It’s been a tough 68 years for basketball’s Washington Generals.
Perennial straight men to the famed Harlem Globetrotters, the Generals have racked up just three wins since their 1952 founding, against a record of nearly 19,000 losses.
But now—just in time for two upcoming games in Vancouver this Saturday—things are about to change, according to head coach Sam Worthen.
“We’re a new breed,” he says, on the line from New York. “We went out and got some very talented players, guys from Division 1 and Division 2 schools, guys who can cover all areas. It’s probably the most talented Generals team ever.
“We took some time off just to prep for this situation,” he continues, referring to a recent two-year reorganization effort. “Now we’re ready for the ’Trotters 2020 world tour, which is called “Pushing the Limits”—but we’re going to push the limits for them. They don’t know what they’ve got coming!”
Worthen, who played for the NBA Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz in the early ’80s, laughs boisterously, then happily turns the conversation to the team’s pool of talent, and the four-point shot which is particular to Generals-Globetrotters games.
“We’ve got some big guys who can really rebound—and shoot the ball, which is rare—and also we have some guards that can really light the balls up, especially from a four-point range, which is 30 feet. Guys like Trey Bardsley, he set all kinds of records and scored over 55 points a few times in school, 30 or more points quite a few times. And this is our 10th anniversary with the four-point shot, you know, and we've been really working on that.”
As Worthen notes, and as their record might indicate, the Generals haven’t always been so focused on winning. There were periods of uninspired coaching, unmotivated play, and an ability gap which inevitably left the Generals at the mercy of their rivals.
With most fans paying to see the Globetrotters flamboyantly dunk on their opposition, there have been questions about the sincerity of the Generals’ efforts, with some skeptics inferring that the enterprise is akin to pro wrestling kayfabe. Indeed, even the Generals’ own Twitter account appears to be administered with an amiable wink and a nod.
But all it takes is a few minutes of talking to Worthen to become a true believer. His optimism, drive, and good humour are contagious, and his unbridled enthusiasm will surely warm the heart of even the staunchest cynic.
Likewise, Generals’ guard Anthony Smith is an exuberant advocate for the beleaguered underdogs. One of the team’s longest-serving players (he joined in 2007), Smith is ready and raring for the elusive victory.
“The Generals are coming to make history in Vancouver,” he says, with an excitement one can almost feel through the telephone line. “We’re well-prepared for it. Bring the city out, man!”
When it’s noted that the Globetrotters’ famed Magic Circle—in which the team shows off its ball-handling skills—is performed this season with the lights out and a glow-in-the-dark ball, Smith lets out a big laugh.
“We’re ready to turn the lights on. We’re ready, man!”
Despite the on-court bravado, Smith—who signed with the Generals fresh out of college—is deeply appreciative of his time with the team.
“It’s a dream come true. Definitely a blessing, and I’m truly honoured.”
Appearing in upwards of 100 games a year, he’s had the opportunity to travel extensively and has played everywhere from China (“Lots of Generals fans over there”) to the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid.
Smith’s favourite memory, however, is arriving for a game in Rome.
“I really enjoyed that moment,” he recalls, “travelling and waking up on the bus in front of the Colosseum. I’d seen it in social studies, but I never believed that one day I’d be right there in front of it, with the Washington Generals.”
Despite the Globetrotters’ record—the best in professional sports—Smith and the Generals seem certain they’ll soon be victorious. What’s more, they’re already planning the party.
“The ’Trotters will have a fifth quarter if they win the game,” he says, “where fans can come down and get autographs and create some memories with their favourite players. Well, we're looking forward to changing that to a Generals fifth quarter, so the fans’ll be coming down to see us!”
The last time the Generals won, on January 5, 1971, there was such widespread shock throughout the crowd that team founder and former player/coach Red Klotz said, “It was like we killed Santa Claus.”
When asked if they’re prepared for a backlash should they win, both Smith and Worthen are clearly ready.
“Yeah, that’s how it’s gonna be again,” says Worthen. “It’s gonna be like we killed two Santa Clauses!”
“We’re gonna be the Grinch that stole Christmas,” laughs Smith. “We’re coming to steal all the gifts in Vancouver!”
But can they do it? Both men believe it’s in the cards, and it appears the entire team is ready to put a full-court press on the Globetrotters.
“We’re bigger, we’re faster, and we’re much better than ever,” says Worthen. “We’ve been getting closer and closer, and we have a strong, strong feeling that it’s going to happen not only this year but very, very soon.”
The Washington Generals take on the Harlem Globetrotters at the Abbotsford Centre on Friday, January 31 at 7 p.m.; the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver on Saturday, February 1 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; and the VIU Gym in Nanaimo on February 2 at 3 p.m. Tickets are available at www.harlemglobetrotters.ca