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Immortal Enemies

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You're going to see the Harlem Globetrotters at the United Center, and you've been excited for days. You've told friends and relatives, all of whom are envious. "Do they still chase each other with the bucket?" "Do they still jam the ball under their jerseys?" "Do they still stick the ball under their opponents' jerseys?" "Do they still have opponents?"

Yes, yes, yes, and yes. But their perpetual rivals, the Washington Generals, are now the New York Nationals. Both teams are owned by ex-players, the Globetrotters by Mannie Jackson (unlike Curly Neal, Meadowlark Lemon, Wilt Chamberlain, or Connie Hawkins, he's one you don't remember), the Nationals by Herman "Red" Klotz (he's the balding white guy who looked like an accountant--or one of them, anyway).

You're taking the kids, of course, and you leave early because there's a photo session and a "chalk talk" with the players, and you want to catch everything. This is your payback for all those years of Barney & Friends. No sooner does the parking-lot attendant take your $16 than you're wising off: "The level of play is about the same as the Lakers and the Bulls." "What's the spread?" "This could be the Nationals' night." "Let's check out the Jordan statue and see if there's a ring on his finger."

The photo line stretches across the floor of the United Center, but it moves fast. You can see Mannie Jackson sitting a few rows up, being interviewed for WTTW's Chicago Stories. The Globetrotters are in fact a Chicago story: founded here in 1926 by Abe Saperstein as the "Savoy Big Five," they fell apart and were reorganized the following year as the "New York Globetrotters," then "Saperstein's New York Globetrotters." By 1930 they'd settled on the "Harlem New York Globetrotters."

Later you see Jackson on Chicago Stories, explaining that during the game sequences--which are distinct from the scripted comedy parts--both teams actually play to win. In line for photos, one guy asks Kareem "Best Kept Secret" Reid, "So, we get autographs after the show? I mean, game?"

"Yes," Reid replies. "Enjoy the show!"

"Game!" the guy corrects him.

When you call Red Klotz at his New Jersey office, he tells you the same thing: "We go out there to beat them every night." Klotz first played the Globetrotters as a member of the Philadelphia Sphas (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association). "First two games we beat them back-to-back," he recalls. Eddie Gottlieb, the future hall-of-famer who owned the Sphas, introduced Klotz to Abe Saperstein. "Saperstein was looking for a competitive team to play against," says Klotz. "The Globetrotters had beaten everybody else. So I met him at his office on Dearborn Street in Chicago, and he asked me to form my own team to tour and do comedy with them."

Klotz bought the Sphas from Gottlieb in 1950, renamed them the Washington Generals, and played for 33 years before retiring at age 62. Four years ago Klotz overhauled the team and changed its name to the Nationals. "We had a horrible record and I wanted to start fresh," he explains. Klotz doesn't actually remember the record, because he lost count of how many losses the team racked up. "I know how many wins--four. It's a hell of a lot easier to remember."

At the United Center the Nationals are introduced with minor fanfare, their names and colleges announced. You're happy to see that while the Generals were white guys, the Nationals are integrated. (Evidently some black guys can't jump either.) Actually, says Klotz, the Generals always had black players. "Many of the black players from my team have gone over to the Globetrotters," he recalls, naming Nate Branch and Clyde "The Glide" Sinclair.

Even the Nationals' uniforms suggest losers: they're dull green and loose-fitting, with a patch of flame at the bottom of the shorts. Yet Klotz says the team isn't as bad as legend would have it. "We've beaten all-star teams in Europe and Australia," he claims. "We've never lost a game other than to the Globetrotters."

The Globetrotters enter under spotlights, triumphant music, and player introductions that include everything but their favorite foods. After decades of exhibition play, the team began playing competitive games again in 1997, beating a squad of number-one college players in the NBA draft. Last March they beat the National Association of Basketball Coaches All-Stars, 75-63, and last fall they played a series of nine exhibition games against college teams, beating eight of them--including NCAA Division II champs Kentucky Wesleyan and Division III champs Catholic University.

The Nationals jog onto the court, heads down, and sure enough, the Globetrotters score the first ten points. This must be the comedy part of the show. Game. Whatever. But when the Nationals play for real, they're not bad. That number 14 can score. That guy who looks like Shaggy from Scooby Doo is a decent rebounder. Where does Klotz find these guys? "We scout our players same as any other organization," he tells me. "We have scouts and I have contacts with the NBA. Players also call me, and I sign the players who can possibly beat the Globetrotters."

Possibly, but not quite: the Globetrotters trounce the Nationals, 76-52. They do all the same routines they did when you were a kid, and the formula holds up: if you play with style and humor, winning is beside the point. The game's the thing. Or the show. Whatever.

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