Eighty-five-year-old Louis Herman “Red” Klotz, New Jersey’s most enduring basketball ambassador, is still holding court. His shot is a relic from an age when the game was played in cages and ballrooms, a two-handed set shot often launched from well beyond today’s three-point arc. At the Jerome Avenue courts in Margate, the ones he helped save from demolition, Klotz takes a hard dribble, pulls up, and pops one in from twenty feet. He uncoils all 5 feet 7 inches of a still tightly muscled frame and hits another. Then a third. His next shot, from deep in the corner, rims out. “It’s a rhythm shot. When I get going, I can get hot,” Klotz says, almost apologetically.
Klotz has been involved in the game of basketball since the Great Depression. He played in high school and college in Philadelphia and later for an NBA champion. He played professionally, in fact, until 1990. And as the owner of the team that has played against the Harlem Globetrotters for more than half a century, he’s championed the game around the globe. Klotz likes to say that he’s “played more games on more courts in more countries than any other human being.” All of which invites the question, Why isn’t Red Klotz enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame? “If it happens during my lifetime, fine,” Klotz says. “If not, that’s okay too.” Klotz has owned New Jersey’s other pro basketball franchise since 1952. Best known as the Washington Generals, they’ve also been called the Boston Shamrocks, Atlantic City Seagulls, New Jersey Reds, International All-Stars, and, since 1995, the New York Nationals. No matter their name, Klotz’s teams rarely best the Globetrotters. Their last win came 35 years and some 8,750 games ago, in Tennessee, on a last-second set shot by Klotz. “You have to understand something: The games are very difficult,” Klotz says. “These are the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters!”
On tour with the Globies, Klotz has circled the planet as often as an astronaut. He’s played before heads of state and Pope John Paul II. He’s played in bullrings, on an aircraft carrier, and at a Philippine leper colony. He played professionally for 45 seasons, interrupted only by a three-year stint in the Army during World War II. He was 68 when he retired as a player, the oldest professional basketball player ever.
Klotz’s groundbreaking tours with the Globetrotters in the 1950s and ’60s, when the team conducted clinics on every continent except Antarctica, helped establish the game as the planet’s second most popular sport, behind only soccer. Fans of a certain age remember Klotz as the tiny, flame-haired guard, a comic foil for the hidden-ball tricks, buckets of confetti, and other Globetrotter shenanigans. The ’Trotters would win, but fans would marvel at the little guy whose shorts were pulled down but who still managed to score 20 points and dish out 12 assists. “Red would keep his team in the game all by himself,” says longtime Globetrotter Charles “Tex” Harrison, now 73.
Several Globetrotter greats are enshrined in the Hall of Fame, including Meadowlark Lemon, who is credited with playing some 16,000 games. Klotz may have played more. Just how many, nobody knows. “Nobody really kept track,” he says. “For me, it’s easier to count the wins.”
Gloria Stein first laid eyes on her future husband not two miles from the Margate beachfront home they’ve shared for more than 40 years. He was fourteen; she was twelve. He was wearing the red-and-white sweater he’d earned by captaining his South Philadelphia High School team to the city championship. His white legs completed the Shoobie look. “Who wears a sweater on the beach in August?” Gloria asks.
“I was proud of it!” Red says.
That was 71 years ago. Their union has produced six children, twelve grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, and one of the most unusual family-owned franchises in sports. For years, Gloria helped run the business side. Their son Chuck was the Globetrotters’ public-address announcer. A daughter, Jody, served as business manager for the Generals, and her husband, John Ferrari, today runs the Nationals’ day-to-day operations as general manager. A grandson, Morgan “Mo” Klotz, a star athlete at Mainland Regional High School in Linwood in the 1980s, played for Red’s teams. “It was the experience of a lifetime,” Mo says. “How many kids have three passports stamped by the time they’re 23?”
After starring for Villanova for two years, Klotz signed on with the professional Philadelphia Sphas (for South Philadelphia Hebrew Association), a great pre-NBA team, and helped them win an American Basketball League championship. After the war—Klotz played on an Air Transport team in the Army—he suited up for the 1948 NBA champion Baltimore Bullets, becoming one of the shortest players ever to win a title.
Later that year Sphas owner Eddie Gottlieb asked Klotz to coach the team, which had become a barnstorming squad. Their opponents included the famous Harlem Globetrotters, who had begun their now-legendary routines. But one night on the ballroom court of Philadelphia’s old Broadwood Hotel, there was Klotz dribbling out the clock, Globetrotters-style, to seal a rare victory. “The great Goose Tatum met me at mid-court and said, ‘That won’t happen again,’ ”
Klotz says. “But we beat them again the next time.”
Globetrotters’ owner Abe Saperstein invited Klotz to form a squad to accompany his team on their tours. With a nod to Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Atlantic City–based Washington Generals were born. It was 1952, just five years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line, and the rosters of both the Globetrotters and the Generals contained many black players. When the teams played in the South, the crowds would cheer for the Globetrotters and jeer the Generals. After the game, however, the blacks on both teams had to use a separate locker room.
Gene Hudgins of Atlantic City, who started with the Generals and later signed with the Globetrotters, describes Klotz as a second father. “There weren’t many opportunities for black ballplayers then,” Hudgins says. “I’ll always be grateful.” Three years ago Klotz helped thwart a plan by Margate city officials to replace the Jerome Avenue basketball courts with a skateboard park. With Klotz as their spokesman, 70 players attended a meeting at City Hall. “Can you imagine this park without basketball, an American tradition, to be replaced by a fad?” Klotz said to applause. The city spared the courts.
Despite Klotz’s contributions to the game, the powers that be at the Hall of Fame have not been won over. They solicited his jersey and other memorabilia for a 1995 display on the Globetrotters, but they’ve rejected his entry into the Hall three straight times, most recently in 2002. Klotz will be eligible for consideration again in two years, when he’ll be 87.
Chris Ford, a Margate neighbor and former NBA player and coach, believes that Klotz’s accomplishments should qualify him for the Hall of Fame. “If it’s about all the games he’s lost, they’re missing the point,” Ford says. “It’s not about who wins a game involving the Globies. It’s about opening up basketball to millions of people.”
Klotz shrugs at the slight, suggesting that the Hall might not have room for a perennial loser. No matter. Another pickup game is forming at the Jerome Avenue courts, and Klotz is firing up that crazy two-hander.
Writer Tim Kelly lives in Linwood.Click here to leave a comment