Fourteen losses. Fourteen consecutive losses.
The words ricocheted around in my head throughout most of the 2nd half as I watched the San Antonio Spurs surpass their most dubious record, dribble-by-dribble, shot-by-shot, brick-by-brick.
All-in-all, the Spurs took 107 shots last night. They made 41 of them.
Their field-goal percentage (38%) was only a few points higher than their three-point percentage on the night. Sometimes there just aren’t any words.
On the one hand, I’ve had the good fortune to see the Spurs set a great many positive team records in my time watching them. Win streaks, playoff records, moments paying tribute to the victorious consistency of a team and franchise. And of course, I can rest a little easier knowing that this has been the result of a team and front office committed to a season of losing.
On the other hand, this is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Quite literally. When the Spurs last set this record at thirteen losses in a row, I was twenty-nine weeks in the womb.
Even in the famously tanking-not-tanking-for-Duncan season of 1997, the Spurs never lost more than 8 games in a row. I had always known that the Camelot of the Duncan era would wane eventually, but I simply never considered that it would be like this.
Ten years ago I would have been aghast; instead I sifted through comparable losing streaks and bad seasons in this and other sports, trying to find something to help me stomach the moment.
And then I thought about Red Klotz. Red Klotz was once a prodigious winner on the hardwood. He was also the greatest loser in the history of professional sports.
Standing only 5’7” and weighing 150 pounds with shoes on, Klotz won everywhere he played in his youth.
He was named Philadelphia Player of the Year in 1939 and 1940, in route to a pair of consecutive city championships. He then enrolled at Villanova University, and led the freshman basketball team to an undefeated season, before the bombing of Pearl Harbor led to an enlistment that curtailed his college career.
After the war Klotz got back to basketball as soon as he could, playing for the Philadelphia Sphas of the ABL until he finally made it to the big time.
He would play exactly one season for the Baltimore Bullets. So naturally, they won the BAA (now NBA) championship that year. And just like that his NBA career was over. He remains the shortest player to win an NBA championship.
But Red Klotz just couldn’t quit basketball. He went back to the Philadelphia Sphas, this time as coach and player, and eventually owner. This was a chaotic time for professional basketball, and with the NBA beginning to separate itself from the ABL, Red booked every game he could get for his team; including exhibitions of a wide variety.
A number of those exhibitions came against a team bankrolled by a man named Abe Saperstein, whose players had somewhat-recently beaten the NBA champion Minneapolis Lakers and their superstar, George Mikan, leading the NBA to integrate out of competitive fear.
And to Saperstein’s bewilderment, the Globetrotters were beaten by the diminutive Klotz and his team of semi-pro castoffs, disadvantages be dammed. It was clear to Saperstein that this was a man who could coach. Then they did again. And again. And the crowds got bigger with each upset, and Abe Saperstein noticed that too.
So in 1953 he made Red Klotz a proposition. Saperstein felt that he could make more money if the Globetrotters could tour internationally. The problem was that, unlike in the United States, it was a lot harder to barnstorm in Europe. Saperstein had tried it before, and the European teams that existed were far from dependable, often late, and sometimes failed to show at all.
The Globetrotters needed a team that they could depend on, night in and night out.
For Red, this meant no longer having to scrape to book games for his now-aging teammates. He could play and coach basketball for as long as he liked, according to Saperstein.
The price of this arrangement was steep though. Red Klotz would have to lose, every night. Red Klotz did not like losing. It was distinctly the opposite of everything that he’d done (or tried to do) in his basketball career.
However, there was the matter of putting food on the table. And Red did love basketball.
So it was that the Washington Generals were born. And Red Klotz lost every game he coached and played in (except for one) for the next 40 years.
He lost on ice skating rinks, and in high school gyms, on the decks of aircraft carriers, and even, once, in the midst of a leper colony. He lost more than 14,000 times in all (and perhaps more than that, according to some estimates), a record unlikely to be approached by the coach of any professional sports team. And he played point guard until he was 68 years old.
And all the while, to maintain his sanity, he taught basketball. He taught fundamentals and strategy. He fixed shots and dribbles. He demanded that his teams play the right way, no matter what nonsense the Globetrotters got up to; that they make the extra pass and refrain from getting sloppy with ball.
“We don’t turn the ball over,” he told The Kansas City Star back in 2007. “We block out on rebounds. We move the ball around. We may not have as much talent as the world famous Globetrotters, but we don’t back down.” And he insisted, to his dying day, that the Generals had legitimately tried to win every game he’d coached.
“I coach like Larry Brown,” he once told Dave McKenna. “Before every game we discuss cutting down turnovers, picking your man, everything any coach would discuss with his team.” He pointed out that in the early days, the Generals had to face the Globetrotters squads with guys like Wilt Chamberlain and Connie Hawkins before they went to the NBA.
He had pictures on the walls of cherished players that he’d lost alongside. And when people (like his friend Red Auerbach) asked him how he could stand so much losing, he’d reply that some people had to dig ditches for a living. He got to coach basketball, and travel the world while he did it. The tradeoff never seemed unfair to Red Klotz. He loved basketball. And he loved his players.
“I cannot stand losers,” Red would frequently remark, with a passion that subverted the irony. ‘’We have a way in this country of worshiping winners. Kids today are taught from Little League on up that they must win. But only one team can win, so most of us are losers in a way. A real loser is someone who doesn’t try, and doesn’t learn from it. I lose every day, but I’ve never stopped trying, and I’ve never stopped learning.”
And I couldn’t help but marvel at that mindset. I think fandom allows for a detachment that coaches simply can’t conceive of. They invest in their players, such as they are. Coaches are teachers, and teaching is in-and-of-itself a form of investment, wherein the currency spent is that of self.
I tried to watch the rest of the game from a coaches’ perspective; from a place of equal parts consternation and love.
I watched Jeremy Sochan struggle with a shot that’s coming along, but is definitely still inconsistent. I watched Keldon Johnson struggle with his outside shot yet again, after a season in which he looked like a relative sharp-shooter. I watched Malaki Branham repeatedly embarrass the Hornets’ guard rotation with a series of handles that would have impressed Earl ‘The Pearl’ Monroe, and fling passes that I was never sure would find their target, but somehow did.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that we love the people we love not just for their better qualities, but in spite of their flaws. It’s funny to think about how passionate and emotional fans can be in the world of sports, and still fall short of experiencing the fullest spectrum that it has to offer.
Coaches have no such luxury. They lose. They win. They rinse and repeat. Some win more than others. But most of all, they love basketball. And that’s how they weather the storm. Fourteen consecutive storms.
But I’m not quite than enlightened yet, so here’s hoping for a sunny day.
- The story of the night was undoubtedly Malaki Branham, who spent the night making the kind of burst-and-flash plays that Tre Jones (for all his other skills) simply cannot match. Averaging 18/4/3 on 52/41 shooting, Branham is making a strong case for more minutes as primary ball-handler, if not eventually a spot in the starting lineup, which could make the Spurs draft particularly interesting in the likely event that they fall short of the number one pick. Should the Spurs end up with Scoot Henderson or Amen Thompson, or even another player of that ilk in a draft loaded with quality guards, it could leave Jones as the odd man out as he enters restricted free-agency. In any case, it certainly gives the Spurs a lot of leverage in negotiations. Of course, this could just prove to be a hot streak for the young rookie, but for now San Antonio’s astounding ability to find quality guards in the late 1st round is looking likely to hold up for at least another year.
- Much more quietly, Zach Collins spent the night proving yet again that he’s fully healed from the injuries that dimmed his early promise in Portland. And while my fragile basketball heart is still recovering from the agony of the Jakob Poeltl trade, I have to admit that Collins has stepped up nicely, and appears to be physically holding up in spite of a necessary minutes increase. Say what you will, but the Spurs have a habit of finding/acquiring bigs with above average passing ability, and Collins showed off his chops at every opportunity on a night in which he led the Spurs in assists. It’s not ideal for that to happen of course, but it’s nice to know that Poeltl’s exit hasn’t led to a collapse in that area, considering how vital an offensive component his front-court passing was over the past several season. I’m still not convinced that Collins is more than a tweener (both positionally and 1st/2nd team-wise), but his contract is an absolute steal and his depth and versatility will likely prove useful regardless of who the Spurs end up drafting.
Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:
Even The Losers by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers