Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Do The Washington Generals Play to Win?

Copyright © by Dinur Bloom. All Rights Reserved.
Used under creative commons.
For decades now there has been a lot of questioning whether or not the Washington Generals play to win. Understandably, with only six wins in 13,000+ games fans are skeptical.

While I have no affiliation with the Washington Generals, I thought as a long time fan and someone who has been watching them play for almost as long as he can remember, I would give my take. I think the fact I have become VERY well read on Generals/Globetrotters history might also make my analyses worth something. Although it is possible I just have delusions of grandeur. 

Officially, the Washington Generals have always maintained that they "play to win" and both them and the Globetrotters organisation have been claiming the games are "competitive" pretty much since the Washington Generals first started playing the Globetrotters 1953.

If you look simply at their college stats the Globetrotters would definitley be the better team on paper. Still, most would agree no matter how much more skilled one team may or may not be, if you play 13,000 games against the same two teams full of successfull college players, like both the Generals and Trotters are, both teams are going to win some and lose some. 

Yes if one team has "better players" then it isn't hard to believe that the win/loss record might end up lop sided, but play that many teams together and the familiarity they would develop with each other alone should keep one team from flat out winning every game. 

So does this prove the Washington Generals are throwing the games? I guess that might depend on what someone considers "throwing a game". But do I think that the Washington Generals intentionally miss baskets? or are following a script that dictates they loose? No.

After watching a ton of games in my lifetime, not to mention all the YouTube videos I have absorbed since starting this blog and looking for info on the Generals, I absolutely do not believe the Generals are missing baskets, or anything else that would be considered "taking a dive".

"But Dan..." you ask, "how can you think the Generals aren't throwing the games when you just admitted how unlikely it is for one team to lose so much?". A good question, hypothetical pessimist. 

Here is the thing. While I love the Washington Generals, I and everyone else will agree the fans come to see one team. The fans come to be entertained, to laugh, and to watch a bunch of great basketball players perform trick shots and fancy dunks. And in case anyone isn't clear, the team they want to see do that does not wear green and gold. 

The first priortiy of a Globetrotter game is not really to give us "hard hitting" basketball. It is to see the Globetrotters shine and the Washington Generals first job is to help make that happen. They are not there to outshine the Globetrotters, ever. 

In the interest of doing that there are a lot of restrictions and rules that the Washington Generals are pretty much required to play by, to help achieve that goal. 
  • Toning down the defense - This is probably the biggest one of all, and one even casual basketball fans easily pick up on early in the games. For the most part when the Globetrotters have the ball the Generals defense is more for show than anything else. They don't really try to steal the ball and let the Globetrotters go wherever they want and take their shots. When the Trotters have the ball, their shots are pretty much theirs to miss.
  • The Globetrotters don't tone down their defense - The above mention of the Generals toning down their defense definitley goes one way. When the Washington Generals have the ball they are allowed to take their shots, and in fact usually make them. However, unlike when the Generals are on defense the Globetrotters most definitley make every effort to block the Generals shots. If the Generals can make every shot down the court they are allowed to do so, but unlike the Trotters they have to earn those baskets. 
  • Playing the foil in the comedy bits - One of the biggest jobs of the Generals is to be the Globetrotters foil during the various comedy bits. While these mostly happen on the Globetrotters side of the court, they also pretty much guarantee the Globetrotters a free shot. I would say based on my assessment these comedy bits probably give the Globetrotters a free 30-40 points per game, if not more right there. Clearly, playing an opponent who has that many points given to them is a big factor in who will win. The Globetrotters also have the option of pulling these bits out whenever the Generals look like they might begin to get a big lead, thus keeping them from gaining any real momentum. 
  • The Guest Generals - While they don't use these every game, they definitley are a factor when they are used. For around the 2 minutes that the Guest Generals play, the game pretty much becomes all about the Globetrotters showman goofing around with the Guest General. Pretty much every other player on both teams does little more then pass the ball to their teams player (be it the Globetrotter showman or the Guest General) to keep the gag rolling. Since these guest players are almost never actual basketball players it means for 2 minutes the Generals offence AND defense is built around someone that often doesn't play basketball and may not even have athletic ability. They are very entertaining portions of the game, but not necessarily good winning strategy. 
  • The Washington Generals have a smaller team - While the Globetrotters play with a full sized team or close to it every game, the Washington Generals do not. The number varies depending on which team it is, and injuries and the like. But the Generals usually play a game with around 7-8 players. This is done beacause the Generals have less money to recruit players. Keeping the team as small as they can while still allowing enough players to rotate and give everyone a chance to rest, allows The Generals more money to pay their players a competitive salary. That is good for what the Generals are there for, but once again, playing a game with that few players against a full team is another hurdle that gets in their way of winning. 
So based on the above I don't really think they "throw the game". According to the official story if the Washington Generals can overcome the obstacles listed above and still win, they are allowed too.

The thing is, with all of those elements in play, the deck is really stacked against them to the point there is no way they really can win. Sure if all the cards fall in the right place in the right order it COULD happen, and in fact has before as my entry on their 1971 win proves. And it isn't impossible it could happen again someday. However, the fact the 40th anniversary of their last win recently happened pretty much proves how unlikely it actually is..

I do want to state that I do not find any of this a bad thing, or take anything away from either teams because of it.

The system exist for a reason, people come to see the Globetrotters play and win. By doing it the way they do it, it allows the Generals to show their stuff for potential future teams for part of the game and play a more "real" game of basketball then if they were flat out following a script of intentionally missing baskets. Which would definitley kill the illusion.

It also keeps the Globetrotters on their toes, since if they grow too stagnant or stop paying attention the Generals could theoretically upset them. That keeps the Globetrotters game elevated and avoids then sleepwalking through a game, which the fans would notice and not react favorably to.

And the truth is that at the end of the day, the fact the way they do it may not qualify as "fair" to the Generals isn't really the important thing. The Generals may "play to win" but their job is to be the Trotters foil as a means to entertain the fans. Not to rack up an impressive win/loss record.

As Meadowlark Lemon once said, "At a Globetrotter game folks never remember the final score. People do remember the laughter."

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