Memories of a lifetime: Local man used to play Globetrotters
Campion spent 8 years with Washington Generals battling famous team.
By John Hartsock,
For the past eight decades, the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters have entertained basketball fans with their exhilarating combination of eye-opening talent and side-splitting, hilarious antics.
The Globetrotters almost always win their games, and their most common opponent, the Washington Generals, almost always lose.
But it's not by design that the Generals - a talented outfit in their own right - have come up short in all but a few of the thousands of games they've played against the Globetrotters over the course of nearly a century.
Not at all, maintain former Generals player Bill Campion - who has been living in Altoona for the past 17 years - and the legendary Generals founder and team owner Louis "Red" Klotz, who also spent many years as a player/coach with the organization.
"I've had some great ballplayers with the Washington Generals - I've had six or seven players play in the NBA,'' said the spirited 88-year-old Klotz, who now lives in the Atlantic City suburb of Margate, N.J. "We beat every team we played here and overseas. The only team we've had trouble with is the Harlem Globetrotters. From the day I started with the Generals, I've never told one of my players to do anything but try to win on the basketball court. We compete, and the people who show up to watch enjoy it. When we walk off the court, we always get applauded for playing a good game.''
Even though they're sometimes perceived as cannon fodder for the Globetrotters, who have etched their team name into the archives of basketball immortality.
The Generals and Globetrotters bring their show to Altoona's Jaffa Mosque on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 1, at 1 p.m.
"Red Klotz said that he would never tolerate anybody purposely trying to lose a game,'' said Campion, 56, a retired federal corrections employee who lives in the Greenwood section of Altoona. "I always felt that the harder the Washington Generals played, you could see the best come out of the Globetrotters as well.''
In the thousands of games the two organizations have played against one another, the Generals won only a handful. Campion was part of a Generals squad that beat the Globetrotters a quarter-century ago.
"We won only one game against the Globetrotters in the eight years I played for the Generals, and I think that was in 1984 when we were in training camp out in California,'' Campion said. "We played a regular exhibition game against the Globetrotters, and we ended up beating them by three points. The parents and kids and the whole crowd that came to watch that day were in shock. They wondered what happened.''
People who showed up at the event, expecting the Globetrotters to race out to a big lead and then stage their repertoire of belly laugh-inducing theatrics for the crowd, were sorely disappointed that day.
"If the score was tied or we were ahead, you could hear a pin drop,'' Campion said of the crowd reaction to the Globetrotters not carrying the show in a game. "People were wondering what was going on. Even when [the Generals] came out on the floor and we got introduced at the start of the game, we always got booed.''
The Globetrotters showcased supremely talented players like Curly Neal and Meadowlark Lemon with showmen like Lemon and Geese Ausby, who would make the audiences howl with their fan-friendly demonstrations.
"I saw Curly Neal stand at halfcourt in practice and he'd sink anywhere from six to seven out of 10 shots,'' Campion said. "He could take the ball at halfcourt and drop-kick the ball into the basket. Geese Ausby was a real showman. He could take a hook shot from half court and it would go into the basket. That was real talent right there. The Globetrotters were a big organization, and they had talented players.''
But so did the Generals. The 6-foot-9 Campion - who hails from the Bronx, N.Y. and played high school basketball against former Pittsburgh Pirates pitching standout John Candelaria - shined on the basketball court during his collegiate days at Manhattan College, scoring 1,223 career points in two and a half seasons. He set the career school rebound record with 1,070, the single-season school rebound record with 419, and the single-game rebound record with 30 in a game against Hofstra.
Campion was drafted by both the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks and the old American Basketball Association (ABA) Virginia Squires, but decided to finish his schooling instead. He played basketball overseas in Italy.
The Generals also had Sam Pellom, who played two seasons with the NBA's Atlanta Hawks, in their employ, as well as Flip Payton, a 6-foot-9 jumping bean who shined collegiately at St. Francis, N.Y.
Among the current players on the Generals roster is former Juniata College basketball standout Brian Cannon. Cannon - who completed his stay at Juniata with 1,391 points and 579 rebounds - was just the fifth player in Juniata history to finish his career with both at least 1,000 points and 500 rebounds.
Campion's time with the Generals was a lot of fun, but it was demanding, too.
"You could make a decent living at it playing basketball seven months of the year, and I got a lot of enjoyment playing all over the United States and Europe,'' said Campion, who retired as a corrections officer after 21 years of employment in the federal system - his last tenure of service being at FCI Loretto. "But it takes a certain type of person to go out there like that and play basketball seven nights a week, sometimes twice on the weekends. I'm all busted up now. It takes a toll on you.''
Campion hasn't played basketball since 1990. He has had both of his knees surgically replaced, and he's due for an operation on his ankle in mid-Feburary.
"There's nothing left of it,'' Campion said of the ankle.
Despite his physical woes, Campion still savors the intangible satisfaction of being part of a traveling basketball thrill-show for several years.
"Even back when I was playing for the Generals, you could look into the stands and see the parents and their kids laughing and having fun for 2 hours,'' Campion said. "Seeing those people really enjoying themselves, regardless of what else was going on in their lives at the time, always made you feel good.''