An ode to slamball

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My entire life, I was never really an “athlete.” Like most white suburban children, I was forced to play soccer against my will, but unlike my peers, I was the only child made “permanent goalie” because I had trouble running farther than 3 feet. While other kids played on the field or the monkey bars during recess, I sat inside pretending to have “seasonal asthma.” And while most people can recount a childhood time when they broke an arm or sprained an ankle, my only injury came from when I fell down the stairs at indoor debate camp. In short, I took to sports like a duck takes to bird repellent.

This was much to the chagrin of my parents, who eventually realized that their chubby little Jewish boy was less like Michael Jordan and more like Michael Moore. But once the futility of their efforts wore down their resolve, I was free to establish my comfortable niche — playing video games and watching television. As far as I was concerned, sports were pointless, boring and inaccessible.

Then I watched SlamBall.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with God’s greatest gift to mankind, SlamBall is a full-contact basketball game where the court is made up mostly of trampolines. Players score by dunking or shooting the basketball, with the former worth 3 points and the latter worth 2. If one player fouls another, the two players face off one-on-one like in a soccer penalty shootout. But best of all, players are free to tackle and hit one another, which means there are frequent midair collisions and full-force body checks.

It. Was. Awesome.

What made SlamBall unique to me, outside of its insane premise, was that it doesn’t have the serious and professional atmosphere that mainstream sports pride themselves on. SlamBall didn’t air on ABC or ESPN — it aired Saturday mornings on Cartoon Network. SlamBall didn’t have nice jerseys and city-based franchises; instead, it looked like a rec league with team names such as The Mob and Diablos. SlamBall couldn’t sell out stadiums, let alone the small number of bleachers that surrounded the court, so it had to pump in artificial crowd noise. SlamBall was the “Beverly Hillbilly” of sports, and I was obsessed with it.

But what I loved most about SlamBall was that the players weren’t professional athletes. They were average joes, plucked off the streets to play a street ball game that couldn’t have paid well. And as a little kid who felt ostracized because of his lack of athletic ability, I saw SlamBall as a game that turned ordinary into extraordinary. Players were superheroes who dunked higher than LeBron James or Blake Griffin ever could. It made me boyishly excited for sports — something I never thought possible.

All of this isn’t to say that SlamBall wasn’t vapid, moronic or ridiculous. Because it undoubtedly was. But that was the point.

SlamBall was “NBA Jam” come to life, designed not for the purposes of competition and professionalism but instead for fun and excitement. It brought sports down to its most rudimentary foundations, emulating the type of game a kid plays in their backyard. SlamBall demonstrated to me that sports could be more than just elite athletes engaged in high-stakes battle. Sports could be dumb, fun and absolutely pointless. Before SlamBall, sports were antithetical to my very being, constantly reminding of my physical shortcomings. But after SlamBall, I began a lifelong love affair with sports.

So, I owe a great deal of gratitude to this quasi-sport. While it ultimately never found mainstream success or consistent fandom, in its futility, SlamBall helped bring to light what made sports amazing. It embodied imagination, unorthodoxy and whimsy. But most importantly, SlamBall taught me and those who watched it an important lesson — everyone can be superheroes.

Michael Brust covers esports. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBesports.