Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Washington Generals Infamous 1971 Win

I avoided posting about this at first since it has been covered before, but many have asked about the Washington Generals win in 1971. It should be noted that while many people think that this is the only time the Washington Generals beat the Globetrotters, that is actually not true.


The numbers of previous wins from the Washington Generals have varied due mostly to the fact few box scores can still be found, and in many cases never existed. Not to mention that no real official records are kept between the games.

The number has never been higher than six (including the 1971 win) but the only win prior to 1971 that has ever been confirmed happened on November 2nd 1957 in St. Joseph, Mich.

I want to note real quickly that the Globetrotters website (which only recently even acknowledged this game happened) credits this game as happening in "1961". But as a reader and researcher J. Michael Kenyon brought to my attention, that date is actually not correct.

As was reported in the Benton Harbor MI News-Palladium reported on November 4th 1957 (not 1961) it was during the game on November 2nd that near the end of the game that the scoreboard malfunctioned. It incorrectly showed the Harlem Globetrotters with a 61-57 lead in the final 2 minutes. The scorekeeper tried to inform the Trotters of the mistake, but apparently couldn't get to them in time.

Thinking they were protecting a lead, the Globetrotters began clowning around to stall the outcome. The buzzer went off and while mostin attendence, including the Trotters, were not aware the Generals had actually beaten the Globetrotters 66-63.

Red Klotz noticed this error when looking over his own score log and has said in interviews that Saperstein did admit Red was right. Although clearly no one saw any reason to protest this and the teams went on their tour. Although Klotz claimed that as the Generals first win against the Trotters for the next 14 years.

But it was in 1971 in Martin, Tennessee that the Washington Generals, under one of their many personas scored their most infamous win to date, and for a long time the only one officially acknowledged by the Harlem Globetrotters.

Martin, Tennessee - 1971
University of Tennessee-Martin was the sight of the 1971 upset.
Photo Copyright © by Patrick Potts. Used under Creative Commons.
On January 5th the Washington Generals traveled to Martin, Tennessee to once more play the Globetrotters.

I can only imagine that after so many games the Generals saw nothing special about that night going in.

For 200 or more times a year the Washington Generals play the Globetrotters, and as the above would state the outcome is almost always the same. The Generals play hard, make sure to help the Trotters look good, the weave is done several times, someone loses their pants, the Trotters win and the fans go home with big smiles on their faces.

I'm sure to the Generals in 1971 that at times it seemed like the only thing that ever really changed was the arena and the uniforms they wore. As I noted in an earlier article, during that period the Washington Generals were in the unique position of acting as five different teams.

In reality it was really only one team with the same players, but the Generals would rotate their uniforms and go by one of five different names to give the illusion of the Globetrotters playing more teams. Although the Washington Generals wer among the five teams, on this night in Tennessee it was the New Jersey Reds turn to face off against the Harlem Globetrotters.

As the Reds came out to the court that night in the University of Tennessee-Martin arena, I have no doubt that to them it seemed like another night in another arena against their constant foe. Little did they know that the New Jersey Reds were about to play in a game that would not only make history, but go on to become almost a mythical game in Globetrotter lore.

The Game

As the game progressed it became clear to the spectators that something was different about this game. For some reason the Globetrotters, always known for their gags were doing much less than usual. Yes buckets of confetti were being thrown and the usual comedy bits were there. But as anyone who goes to a game will tell you, a Globetrotters game is full of little gags all around. For some reason, there weren't as many of them that night in Tennessee.

While elements of a Globetrotter/Washington General (or whatever they are going by that night) game are definitley planned they happen predominantly during the times the Washington Generals are on defense. When the Washington Generals have the ball, and some parts of the time the Trotters have it, the Generals are allowed to play "real" basketball.

When the Trotters have the ball the rules mostly change. The Generals are expected, some would say required, to let the Trotters pretty much go where they want and set up their famous trick shots. They also have to "play along" when the Globetrotters go into one of their many comedy routines, or set up for the infamous weave.

Around 20% to 30% of a Generals/Globetrotter game is "real basketball". However it's that other 70% that has almost always guaranteed the Trotters the victory. The system is a well proven one, it gives the Generals both a chance to show at times how good they are to potential future teams, as well as keeps the Trotters from getting stagnant as they might if the Generals just flat out threw the games. At the same time the formula also stacks the deck enough against the Generals that winning is virtually impossible. Thus, the fans get what they want at the end of the night, the Harlem Globetrotters defeating their opponent.

But that night the formula was off. That night the Trotters toned down the jokes, leaving the game more often a case of the Reds and the Harlem Globetrotters playing a more traditional basketball game.

The reason for that has never been confirmed. There are rumors of some kind of dispute prior to the game,  although they've never been truly confirmed. Maybe there was a fight that lit a fire under the Generals while giving the Trotters the feeling they had something to prove, maybe all that time on the road got to the Trotters that night, maybe deep down a part of them just wanted to change up the routine that had become almost second nature by that point.

Whatever the reason, the Reds happened to be on fire that night, and as the game progressed they slowly started to run up the score. Had the Globetrotters noticed they easily could have gone into their comic routines, any one of them virtually guaranteeing them points while slowing the Reds down.

Apparently the Globetrotters didn't realize that they were beginning to lag behind. Not surprising, as the score is almost a formality in most games between these two teams, especially as the night goes on. According to reports it wasn't until there were only two minutes into the game that the Globetrotters seemed to realize they were suddenly down by 12 points.

With the reality that they were in real danger of actually losing finally upon them the Globetrotters rallied in the final two minutes of the game, the New Jersey Reds as always going along with the ride and playing their usual "mostly for show" defense. As the Trotters began playing harder they managed to bridge the gap and with 10 seconds left in the game the Trotters manged to gain a 99-98 lead when the Reds called a time out.

Owner and player Red Klotz, by this time at 50 years old but still possessing his signature two hand shot, told his team that he wanted them to hand him the ball for the final shot. There have been differing reports on why Red made this decision.

The Generals have also been adamant that they are always told to take their shots and never miss on purpose. But in the case where it might have been the game winning shot it has been said that Red's real motive was that he didn't want to put one of the players in the position of deciding whether to make a game winning shot and worry about getting "in trouble", or miss on purpose which they are told never to do. So perhaps Red's real motive was to not put his players in the position of having to make that tough call.

When the game continued Klotz was passed the ball and made his shot, and just like that the Red were once more in the lead 100-99.

One thing I have always wondered, as have others, is did Red actually mean to make the shot? As I stated Red has reportedly told his players to never miss a shot on purpose. So I can't help but wonder if Red asked for the ball because he was their best shooter, even at his age? Or did he ask for the ball so he could miss the shot, and by dumb luck made it anyway?

At the end of the day, probably only Red and Got know for certainty the answer to that question. But Klotz has maintained to this day that he made that shot with the intent of scoring and was trying to win the game like he always does.

The timekeeper, realizing what was about to happen, did stop the clock with three seconds left. This gave the Trotters time for one last shot. While normally the clock would not have stopped it was not uncommon for the time keepers to be loose with the rules when it benefited the game, and in this case the fate of the Globetrotters winning streak against the Generals was at stake.

With the Trotters now in control of the ball it was passed to Meadowlark Lemon, legendary showman of the Globetrotters to make one final shot. Lemon took the ball down the court, met with no real resistance as the Reds did their job and left him open to make the final shot.

Likely at this point the Reds figured that it was once more business as usual when they let Lemon make his final shot, which would give the Globetrotters the win by one point.

Regardless, Meadowlark delivered the same hook shot he had made a thousand times before... and missed.

The timekeeper tried to stop the clock once more and give the Trotters a chance to score on the rebound. Unfortunately for the Trotters, this time he wasn't fast enough and the final buzzer sounded. Just like that, in front of a shocked crowd, the Reds had won the game.

Kids cried and fans booed. Klotz has in many interviews since likened that night to being like they "killed Santa Claus". Although, some spectators and players did later recall among the chorus of boos, some fans did cheer, likely realizing they had seen history being made.

Obviously, comparing it to some of the more famous upsets in sports history has to be taken in the proper context. Despite the many jokes made over the years about the Washington Generals bad luck against the Trotters, no one would dispute that the entertainment aspect of their games is clearly the reason for such a lop sided record, regardless of whether it's "fixed" or not.

Still, no one can argue that at least mathematically, there has never been a bigger upset. There likeley never will be another one. At least not unless the Generals win again.

The Aftermath

After the game the Reds had what I can only imagine was the mother of all victory celebrations. Klotz was doused with orange soda. The game was played in a dry state at the time, and it goes without saying that the Generals did not travel with champagne. 

Some of the other details of what went on in that locker room have somewhat become part of basketball myth. Many accounts, and even an interview with a Roy Kieval, a former General who played in that game, have mentioned Abe Saperstein coming into the locker room screaming and furious at the Red's for having the nerve to win the game. 

It should be noted however, that Saperstein passed away five years prior to the game. So unless Abe was so shocked at the loss he came back from the dead, one has to assume that didn't happen. Although, Given how much Saperstein hated losing you can almost believe he actually would haunt the Reds out of revenge. 

Lemon, although reportedly furious, did come back to the locker room and congratulate the team on their victory. One would hope that part is true. Given what the Globetrotters stand for, I'd like to believe that Lemon did in fact have the class to show the kind of sportsmanship Klotz and his team had always shown him. 

Many reasons for the Globetrotters loss, or some would argue excuses, have come out since then. Historians and players are quick to cite that Curly Neal, the captain and arguably best ball player the Trotters had at the time, did not play in the game that night. The timekeeper, who the Trotters claimed didn't stop the clock for their skits early on, has also shouldered some of the blame. 

Personally, given what the Generals have going against them every game, I'd argue that there is no way they could have won unless the Trotters simply slacked off.

That sentiment was apparently shared by Harlem's then owner George Gillett. Reportedly, Gillett met the Trotter in Arkansas for their next game to personally tear them a new one for screwing up.

With something to prove the Globetrotters won that game the next day, destroying the Generals and it seemed once more order was restored to the world. 

Initially, the Trotters tried to hide the game and it went unmentioned as the Generals resumed losing game after game. But soon after, they realized that they were looking at this all wrong. Showing that the Globetrotters could in fact be defeated only added to their legacy. As the organisation never acknowledged the earlier Generals win, they realized that by acknowledging this win it showed the Trotters were not completely unbeatable and maybe, just maybe, it could happen again.

While Klotz team did play the game that night as the Reds, the win has always been credited to the Washington Generals. A logical decision, since the Reds were a different team in name only. But the irony has not been lost that the Generals only win ever acknowledged by the Harlem Globetrotters for so many years, was not technically won AS the Washington Generals. 

The Generals have not defeated the Globetrotters since that night 40 years ago. It's possible they never will again. But the Washington Generals job was never to win games. Their true job is to bring out the best in the Globetrotters while helping them entertain the fans. 

Klotz mentioned in an interview, that after the Generals definitive defeat at the hands of the Trotters the following night, who Klotz has stated in interviews could have beaten any team on earth that night, he looked up and saw the fans smiling and the children laughing. Klotz remarked how "...it was incredible, (his) team had won again." 

I'd argue the Washington Generals have been winning ever since. 


  1. The Washington Generals were the symbol of public humiliation. Their name must come up in more therapy sessions by adult children of various forms of abuse and degredation than any other sports team.

  2. I still have no idea why this story isn't a movie yet, you know what would happen? It would be a blockbuster, the Generals would gain thousands of new fans, and Globetrotter games would be even more fun. Why hasn't anyone jumped on it yet?

    1. also agree; tell me when it's on netflix

  3. I agree, a movie based on the 1971 win would be a great movie. It wouldn't have to be painting the Generals as traditional "underdog winners". Even if it told what "really" happened. I.E. a bunch of unlikely events happening at the same time led to a win that shouldn't have happened is a story in and of itself.

  4. The Globetrotters are probably the worst team ever

  5. The Generals are going to win very soon I have a great felling about the next game. I mean did see the game we got it to overtime all we had to do was stop them one last time we would have won & if our coach did freak out & got a a tenchial The Curly neal came on then won but i think we will win the next one. GO GENS!!!!!

  6. huh?

  7. Having been a participant in that game, this article is factually pretty correct except that the date was January 5th, not the 25th.....I had forgotten about the orange soda....

  8. You all know these games are all fixed right?

    1. Really? Thanks for that shocking revelation, you should sell that to the papers, they'd be all over it.