the Baltimore Bullets in 1948.

In 1952, he became affiliated with the Globetrotters when founder Abe Saperstein offered Klotz the opportunity to field a team to play against the Trotters on a regular basis. It was a role Klotz would relish for the rest of his life: as a player until the late 1980s, as the team’s coach until 1995, and as a figurehead, even in death, for as long as the Generals exist.

Red Klotz and his Washington Generals.

Along the way, Klotz’s team would also compete as the Boston Shamrocks, New Jersey Reds and New York Nationals, among other names, but at heart they were always the Generals, and always a mirror image of Klotz’s vision for how basketball should be played.

“I had a meeting with (former Globetrotter) Marques Haynes once, and Marcus was a very, very demanding, very great athlete, and Red used to chase Marques on the dribble,” Ferrari said. “Marques used very colorful language, and Marques would say to me, ‘I told Red, ‘Don’t guard me, just try to take the ball from me — go ahead, you little SOB,'’’ and he would laugh.

“Marques would giggle, and he would say, ‘And you know what, Red tried every single night and sometimes he got it. And what I know is that he thrilled the audience.’ That was Red: ’I’m going to go out tonight and try to beat you, and then I’m going to try to make you funny, and then I’m going to try to beat you again.’ He was ideal.”

The Generals rarely did beat the Globetrotters, of course, with only one official victory over their main counterparts in the history of the series. But sure enough, when the Generals — playing then as the New Jersey Reds — did emerge victorious, in a 1971 game in Martin, Tenn., it was Klotz, at age 50, who made the game-winning basket with three seconds to play.

I think it was good for basketball, really. To beat the Globetrotters is like Santa Claus — you don’t see it, but it happened, and he made it happen.

Sweet Lou Dunbar

“Red was methodical and knew that the ball moved faster than his feet,” Ferrari said. “Red was smart. He was always a smart basketball player, and when he hit (the shot) — as he tells me the story — he ran back to the locker room and turned to his guys and said, ‘We just won the game,’ and the guys were all smiling, and he said, ‘I don’t think the 'Trotters realize it yet, let’s get back to the locker room.’ And then what he did, they were popping and pouring orange soda on their heads because they didn’t have any Champagne.

“I think what it did, to some degree, was it legitimized that the Generals were not a pie-in-the-face, hit-me-over-the-head-with-a-rubber-bat basketball team. There was pride and talent there, led by Red.”

Added Dunbar: “I think it was good for basketball, really. To beat the Globetrotters is like Santa Claus — you don’t see it, but it happened, and he made it happen. I think it was a great moment in the game of basketball, and people love to remember that.”

That was the beauty of Red Klotz’s Washington Generals — a team that knew its purpose was not to overshadow the Globetrotters, but one that never, ever tried to lose.

You could have a conversation with Red, and I guarantee you that in the first 60 to 90 seconds he’s going to use the word ‘winning,’ because we’ve always believed that the final score never defines us, ever.

Son-in-law John Ferrari

“You could have a conversation with Red, and I guarantee you that in the first 60 to 90 seconds he’s going to use the word ‘winning,’ because we’ve always believed that the final score never defines us, ever,” Ferrari said.

“... Red instilled in me the same thing as far as motivating the guys, too. You could go through the motions, but as I tell them, ‘Stand back. You’re in Madison Square Garden. You’re in the Olympic Stadium in Athens. Stand back and observe where you are and give it everything you’ve got for the memories of the audience as well as your own memories.’

“We’ve had some really, really good ballplayers. They’re the blue-collar, the lunch pail guys, but we had some really good ballplayers who understood what their role was, and thankfully it kept Red’s legacy alive.”

Even as Klotz grew older, his love of basketball never left him, and he would still take the court well into his 70s and 80s to work on the jumper he’d perfected so many decades before. Shooting before Generals practice, Klotz would often draw a crowd as he sank basket after basket, sometimes hitting 15, 20 or 25 shots in a row, only to step out of the spotlight once the team took the floor.

Nancy Lieberman and Red Klotz

“Maybe it’s just fate, maybe it was just meant to happen, but I couldn’t think of a better foil, with that personality, than Red Klotz competing against the Harlem Globetrotters,” Ferrari said. “He was just perfect.”

And so it was appropriate that in 2011 Klotz was honored by the Globetrotters, who retired his No. 3. In hanging Klotz’s jersey in the rafters at Wells Fargo Center in his hometown of Philadelphia, the 'Trotters made Klotz just the sixth player to have his jersey retired by the team, alongside the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Curly Neal and Meadowlark Lemon, and the first non-Globetrotter to receive the honor — the winningest loser basketball has ever seen.

“It was very, very special for Red,” Ferrari said. “He didn’t seek adulation — he never did, never ever did — but he was very proud when people recognized his body of work. ... I was privileged to be there, and when they raised the No. 3 high up over the floor, he was trembling. I was proud to be right next to him, and he smiled and said, ‘It looks good, doesn’t it?’ And I said, ‘It looks great, Coach.’”

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