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Biggest loser

Coaching the Generals is a no-win situation for Klotz

Posted: Thursday March 16, 2006 12:17PM; Updated: Thursday March 16, 2006 1:38PM
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Red Klotz has seen a lot of losses to the Globetrotters.
Red Klotz has seen a lot of losses to the Globetrotters.
John W. McDonough/SI

Life is like one of those long German sentences whose meaning is only revealed at the end, where the verb is. Or perhaps it isn't. The more you expect from life, the more it fails you; the more we expect from ourselves, the more we engage in futile battle. Still, everything can be made better, even failure. Samuel Beckett exhorted: "Fail better."

No sports figure has failed better or more consistently than the infelicitously named Red Klotz. Failure is his life's work. For more than half a century, Klotz's basketball team -- once the Washington Generals, then the Boston Shamrocks, the Baltimore Rockets, the Atlantic City Seagulls, the Boston Whirlwinds, the New Jersey Reds, the International All-Stars and now the New York Nationals -- has lost to the Harlem Globetrotters night after night, year after year -- in all, around 15,000 times. "We haven't beaten the Trotters since 1971," says Klotz. That means his team has dropped somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 games in a row. "I'm at a loss for everything, except words," he cracks. "I'm the losingest team owner in history."

Spry and peppery at 85, Klotz is also the losingest coach (he more or less retired in 1997) and the losingest player (the 5-foot-7 point guard launched his last two-handed set shot in 1987, at age 66). "I was personally responsible for maybe 7,000 of our defeats," he allows. In the annals of athletics, he will go down -- and down and down -- as a minor deity for whom losing wasn't everything, it was the only thing.

Nobody has ever lost basketball games in more novel settings than Klotz. He's lost in a leper colony, on an aircraft carrier, in a bullring, a prison, the deep end of a swimming pool. He's lost before kings and queens and four popes. He's lost in 50 states and 117 countries. He hasn't lost in outer space. Yet.

Though his lack of success is monumental, Klotz isn't buried in permanent gloom. "Failure is bad if you lose a war, but losing in a sport is not a tragedy," he muses. "As long as you've given it your all, you just muddle through and continue to try to win. There's always a chance. If not today, tomorrow. If not tomorrow, the next day, the next week, the next month, the next year.... Everybody loses. We just lose more."