(Photo: Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal) and article courtesy Courier-Journal.com
When Kentucky native Joe Claybrook was approached by a professional basketball scout in 2018, he knew he would finally receive the good news he’d long awaited. The pro hopeful had been playing well during a Pro-Am, and as he stretched for an upcoming game, the scout introduced himself and his employer, the Harlem Globetrotters.
But Claybrook, a 6-foot-6 forward whose game is founded on fundamentals rather than flourish, was puzzled.
“I was like, ‘Globetrotters… I mean, I know I’m not fancy. There’s no way,’” Claybrook recalled.
Claybrook was right. It made more sense, in his mind, when the scout revealed he was hoping Claybrook would play for the Washington Generals — the Globetrotters’ perennial losing opponent.
“Then I started thinking, ‘Did I really play good, or not, because he’s asking me to play for the Generals,” Claybrook said with a laugh. “I guess I look like a loser out there.”
The world-famous Globetrotters have been dazzling fans for decades with showy skills, athleticism and goofy acts. It’s a terrific spectacle as the red, white and blue-clad Globetrotters entertain crowds all over the world with a circus-like performance. Each game they play is against the Generals, which have not defeated the Globetrotters in nearly 50 years in what has become one of the great non-rivalries in sports.
The Generals last won, by accident really, in 1971. Their current losing streak is unknown, but it’s sure to number at least 10,000. Each game is manipulated towards the Globetrotters’ success, and fans pay to see the titular team put on a display.
But none of that mattered to Claybrook. He played just one season of varsity basketball at Henry Clay, attended the University of Kentucky as a student for two years, then played junior college and finally Division II basketball at Kentucky State. He was seeking a professional opportunity and was eager to sign with the Generals.
“It fulfilled a longtime dream of being a pro ballplayer,” said Claybrook, who consistently trained at a YMCA in Lexington as he sought a career path in basketball.
The Generals and Globetrotters will play a game at Rupp Arena on Friday and at the Yum! Center on Saturday, although it will perhaps be more of a show than a game.
“It’s a little bit of both,” said Briana “Hoops” Green, a Globetrotter who starred at Lexington Catholic from 2004-2008.
There are three Globetrotter tours happening simultaneously, and unfortunately neither Green nor Claybrook will play in the games — or shows, perhaps — in Kentucky, although Jeffersonville product Guy Oliver will participate in both games as a member of the Globetrotters.
When the teams take the floor, it will be, as always, part-game, part-performance, and part-talent show. Globetrotters and Generals alike avow that the Generals are trying their hardest to win, although their perpetual losing streak and propensity to allow the Globetrotters to perform outrageous trick dunks suggest otherwise.
Green, entering her third year with the Globetrotters, remembers once being down 15 points to the Generals in the third quarter of a game before staging a comeback. But that isn’t typical. Usually, the Generals get dunked on to the tune of a massive loss, yet another tally added to the immeasurable losing streak.
The performance is based upon energy and fun — both for the fans and Globetrotters. But what about the Generals? What’s it like for the capable basketball players who are the butt of the Globetrotters’ antics?
Claybrook doesn’t mind playing the role of villain. When he is crossed-over in-game as part of the act, he feigns shock at his misfortune.
“You can kind of just sit there, take it, make the blank face, whatever, like I’m doing this 15 times more this week, let me just get it over with. But what’s cool for me, is I like getting into it. I like playing the fool a little bit,” he said.
He knows his role is to be a part of the spectacle, and he smiles when he talks about the show. It’s all geared towards children and families, and Claybrook’s favorite part is watching the reaction from kids in the stands.
“You see these kids grabbing the edge of their seat, kicking their feet, they just love it. And that’s what I love,” he said.
Road trips are busy. When on tour, the Globetrotters and Generals play almost every day of the week, twice on Saturdays, and cover lots of ground. Green has already been to 47 states and around 15 countries, while Claybrook is on pace for similar numbers. The two teams follow the same itineraries, but they travel in two buses: the Globetrotter players on one, and the Generals and support staff on another.
“They try to keep us separated. Don’t wanna give away all the magic,” Green said.
Green played Division I basketball at UTEP and then professionally overseas and was discovered by the Globetrotters after a ball-handling video of hers went viral. Adapting to being an entertainer, rather than solely a basketball player, was the biggest adjustment.
Practices are significantly different. Rather than scheming for each opponent as normal basketball teams do, the Globetrotters spend their limited practice time — about an hour each day, ahead of the game — perfecting their own highly unique skills.
Green said she’s “never been shy,” and she likes her role as a player/entertainer on the Globetrotters.
“I couldn’t do it,” she said of playing for the Generals. “I like winning.”
It’s not precisely the experience that Claybrook envisioned when he dropped out of UK as a junior to focus on playing college and then professional basketball.
“I’m a competitor at the end of the day, which is ironic, because I’m playing for the Generals,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean he isn’t enjoying it. Yes, he and his teammates are mostly booed, but he also remembers the two fans in Santa Cruz who wore green Generals jerseys to the game and cheered on the bad guys so relentlessly that the Generals coach invited them to sit on the bench with the team.
Claybrook focuses upon the places he’s been able to travel to. Visiting Australia was a lifelong dream, which he checked off last year during one international tour, and he’s been able to play in NBA arenas in Atlanta, Washington D.C., and Detroit, as well as the college home courts for Tennessee and Michigan State.
“Where else are you going to do that, unless you’re playing in the NBA?” he said.
And while he doesn’t get the star treatment that the Globetrotters deservedly do, he enjoys interacting with fans. Claybrook, whose only high school start came on Senior Night, autographs countless items for fans on tour.
“I’ve signed kids’ arms, T-shirts, notebook papers, anything you can think of,” he said.
When he’s not on tour with the Generals, he works construction in Lexington — he’s currently working on a project at Rupp Arena — and works out at the YMCA twice a day, which is often enough that seemingly every employee and member of the gym knows him by name.
He's worked hard to get to this point, from training with former UK players like Gerald Fitch and Erik Daniels to emailing "literally hundreds" of college coaches a few years ago in search of a scholarship. And the Generals play hard, too, at times during games, and at least act competitively interested. They claim, unconvincingly, to be in search of their first win in almost a half-century.
“I can envision it already,” Generals coach Sam Worthen told the New York Post in 2017, “the day the final buzzer sounds and we’ve beaten them. It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when.”
Of course, that won’t happen. Green, who goes by the name "Hoops" on tour, certainly won’t let it on her watch.
“I can’t be on the team that loses a game to the Generals. Like what? I’m not trying to be that person,” she said. “I feel like that would be tough. Like, the Globetrotters lose? What? And what would the fans say?"
The Generals might not have flashy nicknames, and they might not perform shocking stunts, and they certainly don’t win. But they do get paid to play basketball, and for Claybrook, that’s a dream come true.
At Kentucky State, Claybrook typically played in front of a few hundred fans, but now, he plays in front of thousands. He’s heard that on the European tour, the Globetrotters-Generals show draws upwards of 20 or 25,000 fans.
“I don’t even know what that’s like,” he said. “I think it’d be fun to find out, though.”