Say it ain’t so.
The Harlem Globetrotters will no longer be beating the Washington Generals game after glorious fake game. A “rivalry” that dates to the Eisenhower administration is coming to an end now that the Trotters have decided to dump their longtime punching bag of an opponent, presumably for business reasons.
Farewell to the team that stoically took buckets of water to the face, allowed pants to be pulled to their ankles, and always made sure to score at least one less point than the team everyone paid to see.
Well, except for the single game the Generals won in 1971, when team founder Louis “Red” Klotz threw up the winning shot at the buzzer after Globetrotters star Meadowlark Lemon, losing track of the score, turned over the ball to do one last comic skit.
“Red said, ‘Guys, we just won the game. We better get to the locker room before the Trotters find out,’” recalled John Ferrari, Klotz’s son-in-law who took over running the Generals in 1987. “Then they announced that the Generals had won. The only thing they had in the locker room was orange soda. So they poured orange soda on their heads. They didn’t have any champagne.”
Too bad, because the Generals were a team worth celebrating, even if their record over the last 63 years was one win and “something more than 16,000” losses, in Ferrari’s estimation.
“I think the audience saw that these guys were trying every night,” he said. “They want to win. They’re getting close. Isn’t that how most of us live? That’s why people gravitated to the Generals.”
This got us to thinking about other sporting traditions that have gone away over the years.
Some of the favorites:
WHEN STARS WERE STARS: Joe Frazier nearly drowning while trying to swim? Johnny Unitas laboring to pedal a bike? Those were some of the highlights when the world’s greatest athletes competed on the made-for-TV “Superstars,” the 1970s competition that showed these guys weren’t any better than the rest of us when they got out of their comfort zone. Honorable mention goes to “Battle of the Network Stars,” which gave us Arte Johnson in a dunking tank.
MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: It was much more than a prime-time football game when Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell and Dandy Don Meredith came into our homes; it was a cultural phenomenon. We cursed the acerbic Cosell (especially when he left our favorite team off his much-anticipated halftime highlights), cheered Meredith’s folksy comebacks, and marveled at Gifford holding it all together. They still call it Monday Night Football, but now it’s just a game or two they play on Mondays.
GAMES THAT MATTERED: The NCAA Tournament was once limited to one basketball team from each conference. That meant the Atlantic Coast Conference representative had to win the league’s season-ending tournament to get in. Talk about pressure and drama. In 1970, South Carolina went 14-0 during the regular season but lost the final to North Carolina State. That ended the Gamecocks’ season.
ABC’S WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS: There was nothing like watching barrel jumping, lumberjack contests, and cliff diving from the comfort of your den on a Saturday afternoon. Not to mention that poor guy crashing off the ski-jumping hill in perpetuity during the opening credits, experiencing what we all came to know as “the agony of defeat.”
HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE FIGHTS: They still have these, apparently, but there hasn’t been anyone worth watching since Mike Tyson. Ahh, to return to an era when “Heavyweight Champion” made you one of the most recognized people on the planet.
RIVALRIES BURIED: Conference realignment has cost us such great matchups as Oklahoma-Nebraska, Texas-Texas A&M, and Penn State-Pittsburgh. What a pity. We also wish the Iron Bowl was still played in Birmingham, before an evenly divided crowd, not on the campuses of Alabama and Auburn. Then again, at least they still play every year.
PENNANT RACES: They no longer exist in baseball, not when there are six divisions and four teams that get into the playoffs without winning their division. The last great pennant race came in 1993, when the San Francisco Giants went 103-59 and didn’t even make the playoffs. They lost the NL West to the Atlanta Braves, who were 104-58.
U.S.-SOVIET RIVALRY: The Olympics haven’t been quite the same since the Soviet Union went out of business. Every four years, we all got pumped for the good-vs.-evil matchup between our pure, amateur Americans and those hated athletes with the “CCCP” across their chests. (Or, as they viewed it from the other side of the Iron Curtain: the glorious proletariat against the money-grubbing capitalists.) Never again will see epics such as the disputed Soviet gold medal in basketball at the Munich Games, or the U.S. hockey team pulling off the “Miracle on Ice” in Lake Placid.
And now, we’ve lost the ultimate losers, the Washington Generals.
That’s a loss for us all.