For Love of The Game

Bumper-car warriors take to the courts in WhirlyBall, a new sport blending hockey, polo, and lots of beer

It happens every spring or thereabouts: The rookies can't wait to get started, to prove themselves worthy of a shot in the bigs. For aging veterans, the layoff has been too long. They stretch their backs and arms, working out the kinks, eager to find their shot, which seems all but lost. Bengay ointment applied to the elbows and knees helps some, as do elastic braces for body parts hobbled by overuse and abuse. All pain, however, is dulled by the palpable anticipation that floods the senses when minds turn to thoughts of the game.

At courtside, the air grows electric, but not as much as does the floor, whose voltage mixes with the stench of worn rubber to generate a dank, subway smell. But for these Dallas players, it's the smell of providence, of championships won and lost, of an offbeat sport that gets little respect but makes a big difference in their lives.

Laugh if you must: It's WhirlyBall.

To call WhirlyBall a sport may give it more athleticism than it deserves. To call it just a game cheapens the unique skill set it demands--a wacky fusion of hockey and basketball strategy, lacrosse finesse, and bumper-car mobility. Somewhere between game and sport lies a hell of a good time, where the competition is fierce, the matches grueling, the play addictive. But how can a sport be taken seriously when it is played in a modified bumper car called a WhirlyBug? How can it earn the respect of the masses when its primary sports equipment--a scoop and Wiffle ball--can be purchased at Toys "R" Us? How can a game be considered a sport when the least athletic among us can master it without breaking a sweat?

These kinds of questions don't plague those who have gathered at the WhirlyBall Center of Texas on Northwest Highway this mid-January evening. Their concerns are less esoteric, more immediate. Come Memorial Day, Dallas will play host to the national WhirlyBall championships for the second time in the tournament's 16-year history. In 1997, a Dallas team captured the Intermediate "C" division, a staggering feat when measured against the experience and style of teams from Seattle, a WhirlyBall mecca. Two years of crushing defeats followed in Toronto and Chicago after injuries and absent players ravaged the team's fragile psyche. Alan Bieke, the co-owner of WhirlyBall Texas, has called a meeting of local WhirlyBallers--the top players in town--to gauge the level of support for making a serious run at the championship.

It won't be easy: The center, with locations in Dallas and Plano, has been living off corporate gigs, church socials, and birthday parties rather than league play. Even the best players are rusty, overcommitted, and out of shape--not that shape matters in WhirlyBall.

In addition to fielding several "C" and "D" teams of five players each, Bieke hopes to form a "B" team, where the level of play is more competitive and beer isn't a factor. "We want to win a national championship bad," Bieke says. "We're hoping to stage a comeback, but we have a lot to prove."

Certainly, the talent is there: Norma Ortiz has the car-handling skills of a bumper-car goddess. It makes no difference that she is 4-foot-10. What matters is that she can move in and out of bumper-to-bumper traffic with the skill of a rush-hour commuter. Niels Christiansen lacks a good shot (It's for shit, he says.), but he makes up for it with his dominant defensive play. His height advantage (6 feet 5 inches) and long arms make him a strong goalie, though his quiet demeanor and Danish accent make it hard for his teammates to hear him over the metallic rumble of the electric floor. Bieke is no slouch, either: One of the better players in the country, he has a deadly shot and deep understanding of the game. If he hadn't been injured last season (tennis elbow), the result at nationals might have been different.

"We took fourth place last year out of eight teams," he says. "The reason we lost is because our shooting was only around 25 percent."

"Liquid gold is the other reason," says another player, holding up an open bottle of beer.

This year, Bieke tells the group, it's not just about defense anymore. "Everybody has got to be a shooter." Sundays will be dedicated to passing and shooting skills, car-handling drills, two-on-two matchups, and strategy sessions. Tuesdays will be league nights--the testing ground for national play. Since there are no other teams in the region, Dallas WhirlyBallers are at a disadvantage: They have no one to learn from but themselves.

And some players haven't picked up a scoop since last year's nationals. "Come on," urges Bill, a bearded computer programmer who brings the wife and kids to watch. "Let's go. Let's get out there."

"Everyone OK then with Tuesday night around 7?" Bieke asks.

Each player raises a hand; one raises a Miller Lite. "Long as you're bringing the beer."

To the uninitiated, WhirlyBall is played like a full-contact sport, a run-and-shoot game of macho men ramming, slashing, and pounding the net in an ego-driven fury to score. And those are just the bar mitzvahs. Corporate types also use it as a bonding experience, one of those stress-relieving, team-building intangibles that foster an esprit de corps in the workplace.
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