At one point in this week’s podcast, Dano managed to recall the name of the creator of Slam Ball: Mason Gordon. This guy:
Look at that cocked hat, aimed right at the camera so viewers immediately know what’s what. Just like Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, Gordon was always closing, repping Slam Ball as a new sport that was going to take the world by storm. It was televised early on and I recall from these broadcasts that Slam Ball gyms were supposedly being constructed across the country and that my attitude toward that statement was one of curiosity. I wasn’t too cool to immediately dismiss the union of several gymnastics trampolines with basketball– at least not right away. Looking at the Slam Ball wikipedia page now, the sport was apparently founded (founded?) in 2002, though this year does not match up with my recollection of having watched it high school (along with Temptation Island). But that was a heady, weird time in TV, as reality TV was just taking off and sports promotion executives were open to new things. Remember, this is just after we all cringed through a whole season of the XFL, which was aired on NBC, don’t forget.
So I may have watched Slam Ball during the summer after my freshman year in college, when I was living back at my parents’ house and all my friends from my high school basketball team were back in town for what we did not realize would be our last extended period of time together. As we discussed on the podcast, Slam Ball was basketball with lacrosse rules, played with trampolines, in a hockey rink. But most of the players in the Slam Ball league were playground hero basketball players, not lax bros looking to take someone’s head off. So this created a weird dynamic where the announcers were forced to constantly repeat the Slam Ball rules to an audience expecting to see basketball– while at the same time the coaches were forced to do the same for their players. Eventually the players started to come around and highlights of Slam Ball games began to come into their own.
But Slam Ball at its core was a gimmick: it claimed the cultural cache of the past several decades of athletes perfecting basketball as its own and promised to deliver something even more amazing. But on final analysis, the emperor had no clothes; we could see the trampolines. Though they were never hidden or obscured, the trampolines were Slam Ball’s fatal flaw because they were inauthentic in a way that is clearly apparent when seeing the sport in action. Slam Ball players use no athletic ability bouncing seven or eight feet in the air. Certainly, they have to exert some body control– as well as manage their momentum and trajectory so they don’t go flying over the backboard– but the dunks in a Slam Ball game are fundamentally not amazing. Only when looking through the lens of basketball can one call seeing someone’s entire body above the rim amazing. In Slam Ball, that kind of thing should happen every play. Once this became clear, and as more skilled Slam Ball players began delivering actual amazing Slam Ball plays– which often consisted of complex bouncing schemes on the four trampolines– I began to feel the gravity of actual basketball again, and to have an even better appreciation for the people who made Gordon want to come up with something like Slam Ball in the first place. Like, Michael Jordan.
(Check out George Gervin’s face in the bottom right of that photo. Priceless.) Nowadays Slam Ball is apparently trying to make some headway in the Chinese market. Slamball.com is a repository for Counter Strike maps and WarCraft tutorials in Danish. Slamball.net, Slam Ball’s home on the internet, has broken links and is in a general state of disrepair. That odd moment in the early 2000s has passed and reality TV has gotten so much worse. We moved away, all of us, from southern California and I’ve yet to run into one of those Slam Ball gyms.