Coach of Washington Generals well-versed in notion of losing to win

Sam Worthen, coach of the Harlem Globetrotters' longtime sparring partners, chimes in on idea of 'tanking'

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

The idea that a basketball team would prefer to lose rather than win — and would do so by any means possible — is repugnant to Sam Worthen.

“I’m not a fan of that at all,” Worthen said of the draft lottery-focused, race to the bottom embraced by some NBA teams as the season wanes. “That’s not right. It goes against competition. To me, that’s cheating the fans. You give 100 percent all the time. That’s just my personal opinion.”

Sam Worthen is the coach of the Washington Generals.

Not familiar with the Washington Generals? If you’ve heard of the Harlem Globetrotters, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of the Generals. They are the Globetrotters’ perennial sparring partners, sad-sack straight men to basketball’s crown princes of comedy.

Only Wile E. Coyote has a longer losing streak against a single opponent, the Road Runner, than the Generals. They have lost somewhere between 14,000 and 17,000 times to the barnstorming Globetrotters since the Washington team was established in 1952 as regular, reliable fall guys. Look up “hapless” in the dictionary and you’ll see a sketch of Louis (Red) Klotz, Generals founder and longtime player/coach, and his band of plucky but perpetually humbled teammates.

In the past, the Generals had guys who didn’t think they could win. They were just ‘out there.’ The fans will notice this, because when we put the product on the court, they will see the talent we have.”

Washington Generals coach Sam Worthen

The Generals have done business under a variety of aliases through the years — the Boston Shamrocks, the New Jersey Reds, the New York Nationals, International Elite, Global Select and the World All-Stars all have been pseudonyms — while achieving a remarkable consistency of results.

In other words, if any basketball team has thrived with a strategy of winning-by-losing — as some NBA teams attempt to do each spring — it’s the Generals. They have done their duty thousands of times over, sending fans of the clever Trotters home happy time and time again.

Allegedly, that formula is about to change.

“In the past, the Generals got so used to losing,” Worthen said. “They had a lack of talent and poor coaching. Now we’re changing everything around. We have [TNT NBA studio analyst] Kenny Smith as the general manager and myself as coach.

“We took three years off for planning and preparation for how to beat the Globetrotters. We did a lot of scouting, Kenny and I, watching all kinds of tapes, looking at the Globetrotters’ strengths and weaknesses. And we recruited a bunch of guys with special talents who believe they can win.”

Worthen was on the telephone, but you could almost hear in the background the sabers he was rattling. Between some telltale chuckles.

“In the past, the Generals had guys who didn’t think they could win. They were just ‘out there.’ The fans will notice this, because when we put the product on the court, they will see the talent we have.”

It sounded like a preseason spiel, but the Generals have been putting the product on the court since December, when the Globetrotters’ 2018 “Amazing Feats of Basketball World Tour” began. The groundwork Smith and Worthen put in during Washington’s hiatus — Smith, by the way, declined to be interviewed for this piece, perhaps unable to keep his tongue firmly in cheek — began last summer.

That’s when a Generals entry competed in The Basketball Tournament, the winner-take-all, $2 million event. Worthen’s squad did well playing the game seriously, but still lost in the first round to the Matadors, a team featuring former players from Texas Tech.

The Generals had former NBA player Sundiata Gaines on their side then — he logged 113 NBA games from 2009-12 with the Utah Jazz, Minnesota Timberwolves, Toronto Raptors and New Jersey Nets. Their stars these days include guards Trey Bardsley and Shaquille Burrell and forward Aquill Baynard.

“In the past, you didn’t see anything like these guys on the Generals,” Worthen said. “Kenny and I always have our eyes open, looking for talent.

“We’re bigger, we’re faster and we’re better than ever. [The TBT] was our heads-up to the Globetrotters. They know that we’re up and coming.”

As for Worthen, 60, he earned his chops at all levels of basketball over a lifetime spent in the game. A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., he starred at Franklin K. Lane High, spent two seasons at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, then played at Marquette from 1978-80.

He was sporting a shaved head before Michael Jordan made it cool, dishing no-look passes worthy of Magic Johnson and averaging a triple-double at McLennan before Russell Westbrook was born. In fact, Worthen gained much of his hoops reputation on asphalt, playing for longtime NBA writer Peter Vecsey’s squads in New York’s renowned Rucker Tournament.

Still, he and Marquette coach Hank Raymonds carved out a working relationship. They helped Marquette to a combined 40-16 record and two NCAA tournament berths. At the end of his senior season, he was drafted in the second round of the 1980 Draft by the Bulls.

Worthen spent one season with Chicago and another with Utah, averging 3.5 points, 1.7 assists and 14.0 minutes in a total of 69 appearances. Then came playing, winning and later coaching in the United States Basketball League, with teams in Connecticut and Florida (where NBA legend World B. Free was a teammate briefly). Shifting into coaching full-time in Puerto Rico’s professional Baloncesto Superior Nacional, Worthen worked for “seven or eight teams in 10 seasons,” he said.

In between, Worthen returned each year to New York, where he worked on projects with the state and the city in youth basketball. He was an assistant to Jeff Capel Jr. for three seasons (2001-04) with the Fayetteville Patriots in the NBA G League and part of Jeff Ruland’s staff at Iona College (2004-07).

Then he hooked up with the Generals, even before their reset.

Obviously, Worthen’s coaching record has tilted toward the L’s since accepting the role as the Globetrotters’ regular punching bag.

“The only column we look at is on the left-hand side,” Worthen said. “Then when we get that digit for the left-hand side, yeah, that’s what we’re looking at.

“The last time we had to use some ink in that column was January 5, 1971. That was in Martin, Tennessee, when the Generals beat the Globetrotters, 100-99.”

But our main, No. 1 goal is to come up with that victory. We’ve been working really hard on it.”

Sam Worthen, on trying to beat the Globetrotters

It’s true. Forty-seven years ago, the Globetrotters were playing without their dribbling magician Curly Neal and the Generals were unusually competent. The headliners clawed back from a 12-point deficit to lead by a point with second remaining.

That’s when Klotz threw up a set shot that banged in. After Globetrotters star Meadowlark Lemon failed several times, with a couple of clock resets, to hit a hook shot, the Generals officially snagged their rare victory.

“That’s what we’re looking forward to again. It’s coming,” Worthen said. “Like they say, they’re the best team in the world. So once we beat them, we become the best team in the world.

“The toughest thing is staying up all night, watching tapes, breaking down video to see what we can do.”

So Worthen feels that the Generals are getting close to beating their nemesis/meal tickets?

“No, I wouldn’t say that necessarily,” he said, laughing. “But our main, No. 1 goal is to come up with that victory. We’ve been working really hard on it.”

Surely that would generate headlines, snapping a losing streak that’s 47 years old now. Worthen just chuckled some more.

There is no compelling reason to tinker with the script. The Globetrotters draw the crowds, provide the schtick and dazzle just enough with dunks, crafty passes and circus shots to maintain their court cred. The Generals are there to suggest resistance, but the defensive intensity typically is on par with some past NBA All-Star Games.

The Generals don’t lack for opportunities to win. There are three squads of them, synched up with three squads of Globetrotters that divide their tours along the East Coast, in western and southern states, and internationally. On Friday, for instance, “the Globetrotters” were scheduled for games in Loveland, Colo., Reading, Pa., and Bordeaux, France. Combined, they play about 400 games per five-month season.

Worthen and his wife, Florine, live in the Bronx and have adjusted to having few or no home games. Never mind that “Washington” tag — Worthen’s life is spent largely on the road, without NBA-level charter flights or per-diem pocket money.

The grueling schedule and breakneck travel suggests the Generals and the Globetrotters don’t exactly have NBA commissioner Adam Silver in their corner on the modern issue of rest. They routinely have days when they play both a matinee and, scurrying to another city, an evening game.

“Yes, doubleheaders,” Worthen said.

There would be a strike in the NBA if the league tried to schedule those, Worthen was told.

“How ‘bout that? Yeah,” he said, laughing again. “And I love every bit of it.”

* * *

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.