Thousands of postcards sit packed away in boxes, mementos from adventures around the world — a postcard from every town and city visited in over 50 countries, from tiny alleyways in Bolivia to the shining lights of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
They are not souvenirs from backpacking trips or family vacations, but reminders of a three-year journey that centered on one thing: the love of the game.
Not even a 550-game losing streak could get in the way of that love.
Two and a half decades ago, Penn women’s basketball coach Mike McLaughlin, a 5-foot-9 point guard from northeast Philadelphia, was recruited to play for Holy Family.
He ensured that he went down in the record books — McLaughlin still holds the school’s career three-point shooting percentage record and ranks in the top five in career scoring and assists.
A professional team heard about McLaughlin’s reputation. Impressed by his play, it recruited him right out of college.
But it wasn’t the NBA calling, or the D-League, or even the Euro League. It was the Washington Generals — the longtime “rivals” of the Harlem Globetrotters.
McLaughlin joined the team in July of 1989. Though he had never been out of the country, his first gig was in Soviet Russia, a country where communism had kept the Globetrotters away for 30 years.
“I only knew [the Globetrotters] from watching them on television,” McLaughlin said. “Now I’m traveling with them over to a foreign country where I knew no one else. It was intimidating at first, but … I adapted.”
The travel schedule was intense, “unmatched by any professional program,” he said. Both teams lived and traveled together, as they went to some of the world’s richest — and poorest — nations.
“We saw a lot of third-world countries, saw a lot of poverty and things that at that age I had obviously never experienced,” he said. “It opened my eyes.”
The Generals headed to Armenia in 1989, a year after an earthquake devastated the country. The players stayed in a nice hotel while just outside their windows, people were living in tents.
McLaughlin wondered who would spend what little money they had to come to his game. But the next day, four to five thousand people packed the arena, a “surreal” experience he said.
His mission was always to play basketball, but along the way, McLaughlin became a humanitarian. He did his part to help his less fortunate fans, giving away clothing, sneakers and even what money he could spare.
The teams went from country to country, entertaining thousands. But for McLaughlin, the entertainment was always at his team’s expense.
One of the winningest coaches in college basketball history, he never once won a professional game.
But he knew that it wasn’t about the wins and losses. Every night was a show, and he had a specific role to play.
“It was basketball, but it was a performance,” he said. “Our expectation from our coach was to compete to play. It wasn’t our job to entertain — it was their job.”
And while he never got that elusive win, McLaughlin was always a fierce competitor.
“Don’t let Mike’s little-boy looks hide the fact that he is cutthroat on the court,” Generals manager John Ferrari used to joke.
“He didn’t care how big the ’Trotters were,” Ferrari said. “He just went in there and earned their respect through tenacious and very hard play.”
“[McLaughlin] personified who the Washington Generals are,” Ferrari said. He was chosen as the team’s captain for his final two years.
One of McLaughlin’s favorite memories during his three years with the Generals was having the chance to play at the Philadelphia Spectrum.
“That was a place we all grew up trying to play at, and to actually go play there, at a sold-out place with my parents and my future wife there, was a pinnacle to trying to get to the top of the profession,” he said.
McLaughlin concluded the “best experience” of his life in January 1992 — and he certainly didn’t carry the losing streak with him.
He joined the coaching staff at Holy Family and became the head coach two years later.
In 14 seasons, he went 407-61, a remarkable .870 winning percentage. He won 400 games faster than any women’s basketball coach in NCAA history.
“Mike never let wins and losses define himself as a player or a person, as evidenced by his outstanding career of winning and not losing,” Ferrari said.
In his first season as coach at Penn, however, McLaughlin was reminded of his earlier days, as the Quakers went on a 16-game losing streak.
Regardless, he still stresses the importance of acting professionally, a value he learned while playing with the world’s most well-known team.
Halfway through his second year with the Quakers, the team is 9-12. At seven games better than last season, it’s already the fastest turnaround in program history.
Ferrari said McLaughlin’s experience in dealing with a wide variety of people makes him “someone who listens to his players and treats each player as an individual.”
The players appreciate their coach’s ability to have fun with them.
Senior Caroline Nicholson said her coach isn’t “afraid to laugh at something during practice or impersonate somebody.”
Freshman Kristen Kody added that McLaughlin has been known to take trick shots after practice. “I’ve never had a coach like that,” she said.
As a result of his experience with the Generals, McLaughlin takes more from the game than just wins and losses.
“We all want to win, but there are other ways you can succeed in this sport, and that’s competing hard every day, having a work ethic that’s second to none and getting the most out of who you are as a player,” he explained.
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