A blood-thirsty crowd in Ecuador, nights on the town with Wilt Chamberlain, a date with a French countess, a double date with Meadowlark Lemon, being fleeced in card games, and two years of games against one opponent with nary a victory during tours of the Caribbean, Latin America and Europe.
That was life with the Washington Generals and affiliated teams in 1959 and ’60, and Tony Amendola of Myrtle Beach lived it.
A few days before the Harlem Globetrotters visit Coastal Carolina’s HTC Center on Sunday as part of their 90th year of touring, one of their former opponents reminisced about life on the road with one of America’s most beloved staples of entertainment.
Though Amendola only played two years against the Globetrotters, they included the early years of the most iconic Globetrotter in Lemon and a year of the most famous in Chamberlain, who was with the club full-time between his two years at Kansas and the start of his pro career.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The State
“It was a great experience,” Amendola said. “I made a lot of friends and saw different things that you don’t see here. I had a great time.”
Trotting around the globe
So how does one become a member of the inauspicious Washington Generals?
Amendola, 77, grew up on the south side of Philadelphia and played basketball at Bishop Neumann High.
He said he had offers to play college basketball at several schools including South Carolina, Temple, Mount St. Mary’s and Villanova. But he had a few months of indecision as a senior and by the time he settled on enrolling in college the summer after his 1957 graduation his scholarship to Mount St. Mary’s had been given to another player and he failed Temple’s entrance exam. “I didn’t know what the next step was,” Amendola said.
So he instead got a job in the mailroom at ITE Circuit Breakers and played in a very competitive corporate adult league. A referee in the league from Amendola’s neighborhood traveled with the Globetrotters as a ref, and asked if he wanted to travel as an opponent. Amendola was introduced to and immediately hired by Eddie Gottlieb, who was also from South Philly, assembled opposing teams for the Globetrotters and helped coordinate overseas tours.
“I guess he wanted someone from the neighborhood, and I was the only one close to being Jewish – I lived in a Jewish neighborhood,” Amendola joked. “I met him on a Tuesday or Wednesday and Friday I’m on the plane flying out to Chicago [for a game].”
His first team was the Philadelphia Sphas (originally an acronym for South Philly Hebrew Association) and he eventually played for other designated Globetrotter opponents including the Generals and New York Nationals.
His first two games were at Chicago Stadium and Madison Square Garden, where his parents attended, and a tour of the East Coast, Caribbean Islands, Central America and South America followed.
A successive tour of Europe included more than 30 stops in France, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria and Cyprus, in addition to Israel.
I didn’t want to go home. I always heard if you beat them you go home. I don’t know how true that was. We never beat them.
Tony Amendola on facing the Harlem Globetrotters
The 6-foot-4 Amendola played under the alias Tony Corey because he was still hoping to play in college and feared he’d be deemed ineligible because he played for money. “I kick myself every time I think that I didn’t go to college,” he said.
Even during his stint with the Globetrotters he considered himself a competitor rather than an entertainer. “I was a ballplayer. I was looking to play ball,” Amendola said. “They were the entertainers.”
Amendola played against Chamberlain in high school as an undersized center and held him to 42 points while scoring five of his own. “That was my best game,” Amendola said. “I look at that as a major win. He was great. He was unstoppable.”
He got to know Chamberlain better during and following the European trip and Chamberlain was always gracious when he saw Amendola around Philly thereafter. They often saw each other in jazz clubs.
Regarding Lemon, who died last year, Amendola said he was reserved off the court but became a performer on it. “He was the guy. He was the showman,” Amendola said. “On the court he just opened up. He looked funny and acted funny. And he just made shots. He might kick a ball from one end of the court to the other and make it. He could do it in 10 cities in a row and the people would go crazy.”
Perhaps because of his youth and perhaps because he was an inner-city kid, Amendola said he was more welcomed and closer to the Globetrotters than his teammates. He said he often rode on the Globetrotters bus rather than the station wagons his teammates were in. “I was friendly with the Globetrotters so I’d hang out with them and play cards,” he said.
Though he never defeated the Globetrotters, Amendola said the games weren’t orchestrated, other than the Globetrotters’ interspersed antics. “We’re playing hard 95 percent of the time,” he said. “When they start doing the tricks, you act a little bit and you let them score. Nobody wants to see a trick with no score at the end. But they never told us to lose.”
He didn’t want to take a chance, however. “I didn’t want to go home. I always heard if you beat them you go home,” Amendola said. “I don’t know how true that was. We never beat them.”
Stories and recollections
▪ The Globetrotters’ hijinks didn’t always go as planned, exemplified by a night in Germany. “One time the Trotters lined up like they were a football team,” Amendola said. “[Meadowlark] was going to kick a field goal and he kicked the ball and they had overhanging lights over the grandstand seats, and he hit the lights and the thing fell on a whole row of people. I was looking for a back door to get out of there. … Nobody was seriously hurt. They picked up the thing, carried it away, [Sweet Georgia Brown] played and the game went on again.”
▪ Amendola recalled playing in front of a packed house in Caracas, Venezuela, during a time of civil unrest. “All of a sudden military guys come out in the middle of the court and they’re dragging somebody out,” Amendola said. “Something was going on outside, this guy ran through the court and they’re grabbing him and hitting him with the butt of the rifle. That stopped everything. Meadowlark even stopped.”
▪ He was introduced to marijuana in Bogota, Colombia, where he smoked for the first time in a hotel room. “I thought I was tripping, and now I had to go get changed for the game,” Amendola said. “I’m walking around with no clothes on in my sneakers, and my roommate was like, ‘What the hell are you doing, Tony?’ I’m looking at him like I need help.”
The game was on an outdoor court and the ball hit a dead spot and remained on the floor between Amendola and one of the Globetrotters he had toked with. Two others were watching from the bench. “He looked at me and I looked at him and we both went down together and cracked our heads,” Amendola said. “The two guys sitting on the bench fell over cracking up laughing. I don’t think either one of us picked the ball up.”
▪ Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein set up a blind date with a countess in France for the Generals player who won a drawing of straws. That was Amendola, who earned a dinner and visit to her mansion. “To this day I think it was programmed for me to win because I was the young guy,” he said. “When we’re leaving Paris, Abe Saperstein gets on the bus and says, ‘Oh Tony, by the way the countess really liked you.’ I’m sure he told everybody, so he pumped me up for the next game.”
▪ Amendola’s card games on the Globetrotters planes and buses were not profitable at first. “They took money from me early until I got to know what was going on,” Amendola said.
His favorite game was Tonk, a five-card version of rummy. Or at least it was supposed to be five cards. On a flight in South America, he learned the team’s bus driver, and perhaps others, weren’t playing fairly. “We’re playing and I’m losing, and the pilot says, ‘Look to your left, it’s the Andes Mountains’ … and the plane sort of dips and I’m looking at the guy’s hand and he’s got eight cards,” Amendola said. “He was robbing me.”
▪ Occasionally the Globetrotters would play a team of local celebrities and Amendola’s team would face another local team. In Ecuador, Amendola recalls a court being fenced with chicken wire so the spectators couldn’t get to the players. “These people were crazy and screaming at us after we beat their team. They were hanging on the wire,” Amendola said. “I was out of there. I was a young kid then and these people looked like pit bulls.”
▪ On a trip to Havana, Cuba, Amendola met renowned organized crime figure Meyer Lansky, who was operating casinos. Amendola played craps with a teammate who was a fellow Italian from Brooklyn and they won, though he doesn’t believe it was by accident. “To this day I still think they let us win,” Amendola said. The teams left Cuba two weeks before Fidel Castro’s takeover of Havana in 1959.
▪ Chamberlain claimed in his 1991 book “A View From Above” that he slept with 20,000 different women in his life. He usurped at least one of those from Amendola in Italy. “We both hit on the same girl, and she went with Wilt,” Amendola said. “But I was all right, I was with another girl. We both were all right.”
▪ He recalled Lemon arranging a double date for the two at a swanky home in San Francisco.
▪ The trip through Latin America exposed Amendola to the poverty and dire conditions many people endure daily. Heavy rain in an arena outside Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, created a flood the day of a game. The game was canceled because water was permeating the arena and Amendola recalls seeing bodies floating and electrical wires crackling in the water as the team tried to exit the arena. “I was glad to get out of there,” Amendola said.
▪ There are many more stories. “A lot I can’t tell you,” Amendola said.
Amendola was compensated well – approximately $600-$700 per month including salary and per diem food expenses – and treated well.
“Even though you’re the second banana, so to say, you go into a town and they’re waiting for you to come in and they treat you like royalty, actually,” he said.
Amendola was prepared to go on a third tour with the Globetrotters, but he was enjoying his time catching up with old friends in his neighborhood and called them to say he changed his mind. “That’s who held me back from life, my friends,” Amendola said. “That’s why I came here.”
After leaving the gig with the Globetrotters, Amendola worked with his older brother Sonny at the Arrow clothing store in Philadelphia. “That was another reason the Trotters liked me because I had nice clothes, and when they’d come to Philly they’d come in the store and get suits and all kinds of clothing,” said Amendola, who became a bartender following clothing sales.
He followed Sonny and younger brother Joey to Myrtle Beach in 1979. They leased and operated beachwear stores before opening and operating Myrtle Beach nightclubs and bars including the Freaky Tiki, Clubhouse and Drink, and the family still operates Blondies clothing store in Broadway at the Beach.
Amendola continued to play competitively for decades after his traveling days and teamed with former Myrtle Beach High coaches Buddy Rogers and Doug Shaw to win a recreation over-30 league title while in his 50s.
But the two years of games he didn’t win still trump any of his victories. “I would love to go back and do it over again,” Amendola said.