Red Klotz has lost basketball games in front of four popes. He has lost on an aircraft carrier. He has lost in a leper colony. He has lost in South Korea. He has lost in South Dakota. He hasn't lost in South Africa yet, but he's hopeful. He has lost in 113 countries (he is, he boasts, the first American to lose in China). He has lost in 1,341 towns in the 50 states. He has lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 13,000 games, the last 7,968 in a row, give or take a few. In the time it takes to read this paragraph, he could easily lose another one. "I'm the losingest coach in the world," says Klotz, the 74-year-old coach and owner of the Washington Generals. "But I'll never get fired. Pretty amazing, huh?"
What do you ask a basketball coach who has lost 7,968 straight games—to the same team—as he prowls around the locker room preparing his pregame speech? Excuse me, Coach, any changes in the game plan tonight? After all, the enemy is the Harlem Globetrotters. So naturally you wonder: Why doesn't Klotz tell his guys to watch out for the ball-under-the-jersey trick? Or the Figure Eight? Or the yo-yo ball? Or the half-court hook? For god's sake, boys, D-up when you hear Sweet Georgia Brown!
It's a tribute to all 67 inches of Louis Herman (Red) Klotz that he has resisted the urge to fire himself. To be the coach of the Washington Generals is to prosecute a case against Perry Mason. Or to chase the Roadrunner. With only one victory, Klotz's alltime winning percentage as a former player and current coach of the Generals is .0000769, which is right down there with Charlie Brown's. Heck, a Red Klotz business card features a stencil of a tall guy in Trotters trou dunking over a helpless dwarf.
Red Klotz. Even the name is a 200-to-1 shot. The surname is a hybrid of clod and klutz. The full title sounds less like a name than a symptom. Bad news, Mr. Goldstein, your red klotz are down this month. In fact, many Globetrotter fans assume that with a name so ludicrous this Klotz guy must be a character carefully created to lead the losers. A man once came up to Klotz in the early '70s and asked him, "Are you the original Red Klotz?"
Klotz still laughs at himself telling this story. Maybe he recognizes the irony. Maybe not. Because in many ways Red Klotz is a cartoon character who has come to life, having tied up Louis Klotz, bound his hands and feet, gagged him and left him struggling in the boiler room of a gym somewhere in Borneo. As you talk to this Klotz, you are disturbed by the feeling that he can only be viewed in two dimensions; you have an almost uncontrollable urge to peek behind him, where you expect he is being propped up by a two-by-four. You expect to find a tape recorder strapped to his back because he tells exactly the same stories, word for word, that he did 20 years ago. His references are still peppered with names like Neil Armstrong and Douglas MacArthur, heroes of days gone by. He has never bothered to update them.
Klotz brushes off all the personal questions as part of the myth, part of his secret. So you inquire about close friends who might provide some insight, but after Klotz thumbs through his mental Rolodex, he finally allows that he can't come up with anybody right this minute, but he'll be happy to get back to you with names next week. Of course, next week he's in Qatar. Klotz has lived his life on the lam, darting from town to town, a satellite outside any social circle. His favorite statement is the one about how he has run more miles on a basketball floor than any other human. Running, yes. He's always running away from life's routine. Hardly ever stopping to think. Forty-two years ago Louis Klotz ran away with the circus, and Red Klotz has never really come home.
Klotz on loss No. 47: "Back in the early '50s I took my team to play in front of the shah of Iran, who had survived about 100 attempts on his life, so everybody was a little jumpy. When we got to the court, I realized I had forgotten the basketballs, so I ran back toward the bus to get them. Suddenly I heard this bloodcurdling scream, and this guard jammed a gun barrel in my stomach. If I hadn't stopped, the guy would've turned me into Swiss cheese. It was a scary moment, but when I looked back at my players, they were all giggling hysterically. I'm afraid we lost the game, but I had to look on the bright side...nobody died."
It's in the face of overwhelming odds that Klotz has walked into thousands of visitors' locker rooms. On this day he has agreed to be shadowed for a 300-mile round-trip bus ride and two games, an afternoon contest in New York City and a nightcap in New Haven, Conn. So this particular locker room happens to be in the bowels of New York's legendary Madison Square Garden. It could be anywhere. Klotz's speech is always the same. It should come with subtitles: "O.K., boys, let's play solid defense. (Don't screw up the Figure Eight.) Play within yourselves. (Never, ever upstage the Trotters.) Let's have some fun out there. (Be sure to giggle when your shorts are pulled down.) Let's go win. (Let's go win.)" Yes, it sounds crazy, but when Klotz says he wants to win, he really means it.
As Klotz talks, Billy Kurisko, who is about to play his very first game with the Generals, is sneaking pecks at his new teammates. Kurisko has just completed a crash course in how to tiptoe through the Trotters' famous Figure Eight without getting beaned by the ball, and now Klotz is exhorting him to kick some Trotter tail. Kurisko turns to teammate Ed Hepinger and whispers, "Is this guy serious?"
Klotz insists that Abe Saperstein, who founded the Trotters in 1927 and handed the reins of the Generals to Klotz in 1953, never once asked him to take a dive. And Klotz swears on his one and only victory (more on that later) that his team plays all out...except during Trotter routines. "I tell my players that our first priority is always the laughter," says Klotz. "We're the straight men. Laurel had Hardy, Lewis had Martin, Costello had Abbott, and the Trotters have us. We're not stooges, we're not losers at heart, but let's face it, who got more glory, Abbott or Costello?"