The Existential Mediocrity of the Washington Generals
The Washington Generals are a basketball team that was created to lose games. As such, they are a paradigm of the straight man.
Formed in 1952 by the late NBA player “Red” Klotz, the Generals toured for decades with the Harlem Globetrotters. Fans paid to watch the Globetrotters play basketball par excellence with comedic stunts and feats of ball-handling prowess. The Generals were the other team on the court.
The dynamic between the Generals and Globetrotters isn’t so much a straight/absorb one that we talk about in improv, as a straight (dull, plodding)/clever (flashy, tricky) one. But you can see the parallels. The cleverness and trickery aren’t the same without another team trying to play straight.
The naïve spectator might think: wouldn’t the Generals players figure it out after a while? Wouldn’t they learn the Globetrotters’ tricks and be able to devise a strategy to win?
But no. Through the decades, with many personnel changes on both the Globetrotters and the Generals, the primal story remains unchanged. Tricksters beat straights. The Globetrotters won over 13,000 games against the Generals. The Generals – sources differ on the exact number – won fewer than 10 during that period.
Would the Globetrotters be the Globetrotters without the Generals? No. The show would not be the same. The Globetrotters need the Generals.
I like to think that the great French existentialist Albert Camus, had he lived further into the Generals era, would appreciate the Sisyphean task set for the Generals. Camus, well known as a fan of theater and sport (he played goalie for a competitive soccer team in his youth) would understand the hard work that goes into being the perennial loser, the straight man who doesn’t get the laughs but who are oh-so-necessary.
The Washington Generals abide.