Only an elite minority of the nation’s high school basketball players are given the chance to continue playing in college. An even smaller number are able to say they’ve played basketball professionally.
Ryan Gunderson is one of those few. Now, you won’t see Gunderson’s jersey lofted into the rafters of the United Center or his highlights posted to Instagram, but there is no doubt that he made it to a level almost no one else on this planet reaches: getting paid to play basketball in front of giant, international crowds.
And bomb. Night after night.
Gunderson survived what many might consider the worst job in professional sports: playing for the Washington Generals. He was the team captain and starting point guard for a team whose sole existence is to lose to the Harlem Globetrotters.
You might assume Gunderson’s job was agony for a professional basketball player — that, as leader of the doomed, he had to live with the constant taste of defeat, literally and figuratively dunked on in every city he visited.
But you’d be wrong. If there’s anything you can learn from a Washington General, it’s that there’s growth to be found, victories to savor and memories to be cherished — even in the face of perpetual humiliation.
This is Gunderson’s story.
After playing in college for four years, I felt I could keep playing. I had a few offers on the table in Germany’s lower division. Pro ball overseas is ranked similar to college here division-wise, but the lower the division the lower the money. The idea is that you get overseas and work your way up, and then you can make a pretty good career.
But my deal with the Germany team fell through because of the NBA lockout. All those “bubble” players went overseas and filled roster spots. I was supposed to be a backup point guard, but I was bumped out because you can have only two American players on each Euro team, and they usually give those spots to established pros or 6-foot-10 guys — for which there were plenty, thanks to the lockout.
So after that crumbled, I went to a couple tryouts for semi-pro teams and landed in Kankakee, playing in the (now defunct) International Basketball League. After playing there for a year and winning the championship, I still wanted to go further.
My agent at the time wasn’t really finding anything for the upcoming season. [That’s when] I was approached by a local guy who played for the Generals. After a private workout, they called the next day with an offer to go to China for two months. If I accepted, my plane ticket was waiting — I was to fly out the next week.
I was 21, maybe 22 at the time, but I went for it. I saw joining the Generals as a stepping stone to get another team, and at least when I played, a normal Generals player would make about $2,500 a month, which was pretty typical of a lower-level Euro team.
Next thing I know, I was on a plane to China, trying to navigate to the hotel to meet the team by myself.
‘The travel was grueling and the days were long’
The Generals’ schedule spanned about 10 months out of the year. It would be a week in Wildwood, New Jersey, then off to South America for a month, then the U.S. tour, which was four months on the road to every state, and multiple cities in every state. During breaks in the season, we often didn’t know where the next tour was happening or when. I would be home, it would be Saturday night, and I’d get a call to “be at O’Hare [airport] by 5:30 a.m. on Monday — you’re going to Canada, then China, then Dubai.” In Dubai, we played in a pro tennis arena outside in 110-degree weather, which was brutal.
So the travel was grueling and the days were long. A typical day on the road would be waking up from a hotel at 5 a.m. to be on the bus at 6 a.m., and then travel up to 8 hours depending on the next city or venue.
After arriving, we’d get off the bus and go right to practice for two and a half hours. Super-intense and very fast-paced. They expected you to work hard every day. But it was funny — we’d be practicing at one end of the court, doing hardcore running and shooting drills, just working like crazy, while the ’Trotters would be at the other end, shooting trick shots and working on plays.
After practice, we’d have about two to three hours before game time, but you wouldn’t be able to leave, so most of us would work out more and rest for a bit before warmups.
With the Globetrotters, the behind-the-scenes is really the big thing. They don’t want it to lose its “magic.”
‘You’re going nowhere, kid!’
My first game in China, I started at point guard. I was stoked, it was huge crowd, and as PG, I was now the one who’d lead the team out of the tunnel to the crowd. When you run out to places like the Staples Center with 20,000 people, you’re thinking to yourself, How do I get to do this for a living? CRAZY!
But for my first game out of the tunnel, little did I know they always pull a prank on the rookies: Everyone else would stay back as you run out by yourself. So everyone laughs at you, and the rest of the team just runs to the bench. So there I was, alone on the court in front of 18,000 Chinese people, and I swear they couldn’t have laughed harder.
Another tradition for the rookies is a part of the game where you get your uniform ripped off and you have to run around and scream. First game in the books and those two things happen right off the bat.
But after the theatrics, the main core of the game was there: the interactions, the flow of the game itself — we’d play all out, and also have to tend to a few bells and whistles.
For example, because the Generals have to be the bad guy, you’re not just trying to find an open shot, [you’re] yelling at fans in the crowd. And honestly, that was a good time. One game, I kept making shots in the corner, and this kid, probably around 12, kept yelling, “You suck, #11! Brick!”
So when I made my next shot, I knocked the popcorn out of his hands. The kid couldn’t believe I did that, and his dad loved it. Then my teammate yelled, “You’re going nowhere, kid!”
We would play five real times up and down for every one trick play. The ’Trotters would make mistakes and we’d take the ball and go score. Our end of the gig was to score as many points as possible, because of all their trick plays — which were dunks — were basically an automatic two points. So we’d play for real, trying to hit shots and make plays, while they would basically just score every time.
The ’Trotters were great, though. They would always make in-game bets with us about how many shots they would make or we could make. I would have to make five threes and two four-pointers (which is a thing in Globetrotter world), or if they made two trick shots before the game started, they won. It kept it fun and different every night.
I was never the one who had to be dunked on, so it was all good. I was up on the top in the three-man weave, so I would go through that thing a few times and then follow my guy out. He would throw a lob to someone to dunk. I was always far on the sideline, thank goodness.
Eventually, they signed me to be captain. Then I was making good money, about $4,000 a month, plus a per diem, which was $300 per week. But it also meant a lot of non-basketball responsibilities.
Basically, I was in charge of the players. If they didn’t wear our sponsor Reebok gear, I would have to fine them. I made sure they’d be on time to the bus and court, and also communicated with the hotels about our players’ needs and schedules.
‘When I looked behind me, close to 200 people were following me down the street.’
After the game, we’d go back to the bus and take pictures with fans and sign autographs. We would get new shoes all the time to play in, so we would throw them to little kids as we walked off. That part made you feel like a big-time star — especially overseas, because they don’t have a way of knowing what level of basketball it is.
I once walked to KFC in China one night around 11:30 to get food, and when I looked behind me, close to 200 people were following me down the street. Just because they recognized me from the game. So I stayed in the KFC for two hours signing autographs and taking pictures.
Typically the autographs lasted until 11 p.m. Then you’d find food, change, go out with the guys and be back at the hotel around 2 to 3 a.m.… only to be back at the bus at 6 a.m. and do it all over again, and again, every day for the duration of the tour.
Being in other countries traveling was awesome. Some of the best times and memories of my life. I have tons of stories.
[One time, at a] Toronto carnival, my buddy got into an argument with Kevin Garnett. We got into this VIP section with some big-name people: Drake, Flo Rida, [Rajon] Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Shawn Marion. My buddy was trying to pretend to talk on the phone but [secretly] take a picture of [Garnett]. KG called my buddy an effing clown. It ended with my teammate yelling in KG’s face, “I live in your head, KG! I live in there!” Everyone else was laughing and couldn’t believe what was happening. KG was not happy. He jumped in a cab and left.
One of the many stories I have of how awesome and hilarious [Globetrotters coach] Sweet Lou is: He used to always give this one player on the Generals a hard time, because at every airport he would get “randomly” checked… and if he wasn’t checked, Lou would yell out, “Somebody better check that guy back there with the beard!”
It was always fun, man. The Globetrotters had a fake record label. Too Tall [Hall] would always try to sing slow R&B songs, and he was terrible, but it was so funny. They would always try to sign me as their classic white singer.
Not many people have the chance to do what I was able to do, which I’m grateful for, but being on the road, going from city to city every night, began to wear on me. The luster of the rock-star lifestyle wore off and became a drag. I was not a partier by any means. I don’t know how other guys do it.
‘Being away from my family got to be too difficult.’
So I stopped playing. It was time to move on, and being away from my family and now-wife for 10 months out of the year got to be too difficult. I saw them from time to time when they would come to games, but it was just a night here and there.
The feeling you get playing in front of thousands of people is something you can’t explain. If they asked me to come out of retirement and run out of the locker room one more time, I would do it in a heartbeat! But it doesn’t match the feeling of looking at the crowd and seeing your family and friends sitting there watching you play a game that you love and practiced countless hours to make this dream happen. By far the best memory is being in Milwaukee at the Bradley Center and seeing my parents and wife sitting front-row.
Now, having two sons of my own, I know how my parents felt watching me achieve something at this level. And my wife, Sarah, traveling from city to city to see me play… Those are memories we will always have together, which makes everything I did in basketball worth it.
— As told to Quinn Myers