When Eric Beal’s Hoopfest team lost its first game on Saturday, it took a friend by surprise.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you lose down here,” he said.
That coaxed a thin smile out of the stoic Beal, who surely appreciated the compliment – which it was – and possibly just the notion of never losing.
Because he just spent the better part of a year on the flipside of never.
On the other hand, he spent it gadding through nearly a dozen European countries and the northeastern United States, playing in New York’s vaunted mecca of basketball and century-old hippodromes where The Beatles plugged in their amps and joints where legendary numbers and NBA championship banners hang from the rafters.
There are different ways to win, you know.
To the broad spectrum of basketball types Hoopfest has cultivated in its 22 years – from itty bitties to old goats, preps and pros – add one more category: the straight man. Eric Beal’s serious-minded approach to the game has always been evident when he wore the uniforms here of North Central, the Community Colleges of Spokane and Whitworth.
But it’s a different kind of serious in the uniform of the Washington Generals.
That’s right, those Generals – the perpetual foils of the Harlem Globetrotters, owners of history’s longest losing streak short of Charlie Brown’s baseball team, a basketball brand every bit as recognizable as the Celtics or Lakers or the Globetrotters themselves.
They have been known, variously, as the New York Nationals, the New Jersey Reds, the Boston Shamrocks and the Atlantic City Seagulls, but that’s just laundry. Underneath, it’s the same interchangeable band of players assembled by one of basketball’s most loveable totems, Red Klotz – hired to give the Globies a good run when it’s called for, and not spoil the fun when it’s time to make people laugh.
It’s not the pro basketball most people think of, and that included Beal himself.
“I wasn’t sure I’d be able to play another game after college,” he reasoned. “This was something that never crossed my mind, but it’s been a great experience.”
Certainly an accidental one. As Beal recounted it, the general manager of the Generals, John Ferrari, was looking at another player on film when he saw Beal. The feelers went out to former Whitworth coach Jim Hayford. More film was sent, references solicited and interviews conducted, and eventually Beal found himself at a training camp – and then on a plane to Europe.
Twenty days in France and Poland followed. Then there was a four-month U.S. tour that began the day after Christmas, another break, and then a five-week reprise of the continent with stops all over the United Kingdom, Spain, Belgium, Italy and Portugal.
At a stop in Philadelphia, he actually met the 89-year-old Klotz, who was lured from his New Jersey home so that his number could be retired and the newest edition of the Generals could hear all of his stories.
Like the night in 1971, in Martin, Tenn., when the Generals – the Reds, rather – actually won, in overtime. Klotz hit the go-ahead basket with seconds left, Meadowlark Lemon missed at the other end and the timekeeper fumbled the kill switch on the clock.
“I guess kids were crying,” Beal said. Klotz, legendarily, has called it “like killing Santa Claus.”
That ended a Generals losing streak of 2,495 games. Over the ensuing 40 years, the newest one has surely grown to five or six times as long. Most recently, the Generals lost to the Globies on ice.
Still, the company line is that surrender is not an expectation, or an option. Whatever minor roles they play in the gags are done simply, and when basketball resumes, the Generals hurl up 4-pointers – a Globie invention – and drive the lane.
“We’re expected to go out and play hard every night,” Beal said. “You’re never told you can’t win, and we try to win every game. It just doesn’t work out that way.”
Beal would do it again, and will – though this next year he plans on playing for the Generals’ third unit that spells one of the two main-tour teams for long weekends, usually extended stays in major cities. He’ll still be eligible for trips overseas – and in the meantime he can finish his degree at Whitworth.
“Even though I’m not with the Globetrotters, the tradition is pretty amazing,” he said.
So’s the tradition he’s part of this weekend, a worldly phenomenon in a strictly local setting. And no one questions the competitiveness of this endeavor, especially when it’s more testy than festy, as it did toward the end of Beal’s first game Saturday.
“Not normal basketball,” he said.
But which did he mean? Hoopfest ball? Or Globetrotters ball?
“Both,” he smiled.