Today we celebrate sports’ biggest losers’ finest hours. For it was on this day in 1971 that a group of poor schmucks whose Sisyphean job it was to repeatedly suffer the agony of defeat earned their only victory. I speak of course of the Washington Generals beating the Harlem Globetrotters for the first and only time.
First, a bit of context: Although the Harlem Globetrotters are now known for their unique brand of basketball and comedy, they actually got their start as a serious professional basketball squad. However, as the NBA came to prominence, the Globetrotters decided to change their game. They’d still face off against the occasional college team, but they’d mostly play exhibition games that prominently featured trick plays and comedy bits. Of course, you can’t play a basketball game by yourself, so a team of patsies named the Washington Generals, under the ownership of Lou “Red” Klotz, were born. So, while the Globetrotters would play a high flying Looney Tunes style game, the Generals would play fairly straight basketball and always lose. However, that all changed during a game on January 5, 1971 in Martin, Tennessee.
It was just supposed to be a normal day at the office for the two teams: The Generals (playing under the name the New Jersey Reds to give the impression that the Trotters didn’t just play the same team over and over again) would put up with the Globetrotters’ shenanigans, lose and then the audience would go home happy. This game was different and as it went on, it became more and more apparent that something was amiss: The Globetrotters’ comedy bits were going longer than usual and their shooting was off, partially because the Trotters’ best player, Curly Neal, was out of the game.
Typically, the Trotters players didn’t really pay much attention to the score during games against the Generals, but when the team found themselves down 12 points with only two minutes remaining against the surprisingly hot Generals squad, they stopped joking around and played some serious hoops.
With ten seconds left in the match, the Globetrotters had bounced back and were leading 99-98, but it was the Generals’ ball. This put Generals owner-coach-player Red Klotz in an awkward position: The Globetrotters and Generals had agreed that the Generals would always play serious offense and never intentionally miss. However, these were extremely unusual circumstances, as the Generals were never supposed to be in a position where they could get a game winning shot. Klotz didn’t want to force one of his young players to decide whether to make the shot (thus winning the game and potentially getting in trouble) or miss the shot on purpose (which was against the two teams’ policy), so he did the one thing he could do; Klotz elected to receive the ball and shoot.
Much to the shock of the entire arena, Klotz shot…AND HE SCORED! The Generals were up 100 to 99 with seconds remaining. There’s some debate about whether Klotz meant to score the basket, or if it was just a happy fluke on what was supposed to be an intentional miss. For his part, Klotz maintains that he had every intention of making the basket.
After a brief pause, the Globetrotters got the ball back and Meadowlark Lemon prepared to take the final shot. The Generals put up minimal defense to allow Lemon to do his thing. Lemon ran down the court, went into his famed hookshot…and missed! The final buzzer sounded and by some twist of fate, the Generals had won! Some in the audience booed, children cried and a small section of the arena who realized they had witnessed history applauded the victorious Generals. Klotz would later say that the crowd “…looked at us like we killed Santa Claus.” In the Generals’ locker room after the game, the team would celebrate by spraying each other with orange soda. Unsurprisingly, Meadowlark Lemon was upset that the Globetrotters had lost, but did show up to the Generals’ locker room to congratulate them on their victory. Over the last 42 years, the Globetrotters and Generals have faced each other a few thousand times and the Generals have not pulled off another win since that lucky night in Martin, Tennessee.
Tonight, let’s raise a glass to the all time losers on their one night as winners with a Washington Cocktail. This neat cognac based variant on the Manhattan was created sometime in the late 1800s and was included in the Savoy Cocktail Book.
- 1 1/2 ounces Dry Vermouth
- 3/4 ounces Cognac
- 1 dash Bitters
- 1 dash simple syrup
Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Tomorrow: Twelfth Day.