The Basketball Hall of Fame is largely a mystery to me. I am a bit obsessive about Halls of Fame, as you might have heard, but when it comes to basketball I have absolutely no idea who is in the Hall and who is not. Hint: If you think someone is in it, he or she probably is in it. There are, best I can tell, quite a few more than 325 people in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame … so many that I probably could not put together two plausible sentences about at least half of them.
I say “quite a few more” than 325, by the way, because that number includes several teams that were inducted whole. These are: The 1960 and 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball teams; the Original Celtics; the All-American Red Heads (a woman’s team that played against men beginning in the 1930s); the first class of “incorrigibles” that James Naismith taught to play basketball; the New York Rens; the Buffalo Germans, a dominant amateur team started in the late 19th century and the Texas Western team that beat Kentucky in the NCAA Final.
More to our point here, the Harlem Globetrotters were also inducted as a team. In addition to this, Globetrotters Goose Tatum, Meadowlark Lemon and Marques Haynes were inducted individually as were other former Globetrotters enshrined for their greater body of work like Wilt Chamberlain, Connie Hawkins and Lynette Woodard (Baseball Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and Fergie Jenkins were also Globetrotters).
This is, I believe, as it should be. Over the last half century — and even back two or three decades before that — the Globetrotters have done extraordinary and unprecedented work promoting basketball in America and, even more, around the world. You could argue that basketball, as a world sport, was defined by the Globetrotters. When it comes to the role of “contributors,” you would be hard-pressed any group that contributed more to the game.
This year, though, there’s another guy on the Hall of Fame contributor ballot — not a Harlem Globetrotter — that I am desperately rooting to be inducted. I should say there are 21 excellent contributor nominees on the ballot, and only one will get elected (the Hall of Famer will be announced during NBA All-Star Weekend). All 21 nominees made basketball a better game. On the list, you have the great Celtics announcer Johnny Most — of “Havlicek stole the ball!” fame, and longtime NBA scout and character Marty Blake, and a fine player, coach and ambassador for the game Al Attles. Jim Valvano is there. Curt Gowdy is there. Billy Packer … Gene Shue … Portland Trail Blazers founder Harry Glickman …
But there’s one guy who, for me, stands above them all.
And while he’s standing, someone might just sneak behind him and pull down his shorts.
This is the year, I hope, that Red Klotz will be elected and inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Red Klotz, as I wrote before in one of my favorite ever stories, was coach, player, owner, cheerleader, driver, psychiatrist, motivator, shaman, designer, travel agent, tour guide, scorekeeper and long-range shooter for the Atlantic City Seaguls, Baltimore Rockets, New York Nationals, Boston Shamrocks, Chicago Demons, New Jersey Reds and most famously, Washington Generals. Those are all the same team, and it was the team that, night after night after night, over 10,000 or 20,000 nights, over a million miles, on ice, on sand, on an aircraft carrier, on every continent but Antartica (who would come?), inside Attica, on Gilligan’s Island, before presidents and kings, dictators and prime ministers and and a stray pope or two, lost to the Harlem Globetrotters.
They also beat the Harlem Globetrotters … well … you know … one time … OK, maybe twice, depending on your interpretation of the scoreboard operator in St. Joseph, Michigan one year. Klotz believes that his team outscored the Globetrotters that night, but the scoreboard had the Globetrotters winning. Klotz showed the “official scorebook” — and I put that in quotes because with the Globetrotters there are no “official scorebooks,” just books that Klotz and the Globies kept — to the Globetrotter leaders after the game. He showed it to them more than once, he said. They nodded, and smiled, but did not believe him. No one else did either. The game went into the records as another Globetrotter win, one of many thousands.
Once we were sitting by the ocean — Red lives by the ocean near Atlantic City — and as the waves lapped to shore, Red Klotz said it didn’t matter if anyone believed him. What mattered is that he knew. That’s all that matters, he said. That’s all that ever matters.
People are always surprised to learn that the Washington Generals, in their own way, have always tried to win. They are saddled with several significant disadvantages because, first and foremost, they are a part of the show. They must chase around the Globetrotters in their famous weave. They must allows balls to roll through their legs, down their back, off their heads … and night after night they have to fall for the ball-under-the-shirt trick and the ball-on-a-string trick. They must, above all else, make the Globetrotters look good. And, you know, the officials have also proven to be somewhat partial in how they call a game.
But for a few minutes at a time, every night, the Generals and Globetrotters just play basketball, no show, no tricks, no clowning, and this was always Red Klotz’s favorite part. No one — and I mean no one — has ever loved basketball more. He played pro ball before the league was even called the NBA — it was the Basketball Association of America (BAA) back then — and he was the shortest player to ever be part of a championship team. He was listed at 5-foot-7. He was nowhere near 5-foot-7. He created the Washington General — named in honor of Dwight Eisenhower — and played and coached them for about a half century. He’s 91, and even now, when he feels right, he goes to the court near his home on the shore and plays.
He can still shoot the set shot. He always could shoot the basketball.
And so, in those open moments, when the basketball was fair, when the officials called the game, when the crowd was settling in, when there was no weave and no half court shots and no player sitting on another players shoulder, he kept score. In his head. The Globetrotters, of course, were way better than the Generals — bigger, stronger, faster, better. But not every night. Sometimes, when Red was really hitting his shots, when some of the players he had picked up from various small colleges were cohesive, they could play with the Globetrotters. Red Klotz loved that.
Globetrotters came and went, but Red Klotz stayed. And lost. Stayed. And lost some more. No one lost more games. Near his desk, in his house by the shore, there is a newspaper cover of some of America’s most spectacular losers — Al Gore, Charlie Brown, Rodney Dangerfield, Thomas Dewey, the horse called Sham that lost to Secretariat — but it is Red Klotz’s face that is at the center. The link I referenced above is about the only time his team ever officially beat the Globetrotters — it was in Martin, Tenn., they were called the New Jersey Reds that night, and Klotz hit the long jumper that beat the Globies. Afterward, they soaked Klotz with orange soda because, let’s face it, where would the Washington Generals (or New Jersey Reds) find champagne? The crowd booed mercilessly. Red Klotz, to this day, can hear those boos and they make him smile.
But over the years he stopped thinking about winning and losing the way most people do. He decided it had nothing to do with the final score. Instead, it had everything to do with the laughter of the crowd, the togetherness of teammates, the moment when you surprise yourself. It had everything to do with the look of respect he would sometimes get from Wilt Chamberlain or Meadowlark Lemon or Curly Neal. It had everything to do with doing the job well.
These days, Red Klotz lives in that beautiful little brick house on the shore with his beloved Gloria, and it was almost 75 years ago that they met on the sand out the window. Together, they look out that window over the ocean. “Every day, it looks different,” he told me. “Every single day.”
“Because of the weather?” I asked.
“Because of the ocean,” he said.
Red Klotz doesn’t need to be the Hall of Fame, not with the magical life he has lived. But he should be in the Hall. He should be in the Hall of Fame because he’s the other side of the coin, because the Globetrotters needed the Generals, the comedians needed the straight man, and, beyond all that, because I imagine no one, not in the history of the world, shot a basketball at a hoop more times over a lifetime than Red Klotz. No one watched the ball rush through the rim, spin inside the net, fall gently to the ground more times than Red Klotz. No one made those shots in more countries, in more settings, on more surfaces, in more divergent weather. But, then he knew, he has long known, the magic of the Globetrotters is something not summed up by the weather or the travel or the final score.
The magic of the Globetrotters — and Red Klotz understands this because he has lived it — is that sometimes in this crazy world, everybody wins.