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The Winningest Loser

The Winningest Loser
In losing more than 13,000 ballgames to the Harlem Globetrotters, Red Klotz helped win over the world.

…From the pages of South Jersey Magazine…

There can be little doubt that the most-traveled player and coach in the history of basketball is South Jersey’s own Louis Herman “Red” Klotz.

“I’ve run more miles on more courts in more countries than any other human being,” Klotz is fond of saying.

This is may be more of an understatement than a boast. As founder, owner and former coach and star player of the Washington Generals, Red Klotz has played or coached a conservative estimate of 13,000 ballgames in more than 100 countries in a career spanning seven decades. The fact that the overwhelming majority were losses to the legendary Harlem Globetrotters is not the point. Long before the National Basketball Association began bragging about its globalization, Red Klotz was the most prolific foot soldier in actually laying the foundation.

“The Globetrotters should get most of the credit for making basketball the second most popular team game in the world,” Klotz maintains. “The thing is, they didn’t do it alone. We were there and we were part of it. We helped pioneer basketball all over the world.” Red Klotz is 87 now and still plays the game competitively. Limiting his action to half court and no longer running the entire floor is his only concession to age. In his physical prime, Klotz played in the Egyptian desert, the Brazilian Rain Forest and the Australian Outback. He played on grass surfaces, dirt surfaces, even the surface of an aircraft carrier’s flight deck. Red Klotz has played before peasants and kings, Christians and Jews, aristocrats and maximum security prisoners. He played in democracies, monarchies, and totalitarian states. He played behind the Iron Curtain, the bamboo curtain and the curtain of secrecy surrounding the classified locations of American troops. Along the way, he conducted hundreds of clinics on the game and left more than a few basketballs behind.

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“Over the years you could see the change,” he says. “When we arrived in most of these places, the people were kicking soccer balls around. When we returned, we’d see a few (basketball) goals, and now...well, now there are baskets hanging all over the place.” Today, international players comprise approximately one-fifth of the NBA. So-called American professional “Dream Teams” have been beaten in the Olympics and international competitions by squads from the former Soviet Union, its breakaway republics and South America. It’s no coincidence residents of these areas first witnessed professional games involving the Globetrotters and the teams coached and owned by Red Klotz.

“There is no doubt in my mind Red Klotz belongs in the Hall of Fame,” says longtime friend and South Jersey neighbor Chris Ford, winner of three NBA championship rings as a player and coach with the Boston Celtics. “The people who think of Red strictly as the Globetrotters’ patsy just don’t get it. They don’t understand the impact he’s had, which is very significant. This is a gentleman who opened the game to millions and millions of people.”

Despite standing just 67 inches from the soles of his Converse All-Stars to the crown of his former namesake tangerine locks, Red Klotz has thrived in a game dominated by giants. His most recent win over the Trotters may have come 37 years ago on his last second shot, but Klotz’s winning passion for the game transcends all. A stickler for fundamentals and prideful of his role as basketball ambassador to the world, Red launched the careers of dozens of players and coaches.

“I owe him everything,” says former Generals player Gene Hudgins, who went on to star for the Globetrotters. In the late ‘50s, Atlantic City native Hudgins was a Trotter rookie on the same team with baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, as well as a fellow from Red’s hometown of Philadelphia by the name of Wilt Chamberlain.

“Opportunities were pretty scarce back then for black ballplayers,” Hudgins says. “Red gave me the chance to play beyond college and to see the world [while] doing something I loved. He was like a father to me. Can you imagine having the opportunity to play basketball with Chamberlain, the best who ever lived? I’ll always be grateful.”

Despite such accolades, Klotz’s repayment for his devotion to the game is to be typecast as one of the most famous symbols for losing. He has been mentioned in the same breath as Charlie Brown, Harold Stassen and the old Brooklyn Dodgers. Pop culture references to Klotz’s history of losing have turned up on Monday Night Football, in the pages of Sports Illustrated, even on an episode of “The Simpsons.” “Ahh, the Luftwaffe,” Homer Simpson famously intoned. “The Washington Generals of the History Channel.”

Red Klotz wasn’t always a loser. In 1940, he took his South Philadelphia High School team to a pair of public league titles and the city championship. The next year he sparked the Villanova freshman team to a 32-0 record and starred for the winning varsity team in 1941-42. During World War II, he was on the crack Army Transport team with Philadelphia Warriors ace Petey Rosenberg. Red was also a member of the American Basketball League champion Philadelphia Sphas—a dominant pre-NBA pro team, and he won an NBA championship with the 1948-49 Baltimore Bullets. He is tied with six other players as the third-shortest player in NBA history, and is still the shortest to ever win an NBA crown. Hardly a loser’s resume.

Klotz will tell you his ultimate win came 73 years ago on the beach in Atlantic City, where he was visiting with his family. It was there his eyes met those of 12-year-old Gloria Stein. “She was wearing a yellow bathing suit, and that was it for me,” recalls Red, who was 14 at the time and wearing a South Philly High letterman sweater. “He was a sight himself,” says Gloria, who lived in Atlantic City’s Inlet section. “He had the reddest hair and the whitest legs sticking out of the bottom of that sweater. Who in the world wears a sweater on the beach in August?”

Neither remembers who made the first move, but both agree the attraction was mutual. Gloria was drum majorette at Atlantic City High School, which had one of the best basketball teams in South Jersey. Red talked his high school coach into scheduling a game at the resort. “It was mainly a chance for me to see Gloria in the off season, but we also beat them pretty good,” Red says of the game.

“He was a promoter, even back then,” is Gloria’s take.

The two have been together ever since, and for more than 40 years have shared a beautiful beachfront home about a mile downbeach from where they met. Their union produced three boys and three girls, twelve grandchildren and six great grandchildren. In the early days, they ran a boardwalk shop that sold newspapers, fruit, and candy and had a shoeshine stand and some pinball machines. On the weekends, Red played for the Sphas, the old Atlantic City Senators, or as a “ringer” in some of the early pro leagues. Once Klotz was offered $50 to drive from Atlantic City to Wilkes Barre, Pa. and suit up for the opposing team.

“There was a lot of betting action going on, and the fans knew I wasn’t a regular player. I got hot in that game and my team wound up winning. The fans weren’t too happy with me and I required a police escort to get out of there in one piece.”

Klotz began playing against the Trotters regularly in 1950. Two years later, Globetrotters’ founder and owner Abe Saperstein asked Red to start up his own organization to oppose his famous barnstorming squad. Previously, the Trotters would find games against local opponents of varying skill levels. Rather than humiliate their hopelessly overmatched opposition, the Trotters developed their famous repertoire of tricks with the ball and comedy routines. Sometimes, though, even the tricks weren’t enough to keep the games interesting.

Klotz had been on the winning side with the Sphas against the Trotters several times, and had taken them into an overtime period with the Cumberland (Maryland) Dukes during his first year as a player-coach. “It seemed like whenever the Trotters ran into a close game or an upset, I was in the middle of it,” Red recalls. “I always gave them a hard way to go.” Saperstein knew Klotz would push his team to play its very best, but not upstage them, so he asked Red to form his own organization in 1952. At the time, the city of Washington had recently lost its NBA team, the Capitols, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Commander of Allied Forces in Europe in World War II was at the height of popularity. Thus, the Atlantic City-based Washington Generals were born. Since that time, Klotz’s teams have also played as the Baltimore Rockets, Jersey Reds, International All Stars, Boston Shamrocks, Atlantic City Seagulls and, most recently, the New York Nationals.

Last year, their most famous name was revived and the Generals were re-born. Regardless of their moniker, Klotz’s squads rarely beat the Globetrotters. In 1971 however, lightning struck in Martin, Tenn. The Globetrotters were playing an uncharacteristically sloppy game and Klotz’ Jersey Reds were burning up the nets, taking a 10-point lead into the final minutes. The Trotters, led by Meadowlark Lemon, mounted a furious rally and tied the game. The Reds, named after their 51-year-old player-coach, had the ball last and Klotz launched a long two-handed set shot that went in and silenced the crowd. “At first people thought it was part of the show and then they realized what had happened they started booing us. It was as if we had killed Santa Claus.”

Paul Favorite, who played in the game, said the team wanted to douse Klotz with champagne. “All we had was orange soda, so we poured that over him instead,” Favorite recalls.

Though best known for losing, the Generals play smart, fundamental basketball. Red’s son-in-law John Ferrari continues the legacy today as General Manager, recruiting talented players a cut below the NBA, who are paid competitively with the NBA developmental league and other minor league sports. More importantly, Generals players have the opportunity to see the world and make contacts throughout basketball. He has turned out some NBA products, including Med Park of the old St. Louis Hawks, Charlie Criss of the Atlanta Hawks, and Bill Campion of the New Jersey Nets. Klotz’s grandson Morgan “Mo” Klotz, a former star athlete at Mainland Regional in Linwood, played on the Generals and calls those years some of the most rewarding of his life. “How many people have an opportunity to have three passports stamped when they are still in their early 20s?” Mo asks. “To travel the world playing a game you love is a rare opportunity.” Red Klotz didn’t stop playing professionally until the age of 68, which made him one of the oldest professional athletes in history and almost certainly the oldest pro basketball player. Even at that point, Klotz still packed a uniform on the road in case he was needed. “In fact, I’m still available!” he chirps. Today, at age 87, Red continues to play in half court pick-up games on a regular basis against players one-third his age and younger. He doesn’t just compete. Using the same two-hander that beat the Trotters that night in Tennessee, he outshoots almost everyone and is a relic from when basketball was played in cages and hotel ballrooms. “Did you see him shoot? He’s unbelievable,” says Lou DeMeis, one of Klotz’ regular gang of pickup players. “I have worked with senior citizens 20 years younger than him who can’t do anything close to what he can.” Klotz says keeping active is a key to keeping young at heart. “At my age if I sit down, I might not get up,” he says. “I prefer to keep moving.”

Cindy Loffel of Margate, a former Division One college player and the only female in the regular group of Red’s pick-up player buddies, often finds herself matched up against Red. She is also one of the best shooters on the court. “To me, he is just another player I’m trying to beat out here, and it is a real challenge to try to stop him,” Loffel says. “He doesn’t need much room to get his shot off, and he is a very smart player. He knows how to use screens and make good passes to hit the open man. Sometimes I really stop and think about everything he has meant to the game of basketball. His contributions are absolutely remarkable.”

Red Klotz has made a life playing and coaching basketball and helping to make the game international. He has been with his childhood sweetheart for 73 years, put his children through college, and enjoyed success in business and sports. “I guess if I’m a loser, I really can’t complain too much,” he says. With that, Red Klotz lets loose with another two-hand set shot from well beyond the three-point line. The ball hits nothing but the bottom of the net.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 5 Issue 3 (June, 2008).
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Author: Tim Kelly; Photo by Paul Pugliese

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