The Washington Generals

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Sports history is littered with really bad teams. The 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn’t win a single game and wound up losing 26 in a row. The 2012 Charlotte Bobcats went 7-59 for a .106 winning percentage. The 1899 Cleveland Spiders set a record for futility in baseball winning only 20 games out of 154. 

However, all of those teams are giants compared to the worst professional sports team in history: The Washington Generals. 

Learn more about the team which actually was paid money to lose on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The Washington Generals are the basketball equivalent of the coyote to the Harlem Globetrotter’s road runner. To understand the Generals and their long term futility, you first have to understand the Globetrotters.

The Harlem Globetrotters are a professional exhibition basketball team whose roots trace back to 1926. The team was first called the Savoy Big Five, getting their name from the Savoy ballroom on Chicago’s South Side, where they would play exhibition games before dances. A team consisting entirely of black players was something unique at the time and became the team’s signature.

In 1928, the team split in a dispute over money, and a contingent led by Tommy Brookins, formed a team called the Globe Trotters (two words).

It was at this point that the team met up with the man who would shape their future for years to come: Abe Saperstein. He became the manager and promoter for the team, and also changed the team name to the Harlem Globetrotters. 

It should be noted that the team wasn’t from Harlem. They used the word Harlem because it was the center of African American culture at the time with the Harlem Renaissance. In fact, the team never even played in Harlem until 1968, 40 years after they were founded. 

The globetrotter part of the name was added just to make the team sound worldly. The early team was anything but worldly, as they only toured around Illinois and Iowa in 1929. 

The Globetrotters, at this time, were a legitimate team. While they were a touring exhibition team, their games were all real. In fact, in 1940, they won the World Professional Basketball Tournament, which was considered the world championship before the establishment of the NBA.

Throughout the 1940s, the Globetrotters would regularly beat the best white basketball teams in exhibition games. Because the color barrier had not been broken in basketball and the globetrotters couldn’t join any of the professional leagues, they basically had a monopoly on the best black players in the country. There was a famous 1948 game against the Minneapolis Lakers (now the Los Angeles Lakers) which took place in Chicago where the Globetrotters beat the world champs on a last second shot.

With the creation of the NBA and the breaking of basketball’s color barrier, several of their best players left to play for the NBA, and the Globetrotters began adding comedy elements into their performance. The addition of comedy is attributed to Reece “Goose” Tatum who developed many of the comic routines which the team still uses today.

It was in 1952 that the Washington Generals entered the picture. As the Globetrotters became more about entertainment, it was more difficult to put on such a performance with a different team every night. Having a single opponent they could face would make everything much easier.

Abe Saperstein asked his friend, and professional basketball player Red Klotz, to put together a team that could play the Globetrotters on a regular basis. Klotz was, and still is, the shortest person in NBA history at 5’7” to have won an NBA championship, and the 4th shortest person to have ever played in an NBA game. 

The team was named in honor of the new US President, General Dwight Eisenhower, who was the Supreme Allied Commander during WWII.

However, they weren’t necessarily expected to win. They lost, and lost, and lost, and lost. People didn’t buy tickets to see the Generals, they bought tickets to see the Globetrotters. 

For a brief period of time in 1971 and 1972, the Generals used other names for the team, just to give the illusion of variety. Other names included the New Jersey Reds, the Boston Shamrocks, the Baltimore Rockets, and the Atlantic City Seagulls.

Red Klotz played with the team as a point guard until he was 68 years old.

Here is where I should note that the Washington Generals were a totally separate team from the Globetrotters. They were owned by different people, and were different companies. At several times throughout his career, Klotz said in interviews that the Generals actually tried to win every game.

Which really makes their record all the more sad if that is true.

In 2015, the Globetrotters were under new management and they decided to bring their opposition in house. They canceled their contract with the Washington Generals. On August 1, 2015 the Generals and the Globetrotters played their last game

From 1952 to 2015, it is estimated that the two teams played over 16,000 games against each other. No one is sure of the exact number because records were never kept.

During that time, it is estimated that the Washington Generals won three times. Three games in over 16,000.

The most famous, and last, of these games occurred on January 5, 1971 in Martin, Tennessee. Basically, the Globetrotters just lost track of the score as they were going about entertaining the crowd. With 2 minutes left, the Globetrotters were down by 12 points and played legit at the end of the game to try and win. The Generals won 100-99. The last second shot by Red Klotz won the game. The time keeper tried to stop the clock, but the buzzer went off. 

The crowd was stunned because this wasn’t supposed to happen. As Klotz later said in an interview, the crowd looked at us like we killed Santa Claus. Some children were seen crying after the game. 

The sad part about that win, is that it was one of the nights where they weren’t playing under the Washington Generals name. They were the New Jersey Reds.  If you want to find a win where the Generals actually played as the Generals, you’d have to go back to 1958.

Red Klotz passed away in 2014 at the age of 93, and the Globetrotters eventually purchased the Generals in 2017 and revived the team name. With the team’s reintroduction, they entered a legitimate 5-on-5 tournament run by ESPN, but kept the losing streak alive by losing in the first round.