Columnist and Washington Generals newbie Chris Erskine, left, is no match… (Leila Navidi / For The Times )
From Las Vegas — In a uniform green as money, in a town predicated on losers and longshots, leave it to me to find the biggest can't-win bet of all time: the Washington Generals.
Now, like you I don't want to merely beat an opponent, I want to crush his spirit. Chess champ Bobby Fischer used to say that the point he relished most was when he broke a man's ego. That's what I'm talking about.
So, when I had those mouthy Harlem Globetrotters on the ropes the other night in Las Vegas, I started to feel the warm rush of victory in my veins. The Generals, my newly adopted teammates, had lost 13,561 in a row. As "The Simpsons' " Krusty the Clown once noted, "The Generals are so due."
That's not an exact quote, more of a paraphrase. But you get the idea. Thousands of cities. Billions of truck stop burgers. Everywhere they go, the hapless Washington Generals are the visiting team.
Obviously, kids automatically love these Globetrotters, as do their parents, who watched them perform some of these same stunts 30 years ago. Sometimes, the parents love the Globetrotters more than the kids, for there is something resonant in reliving an old bit you first saw with your dad as he raked confetti out of his scalp and roared like a beered-up old lion. If you can make a dad laugh, you can make anybody laugh. And the Globetrotters bring the funny — they've been doing it since 1926.
Speaking of streaks, the other night in Las Vegas, I was two for two in the first half, including a three-pointer, against the Trotters. That's right, I had a dynasty on its heels. The Meadowlark of the Moment, dude by the name of Special K, was talking trash but his eyes were like poker chips after my two-minute hot streak. Generously, Mr. K escorted me to the bench and told me to take a rest.
So much for my Red Swan moment — I tanked in the second half, by the way. I wanted to do well for the Generals, for they are nothing if not good sports. They are not nearly as hapless as they pretend. Three on five, the former small-college stars would probably crush your rec league team (them with three, you with five). But the Gens know their place. At one point, one of them had to collapse on the court and play dead. Try winning CIF while doing that.
So, I'll spare you any more suspense. In this town of illicit Cinderellas, the Generals went down in flames once again, 105-84.
Good thing I grew up a Cubs fan.
Meanwhile, here's some stuff I'll bet you didn't know about the Harlem Globetrotters:
• Bob Gibson played for them in 1957, just out of college and before he joined the St. Louis Cardinals.
• Ferguson Jenkins also did a stint (so did Wilt, of course, but you probably knew that one).
• There are duplicate Globetrotters teams. On the night they are playing here in Vegas, another unit is playing in Springfield, Mass.
• The Generals, their long-suffering foils, are a separate entity from the Globetrotters — ride their own bus, stay in separate hotels.
• The Generals' last victory came in 1971, in Martin, Tenn. Lore has it that the Trotters lost track of time and the Generals seized the moment, though I wouldn't put it past old Abe Saperstein to have orchestrated the stunt for publicity. He's the guy, after all, who took a bunch of ballhandling wizards from Chicago and dubbed them the "Harlem" Globetrotters, a shameless bit of branding that should be taught at Harvard.
Fred "Curly" Neal, the former dribbling savant and now an occasional team emissary, says the current versions of the Globetrotters play too many games and that the organization doesn't promote personalities such as Special K or Flight Time as well as it should.
Fair enough. The two teams will play 270 games in 220 cities from Dec. 26 to mid-April. In summers, they play 150 games overseas.
"It's almost inhumane," Neal says by phone.
Sweet Georgia Brown, that's a little like Jeanie Buss blasting the Lakers. Neal's probably right, but who isn't stretching to fill these days — the NFL's proposed 18-game regular season comes to mind. After what Trotters officials say was a record year last year, attendance is down this season. Wednesday, in Vegas, they drew 5,553, the Orleans Arena about three-quarters full.
This week, they played Tuesday in Utah, Wednesday in Vegas, Thursday in Ontario and will play Friday in San Diego, a doubleheader Saturday (at the Honda Center) and Sunday (noon at Staples, night game back in San Diego.)
That's a lot of basketball. That's a lot of confetti.
You know, there are still plenty of things I don't understand. Cyclical vs. secular markets. How they decaffeinate coffee.
But I understand the Globetrotters' long run — 80 years of belly laughs and a legacy worthy of Kennedy Center honors.
Like the Generals, they are so due.