Losers’ lament

John Ferrari sat in the Wildwood, N.J., convention center, and he watched the people in the crowd, and the thing that struck him was how normal it all felt. How many basketball games had he been to in the last 35 years? Eight thousand? Ten thousand? More? Yes, this felt like home.

He was a coach for a while. He was a general manager for a while. Maybe 20 years ago, he became something more, a position without a real title. He and his wife, Jody, ran the Washington Generals. It was the most wonderful life they could ever imagine, though they almost never won a game.

He continued to watch the people in the stands. They were his scoreboard. They were also the scoreboard for Ferrari’s father-in-law, Red Klotz, who founded the team in 1953. He dubbed the team the Washington Generals after the country’s new president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. The team’s purpose, as you no doubt know, was to play the World Famous Harlem Globetrotters.

Read that again: The team’s purpose was to PLAY the Globetrotters, the purpose was not to LOSE to the Globetrotters. Weird as it sounds, the Generals were always playing to win. True, they faced a few disadvantages, such as the fact that the Globetrotters would sometimes hide the ball under their shirts, or attach a string to the ball, or pull down the Generals players’ pants, or soak a player with a bucket of water. The referees consistently missed blatant Globetrotters rules violations. In the end, the Globetrotters would go into their famous “Sweet Georgia Brown” weave offense, which has no defense.

Yes, beating the Globetrotters was a challenge. But, as Red always said, you never stop trying, right? Red Klotz died a year ago at the age of 93. He never stopped trying.

Anyway for Klotz, for Ferrari, for the Generals, the real scoreboard was those fans. Were they laughing? Were they having a good time? Ferrari would look at the way parents held up their children, so they could see. He would look at the awed and delighted faces of those adults who had grown up with the Globetrotters. He would try to take in their joy and hold on to it. That joy was what kept everything going.

Now, he sat in the Wildwood convention center, and he tried to feel the sadness. The right emotion, certainly, was sadness. But he looked around, at the thousand or so fans in the crowd, and he saw their joy. He felt their joy. It was so familiar.

At halftime, he walked into the Generals’ locker room. There were the players, his players, he’d signed hundreds of them. So many were just kids, right out of college. They had no idea in the beginning about the grind of the road, the trials of monotony, the exhausting challenge of playing hard in a losing effort night after night after night. In a way, we’re all Washington Generals aren’t we?

“Guys, gather around for a minute,” Ferrari said. The team gathered around. He arranged them into something like a semicircle. He pulled out a camera and took a picture.

“I’ll send you a photo of this,” Ferrari said. “You are the last group of men who will ever wear the Washington Generals uniform.”

* * *

The phone call came in mid-July. It was brief, vague and final: The Harlem Globetrotters are moving on without the Washington Generals. There was no negotiation, no specifics, no explanations. John and Jody Ferrari had not seen it coming. But, as they say, do you ever see it coming?

For 62 years, the Globetrotters played basketball night after night against Red Klotz’s Washington Generals. Yes, occasionally Klotz would choose a different name in order to provide variety — the New Jersey Reds, the Boston Shamrocks, the Atlantic City Seagulls, the Baltimore Rockets, the Chicago Demons. But it was the Generals that stuck in the mind. It was the Generals who still register. Do a quick search of the news:

Sports Illustrated refers to the Carolina Hurricanes “playing the role of the Washington Generals in getting swept by the star-studded Penguins in the 2009 Eastern Conference Final.”

At Movie Pilot, they talk about how last year DC Comics was viewed as “the Washington Generals to Marvel Studio’s Harlem Globetrotters, born to lose in a superhero movie competition.”

A story previewing Ronda Rousey’s inevitable destruction of underdog Bethe Correia points out that, hey, the Generals did beat the Globetrotters once. A rugby story in the Daily Telegraph referenced “those daggy Washington Generals going on a spree against the Globetrotters.” Australian radio announcer Basil Zempilas, referring to a turnover after a brief run of brilliance during an Australian Football League match said, “That wasn’t so good, more like the Washington Generals.”

Kobe Bryant, during a dark time for the Lakers, once said he wished that they could play the Washington Generals.

The guys from “How I Met Your Mother” supposedly were big Washington Generals fans.

The Generals became a symbol. Sure, you could say they were a symbol of losing, but maybe that’’s not all of it. Red Klotz used to ask: What is losing? Put another way: If you have a Harlem Globetrotters then you must have a Washington Generals. They are two sides of the coin. They are symbiotic. Anyway, that’s what Red Klotz believed. And that’s what his son-in-law John Ferrari believed too.

So the phone call was a shock. The Globetrotters’ ownership simply said they were breaking with the Generals. They didn’t offer details or reasons — the Globetrotters didn’t return a phone call for this story. But it’s not hard to figure out what happened. Times have changed. The Globetrotters, under new ownership, face unique challenges in a time of unprecedented competition for the entertainment buck. They have decided after six decades to go it alone.

“I wasn’t angry, and I’m not angry now,” Ferrari says. “I want to make that clear. I was definitely surprised and I’m certainly sad. But it’s been a wonderful relationship with the Globetrotters. Red absolutely loved the Globetrotters. I’ve loved the Globetrotters. My wife, Jody, has loved the Globetrotters. There’s no anger. It ended sooner than we thought. But we cherish the memories.”

* * *

If you ask John Ferrari for his record over a seven-year coaching stint with the Generals, he will say: “Well, I know exactly how many wins I had.” It’s a funny line, but as it turns out the number of wins is not zero. It’s two. Turns out that when the Generals were playing in Europe, they would occasionally play real games against international opponents. Ferrari’s Generals beat a lower-level Red Army team, and they beat the Taiwanese national team. So: Two victories.

“I have that number memorized,” he says.

“And losses?” you ask him.

“Yeah, more than a thousand, not sure of that exact number,” he says.

Ferrari had been a winner first. He was the road manager of the Harlem Globetrotters. He had been with Curley Neal and Geese Ausbie and those guys who never lost. In the early 1980s, though, he met and fell in love with Jody Klotz, Red’s daughter. They married in 1984. Shortly after that, Red came over with a proposition.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you come over to the losing team?’” Ferrari says. “I said, ‘Is that a job offer?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ … Isn’t that perfect? Is there a better way to join the Washington Generals? ‘Come on over to the losing team.’”

The losing team. There was the time Ferrari’s Generals lost to the Globetrotters in a game on ice, this even though Red Klotz had been quoted beforehand saying, “We excel on ice.” There were the times his Generals lost at Madison Square Garden and times they lost in high school gymnasiums. They lost in prisons. They lost on an aircraft carrier. They lost on the beach. They lost on six continents. They lost them all.

Well, they beat the Globetrotters once, back in Martin, Tenn., in 1971. Red Klotz hit the winning shot and was showered with orange soda because, of course, there was no champagne on ice in the Generals locker room. All that was long before Ferrari took over, though. He reigned over a different time. The Globetrotters’ popularity was fading. In the 1970s, they were often on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, which lifted their fame to unprecedented heights. In 1974, they got their own television variety show. In 1976, the they got a Saturday morning cartoon, another one in 1979. In 1981, they played on Gilligan’s Island. In 1984, they cruised on the Love Boat.

But like so many 1970s and ’80s things, they faded more and more into that box labeled nostalgia. The Globetrotters were still big business, and Ferrari’s Generals kept getting their pants pulled down, kept falling for the hidden ball trick, kept chasing through the weave only to find themselves losers once again. But the crowds grew smaller. The Globetrotters kept changing owners. All the while, Ferrari kept recruiting and signing and building a team.

“Our job was to make people laugh,” Ferrari says. “That’s pretty good. I would tell our players, ‘Hey, you’ll forget the white-out in South Dakota that kept us from getting out, and you’ll forget the time the plane landed late so that you didn’t eat for 24 hours, and you’ll forget all those small specific things that were hard. You’ll never forget what you did. You’ll never forget the laughter.’”

* * *

Before the final Generals game, Globetrotter Joyce Ekworomadu — known as Sweet J — went out to Morey’s Piers amusement park in Wildwood to get people excited. She made a shot from a ride 150 feet in the air. Based on the Globetrotters’ video, roughly nine people were watching. These are the times. It’s hard to inspire awe in people.

Ferrari says the emotions of the last Generals game were confusing. “Maybe it just hasn’t sunk in yet,” he says. The one thing that he would remember thinking was that he wanted the Generals, in their final game, to play the way Red Klotz always wanted them to play — hard and together. He wanted them to sell the comedy bits. He wanted them to play tough defense when the basketball was real. As strange as it might sound to some, he wanted them to live up to the Washington Generals name.

“After we got the call from the Globetrotters,” Ferrari says, “I remember that the most significant thought was, ‘We have an obligation to fulfill our responsibility here.’ I guess it’s a bit of an unusual situation, when you know you’re at the end. But we still wanted to play to the best of our ability. That’s the way Red was. That’s the way Jody is. That’s the way I am.”

When the last game ended, John and Jody drove home — they only live a few miles away from Wildwood. They didn’t talk much in the car. There really wasn’t anything to be said. Ferrari is looking for a job now. He doesn’t know if his experience as Generals coach, general manager and president will carry much weight. His last official act was to look up at the scoreboard for the last time.

It read: “Harlem Globetrotter 90, Washington Generals 88.”

“So close,” John Ferrari says.

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