Globetrotters’ historic winning streak ends in 1971 game at UT Martin
Story by Parker Franklin (Courtesy of the Murray Ledger & Times)
If you’re a fan of basketball or entertainment in general, odds are you’ve heard of the Harlem Globetrotters. For decades, the team has combined athleticism and wacky antics in exhibition basketball games all around the globe.
You probably also know the number-one thing about the Globetrotters is that they always win. For thousands of games, the team has come out on top against their opponent, typically the Washington Generals.
It’s like wrestling – the games are scripted to provide a fun and entertaining experience for the spectators. Often, the Globetrotters pull off incredible moves like dunks, jump shots, no-look passes and other feats while the Generals mostly play straight basketball.
The rules of the game are bent to suit the Globetrotters’ theatrics, and the outcome is decided well before the game is played. The Globetrotters might be scripted to be down in points for a while, but they always come back and the audience gets a feel-good story.
According to the team’s website, the Generals have lost “well over 17,000” games to the Globetrotters over the years.
There are a handful of moments, in all the games between the Globetrotters and the Generals (whose name changes occasionally in their matches), where it’s the Generals that earn the win.
The exact number of Generals victories is uncertain; the website says three, though various media outlets have reported up to six.
The Washington Generals Fan Blog at washingtongeneralsfan.blogspot.com, run by Dan Pratt, of Oklahoma, reports the earliest defeat was posted Nov. 2, 1957, in St. Joseph, Michigan.
The second came in 1971 at the University of Tennessee at Martin.
That day was just like any other for Dick and Barbara Hutcherson, a native Tennessee couple from the area who were looking for a fun night out for them and their 2-year-old son.
Barbara, a retired UT Martin faculty member, said you likely haven’t heard of this game; just about no one has.
“It happened during Christmas break in January before the students had come back,” she said. “Therefore, our campus has no account of it, because it was a student-run newspaper and they were gone. There were no pictures, no article or anything about it.”
“The account of it did not appear in the Weakley County Press, and it didn’t appear in the 1972 yearbook,” she continued. “There is a vague picture at UTM, and it’s a picture of a Globetrotter. There’s no caption for it and no explanation. It’s on a page with other random pictures of things that went on, and that’s the only visual account anyone’s been able to find on it.”
According to UT Martin, the Globetrotters played at the university some five years before their legendary loss. Barbara said the team had also played in Mckenzie and Jackson in the ‘50s. At the time, they received a less-than-warm reception; no restaurants would feed the team, so Barbara said they ate a post-game meal of bologna, crackers and cheese at the back of a supermarket.
After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Globetrotters had a much warmer welcome in Martin.
The Hutchersons were excited; they had seen the Globetrotters before, and couldn’t wait to watch them play at UT Martin.
“They’re so entertaining,” Dick said. “Everybody was excited to have the Globetrotters here.”
On that fateful winter night – the exact date of the game is unknown – the Hutchersons made their way to what is now the Skyhawk Fieldhouse, an almost a brand-new building at the time.
In the book “The Legend of Red Klotz: How Basketball’s Loss Leader Won Over the World—14,000 Times” by Tim Kelly, Generals owner and player Red Klotz described the game as “just another one-night stand.”
Kelly writes that no one affiliated with the Generals gave any indication that something was off that night. The Hutchersons said the same thing. They took their seats and sat back for the show.
“It was just a good time,” Dick said. “We loved watching Meadowlark Lemon (a Globetrotters player). He was so funny, like a clown. And he was pulling off all these tricks. It was something to see.”
Pratt offers a different take.
“That night the Trotters toned down the jokes, leaving the game more often a case of the (New Jersey) Reds and the Harlem Globetrotters playing a more traditional basketball game,” he wrote in a post about the game in 2011.
The actual name the Generals took that night is disputed. The team often took on different aliases to mix things up when they inevitably lost; Kelly and the Generals fan blog say they were the New Jersey Reds that night, while the Hutchersons remember it being just the Generals.
In his book, Kelly wrote that it was a packed house that night. The field house sat about 3,000 people.
Dick and Barbara Hutcherson (‘67, ‘71) said that as the game went on, the Globetrotters never took a commanding lead. Pratt’s blog notes the team found itself down a dozen points with just two minutes to go.
“Apparently, the Globetrotters didn’t realize that they were beginning to lag behind,” Pratt wrote. “Not surprising, as the score is almost a formality in most games between these two teams, especially as the night goes on.”
Kelly’s book quotes Klotz as saying the Reds just couldn’t miss that night.
“It seemed like the rim was the size of a trash can lid for us and a thimble for them,” Klotz reportedly said. “Everything we were throwing into the general area of the basket was going in. We were getting every rebound, and we were stopping them defensively.”
The book also claims that the crowd was getting restless as the game went on because their Globetrotters weren’t putting on the clinic they had expected.
Both Kelly and Pratt wrote of rumors about a possible off- court dispute before that infamous game in Martin, though Klotz disputed it.
Either way, when the Globetrotters realized they had a very real chance of losing, they played hard.
“We just assumed that they were going to win it at that point,” Dick said. “We thought it was just a choreographed deal and they were going to come back at the end.”
“We held out thinking there would be some sort of spectacular comeback or something,” Barbara added.
And there was – to an extent. While the game had no official box score or record kept, the Hutchersons and Pratt’s blog recall an offensive flurry from the Globetrotters that closed the gap.
With a handful of seconds left in the game, they took a one-point lead over the Generals. That moment is when the script – if there even was one that night – truly began to flip.
Kelly writes that in the time-out huddle, Klotz demanded the ball. Maybe it was because he intended to miss or to save one of his players from being the one that sunk a game winner over the Globetrotters. No one knows for sure, though Klotz has said he simply wanted to take the shot.
“This was no different than a pickup game in the schoolyard,” Kelly’s book quotes Klotz as saying. “I want the ball in my hand at the end. If my team has a chance to win, I want to take it. Some guys shy away from the ball in that situation. I am always going to want the ball.
“If they can’t beat us with all that talent, with all those show plays, with the referees calling it their way, with the support of the fans, well, then it’s not our fault if they lose, is it?”
The teams took the court, and it was up to Klotz to make that final shot.
You probably figured it out already, but that shot connected and his team took the lead with what Kelly wrote were three seconds remaining.
“That shot was not supposed to go in,” Dick said.
“That didn’t happen according to plan,” added Barbara.
It was up to the Globetrotters and Meadowlark Lemon to take one final shot.
It missed. Game over.
Despite the clock operator’s best efforts to keep the game going and give the Harlem favorites one more shot at preserving the status quo, the team’s gargantuan winning streak was gone in a flash.
“It was like we had just killed Santa Claus,” Klotz is quoted as saying.
Kelly wrote that the crowd began to boo and jeer as the Generals headed into the locker room to celebrate with orange soda. The Globetrotters retreated to their room, though Lemon reportedly stopped to congratulate Klotz’s team on their moment in history.
The Hutchersons don’t recall quite as dramatic a scene, though they said they understand why the crowd might have been disappointed.
“It was just funny to us,” Dick said. “We thought it was entertaining, and the score didn’t really matter too much, win or lose. We knew they were just entertainers, not true competitors.”
“From our point of view, we just wanted to be there that night,” Barbara said. “It was a big event to go to and be supportive of.”
The Hutchersons said that fateful night more than 40 years ago is one they won’t ever forget.
“It was something else to be a part of that,” Dick said. “It’s just something you don’t see happen.”
I WAS THERE – SHARING HARLEM GLOBETROTTER MEMORIES
The January 1971 loss by the Harlem Globetrotters in what is now the Skyhawk Fieldhouse remains etched in the memories of those who witnessed the historic game. They share some of their stories …
“My best memory was of Meadowlark Lemon missing the shot at the end after one of the other team had just made a shot and taken the lead. The crowd seemed very surprised that the Globetrotters had lost. I suppose that I, like everyone else, always thought that the Globetrotters won and thought there had been a mistake.”
Tim Barrington (’80)
“I was there! I would have been 10 or 11 years old. I remember sitting on or very near the front row at midcourt and enjoying all the trick shots. I remember that the ‘Generals’ wore green uniforms, and their point guard was a very short red-headed guy. It was disappointing to see the Globetrotters lose, and I’m not sure that I knew at the time that they weren’t supposed to lose, but now I realize how special it was.”
Bill Brundige (‘83)
“I was at the game and remember Red Klotz hit the last shot for the Generals, and (the) Globetrotters missed their last shot. … The Globetrotters appeared to horse around too much for the close score and got beat. It was an exciting atmosphere at that time with a packed (crowd) at the old fieldhouse.”
Jerry Carpenter (’66)
“I was at the game. I was working the concession stand and can show you the exact spot where I was standing. The ’Trotters let their traveling opponents build a lead while intending to make a dramatic comeback. They stopped the clock at times to give the ‘Trotters time to catch up. Meadowlark Lemon missed a half court hook shot for the win.”
He recalled that the late educational studies faculty member Dr. Don McCracken told his son Sky (’88), “Don’t forget this. This is historic.”
Phil Dane (MBA ’84)
“My sister, Paula Osbron Miller, was a student at UTM during this time. My grandfather, Leander Wimberley, who was in his late 70s, always enjoyed the Harlem Globetrotters when they played on TV. He was an avid fan and would laugh and laugh over their antics. My family purchased tickets to take him to the game. Throughout the ballgame, he watched every movement on the court and laughed at every joke and clapped at every point gained. I was so disappointed for him when they lost the game. However, for him he talked and talked about seeing the history of one of their rare losses. He was not disappointed at all and talked about this game until his death a few years later in May of 1973. This game has always been a special memory for my family and one none of us will forget.”
Joyce Osbron Smothers (’77, ’81)
“I was in my senior year, and I had always been a Globetrotter fan. Getting to see the Globetrotters play was exciting, but their loss was something you knew was a historic event, and you were present for it! When the subject comes up even today about their loss I always say, ‘I was there and saw it.’”
Mike Stockdale (’71, ’75)