For Love of The Game

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.

Those mounting a WhirlyBug for the first time must overcome the surge of silliness that sweeps over them. Driving the machine helps some because it is remarkably maneuverable. The steering crank can whirl the bug around 360 degrees. Spin the crank to the right, the machine goes left; turn it to the left, the machine goes right. The ambidextrous among us have an advantage because their rudderless hand must be free to wield a plastic scoop widened to fit a softball-sized Wiffle ball. Players pass the ball between them as they motor down an electrified playing field the dimensions of a basketball court. Raised goals are posted at opposite ends of the court, and an accurate shot can find its mark with an effortless flick of a wrist. There's a 30-second shot clock, which forces hasty Hail Marys. But strike the target, an annoyingly small hole cut out of a backboard, and score two points or three, depending on the spot from where the shot is taken.

Despite the rubber bumpers that ring both the cars and the court, ramming--head-on collisions, rear-ending, T-Bones, cheap shots--is not only against the rules but will rack up major penalty points against the rammer. Yet novices can't help themselves, empowered by the rapid onset of testosterone and what seems like a license to pound. But taking others out of the game takes you out as well. More experienced players learn this is no way to play.

"The key to the game is to keep your car moving," Bieke says. "It helps to have a good shot, but if you can't get down the court, you can't score. Car-handling is everything."

The object of driving is to keep your speed up and the opponent's speed down. Good players don't ram, they block at just the right time and place, taking speed from the other player to continue their own momentum.

Blocks range from bumps (hitting someone with just enough force to allow you to spin away and keep moving); pillow blocks (a soft bumper-on-bumper sideways block that hooks the blockee with enough force to slow him down); and power blocks (turning into the path of a pursuing car as it is about to broadside you to gain speed from the hit).

"Whoever initiates the hit on the car gets the energy from that hit," Bieke says. "That moves them faster and slows the other guy down."

It doesn't matter whether you are large or small, male or female, jock or nerd, the car becomes the great equalizer, neutralizing any physical aspect to the game. Forget strength, stamina, speed, the only body that needs to be buff is the one with the red or yellow finish. Portly players have an advantage: Their weight gives them more power; when they hit you, you know it. Slight players, on the other hand, can move quicker, getting up to speed faster--a WhirlyBug tops out at 7 miles per hour.

Oddly, WhirlyBall attracts high-techies and intellectual types, many of whom wanted to play organized sports but never did. "About 50 percent of our players haven't developed their physical skills and are unfamiliar with the concept of teamwork," says Tom Chocuette, the owner of the WhirlyBall center in Seattle. "But given a certain level of hand-eye coordination, they thrive in this environment."

"There are a lot of people who don't have a lick of athletic ability, and they really get good at WhirlyBall," says George Serpa, a Seattle WhirlyBall veteran acknowledged as one of the best players in the world. "Eye-hand coordination doesn't separate people that much. What separates them is the amount of time people are willing to practice. That's why the game becomes so addictive."

Let's say someone who has never been good at sports takes up WhirlyBall. For the first time in his life, he experiences the adrenal buzz that comes from beating an opponent silly. The more he plays, the better he gets; the better he gets, the more he plays. Like a jealous mistress, the game demands attention. All his free time--weeknights and weekends--is spent at the center as he grows obsessed with honing his game. "WhirlyBall is responsible for a lot of marriages breaking up," Serpa admits reluctantly. "We call them WhirlyWidows."  

This level of dedication forces a new paradigm of play. Gone is the run-and-gun game of the novice. Slowly, the game reveals its tricks: working your car instead of letting it work you, shifting your body weight to avoid a hit, rocking yourself into a position for a better shot. On offense, you learn patience and grace--shooting with the snap of the wrist, an easy motion. On defense, you learn the value of holding your scoop high for the chance at a blocked shot.

Intermediate players begin to see the game differently, focusing on defense, positioning, strategy. Instead of everyone scrambling for the ball in a frenzied mania of metal, plastic, and flesh, players hold their positions--goalie, defensive men, center, and wings--much like a hockey team would. They set up screens and pick-and-rolls, understand the importance of getting inside position, and grow deft at selfless team play.

"Your offensive players are looking to outnumber the defensive players to gain a numerical advantage," says Dan Bieke, Alan's brother and partner at the Dallas center. "Anytime you can isolate two offensive players on one defensive player, that is the easiest way to score." Two defensive players, on the other hand, will nearly always shut down a single offensive player. The game remains fast-paced, but becomes more thoughtful as strategy sessions become an integral part of practice. Alan and Dan have designed an aluminum board with yellow and red toy cars to help players visualize their next move.

At its highest level of play--Seattle-style--WhirlyBall becomes a large chess game, where the pieces are in constant motion, the shooting lethal, and each move anticipated 10 seconds into the future. Seattle teams use no set positions, no designated goalie or wings. Theirs is a transition game, where each player is as strong offensively as defensively, and the play, at once disciplined and intuitive, makes the game appear completely scripted.

That's why world-class players find it difficult to understand why the game never gets any respect. So what if it's played in a carnival ride with children's toys? "There are people who make fun of WhirlyBall, and that's cool," Chocuette says. "Those of us who have played the sport for years understand the level of intelligence and competitiveness it takes."

A teen-age boy drives a golf cart with a stick in his hand, swiping repeatedly at a tin container in a sophisticated game of kick the can. His father, a tinker by trade, studies his son's motions, and in his mind, he visualizes a game of motorized hockey. In Salt Lake City, where they live, the man has seen hockey played on horseback, from motorcycles, and in pickup trucks. Why not specifically design a machine to play hockey?

In the early '60s, Stan Mangum built that machine but quickly concluded that hockey was not a viable motorized game. "There was too much machine on the floor, and it got in the way of the puck," says Chuck Mangum, Stan's grandson and the general manager of Flo-Tron, the company that patented WhirlyBall. "In the early days, the machine was gas-powered, and the smell made the players sick indoors."

Rather than change the car, Stan decided to change the game. With the help of his son Kim, he tried to find the right game for the machine. Slowly, a crude version of WhirlyBall developed, using low-hanging plywood backboards and a softball with holes punched in it.

Stan pitched the game to a group of Salt Lake City investors who rejected the idea--the game as well as its noxious gas car. They did, however, like the way the car handled with its 360-degree steering. But they wanted him to build a portable electric bumper-car ride, something that could be set up and torn down quickly as it traveled between state fairs. Back to the drawing board, Mangum developed an electrical floor grid system for a bumper-car ride completely self-contained in a trailer. The car was electrically powered and was the first, says Chuck, to run on lower voltage and without overhead connections. "My grandfather was a brilliant designer, but not much of a businessman," he says. "He never patented his invention, and today his technology is used throughout the carnival industry."

In 1967, Stan was approached by The Walt Disney Co., which hired him to design 20 cars for its electric light parade route in Disneyland. Walt himself was so enamored of the WhirlyBug, says Chuck, he offered to buy the company outright. Mangum should have taken the offer: In 1969, his investors backed out, and he was forced to shut down the business.  

WhirlyBall lay dormant for another decade, until Kim Mangum rejuvenated the idea. Raising the venture capital, he persuaded his father to build a newer, more improved WhirlyBug, only for a game this time, as they had originally planned. Kim designed a modified plastic scoop and is credited with naming the sport. He hit the road, selling WhirlyBall franchises, primarily in the western states: Utah, Nevada, Alaska, California.

By the early '80s, there were 17 centers, the most successful of which was in Las Vegas, where the lifestyle enabled league play 24 hours a day. WhirlyBall seemed destined for success after Kim sold the marketing arm of the company to a group of Vegas investors who took the company public in 1983. According to Chuck Mangum, things began to sour after the investors decided to buy a chain of video stores. The Mangums reached a settlement with their investors, exchanging their stock for the return of their marketing rights.

But franchises were failing across the country, in part, because many had been sold in small towns. "The curse of WhirlyBall is that it takes a huge investment to start a center," Chocuette says. "And the demographics only make sense if they [the centers] are in towns of a million people or more." All of the original 17 franchises went out of business.

But that didn't stop the Mangums, who decided to grow their sport slowly this time. "We run no print ads, no phone ads. We don't publicly market WhirlyBall for sale," Chuck says. "We were afraid of getting tied up with the wrong people again and wanted to stay in control of the way it developed."

There are now 16 WhirlyBall centers in the United States and Canada, with plans for another six to open this year. There is also talk of developing several centers in Japan. (The centers pay the Mangums a licensing fee and buy their equipment from the family business.) This second wave of centers began with Seattle in 1985, which, thanks to coaches such as Chocuette and players such as Serpa and James Gill (the best shooter in the country), has become a WhirlyBall dynasty. "Cleveland, Flint, even Dallas may have better players than us, but they don't play together as well as we do," Chocuette says. "They aren't coached the way we are, don't put in the time or attention to detail."

Seattle's top five players are forbidden by tournament rules from playing on the same national team, yet Seattle has won the national championship at nearly every level of play ("A" through "D") since 1987. "Because of the rainy weather here, you have to find something to do, and WhirlyBall is it," Serpa explains. "A lot of people here make it their life."

Alan Bieke was first bitten by the WhirlyBug in the late '80s, when he was introduced to the game at a Michigan center close to his home. A pond hockey player as well as an electrician, he seemed a natural to someday operate his own center. But after he moved to Dallas to join his brother Dan in 1992, they both realized what a difficult undertaking building a WhirlyBall center would entail.

"It's hard to get a loan for a wacky game like this," Dan says. "They think it's some kind of fad." It took them two years to find the space and another six months to convert the shuttered bowling alley (the Hart Bowl near Bachman Lake) into a center. They finally opened their doors in December 1994 and hoped the weather would stay cold enough to keep people inside and interested.

Whereas centers in Seattle and Cleveland rely primarily on league play for revenue, the Biekes promoted WhirlyBall heavily to corporations and private parties, which pay $150 an hour to rent one of the two courts. They did manage to field a team for the 1995 nationals in Michigan, but "we got our butts kicked," Alan says. "We picked up some amazing pointers and the next year came back and won the 'D' division." In 1998, the team moved up to the "C" division, which it won in Dallas.

It didn't hurt that Chocuette and several Seattle players came here to teach a WhirlyBall workshop. "Dallas doesn't have the benefit of being surrounded by great players," Chocuette says. "It takes four to five years before a team can really compete at 'C' level, and Dallas was probably the quickest team to ever win a championship in that division."

To keep the tournaments competitive, the rules mandate that once a team wins its division, it has to move up to the next level or break up into different teams at the same level. "We later chose to split up rather than move up," Alan recalls. "That was a mistake."  

It's the first Sunday morning practice, and Alan Bieke still hasn't made up his mind. Should he field a "B" team for the nationals and risk embarrassing his players in their hometown? Or should he form three strong "C" teams, dominating the division and using the lesser championship as a confidence-builder for 2002. They could certainly use the ego boost, particularly after last year's nationals in Chicago. Alan had them practicing endlessly, but defense doesn't win games if your shots don't fall. On the other hand, some of his best players were either injured or absent. Now everyone is healthy, and traveling costs aren't an issue. He figures he'll decide after he gets a good look at his players.

"Scoops up!" he yells as everyone adjusts their seat belts after dividing into yellows and reds. "Keep those cars moving."

That's no problem for Norma Ortiz, an assistant comptroller who missed nationals last year. She anticipates the game well--understands all the angles, knows how to block. And just when you think you have taken her out of play, she bounces off you smoothly, easily, and scores. Her shots aren't landing this morning, though; she's still trying to get the rust out.

Linda, sister to Dan and Alan, engages in a more aggressive style of play. She throws her body into the machine, which gives her a bit more speed and power, enough to make room for her car. Alan pitches her a no-look pass, and she shoots from 20 feet out, misses, gathers in her own rebound, shoots again, and makes it.

Someone needs to get hot, and Alan has historically been it. He drives to the net (literally) and makes an easy layup. His elbow feels good, no residual pain from last season's injury. He shoots later from midcourt and misses, but lays low after that, more concerned with coaching the others--getting them into position. Niels Christiansen stays back at goalie, waving the scoop with his long arm, intimidating others from shooting. But when he decides to generate some offense of his own, he misses the goal too often.

The energy level is high, the play unremarkable, the number of missed shots directly proportional to the number of times the phrase "Ah, shit!" rings out. Forty-five minutes, three games, and lots of laughter later, the players take a break and Alan has his answer: They're just not ready.

"Everyone wants to move up, but no one wants to get spanked," he says. "I'm just not seeing the level of enthusiasm it would take for us to make a run at the 'B' division."

No one seems to mind much; if anything, there is a sense of relief. They can use the year to rebuild, to learn from the best when they come to town. There is always next year to redeem themselves.

Rather than dwell on the decision, the players would rather just play. They return to their WhirlyBugs, walking eagerly past a glass partition that attempts to muffle the ever-present rumble of metal against machine. If that sound symbolizes anything, it's the buzz they still get from playing WhirlyBall, which is the reason they became addicted to this screwball sport in the first place.

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