By Jon Hart
Have you ever wanted to create something, make history even? Have you ever wanted to create a sport? Former NBAer and Olympic gold medalist Tom LaGarde did just that. LaGarde’s invention was mostly out of necessity and partly because he had an under-utilized artistic streak.
Let’s back track. It was the 90s. It seemed like everyone was on blades. In New York City, LaGarde’s injury-riddled knees wouldn’t allow him to run. Instead, he in-line skated – a lot. And he often skated by pick-up basketball games. A eureka moment: Basketball on rollerblades – roller basketball – why not?
Solo, LaGarde starts shooting around on blades. Eventually, LaGarde starts searching for teammates, and he places an ad in an in-line skating publication asking for open-minded individuals to join “the world’s first-ever roller basketball team.” One person answers – but he’s a special man. Altitude Lou, a seasoned stunt skater, who grew up playing ball on the Lower East Side with ex-NBAer Jayson Williams. For fun, Altitude leaps over taxi cabs on his blades. Altitude becomes LaGarde’s sparring partner. In Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, Altitude and LaGarde wage fierce, full-court, one on one battles. They go hard. Eventually, more free-thinking skaters join LaGarde and Altitude, forming an eclectic mix, including every shade of color, all genders, the well-employed, the unemployable, the athletic, the unusual and the just plane weird. There’s Al, the undersized but super quick subway conductor from Ghana. By way of Connecticut and North Carolina, the fundamentally-rock solid TK played semi-pro ball in Europe. A street kid is known as simply “Jordan.” No one knows his real name. Spinner, the most diehard roller baller, the artist with the handle bar mustache, makes sure that the action does not hit a lull. “We’re burning daylight!” Spinner blares every practice. LaGarde calls this nascent community NIBBL – the National Inline Basketball League. So what if the league is solely in New York City – it has tremendous growth potential!
Eventually, LaGarde, the former University of North Carolina all-American, goes mad scientist, coming up with roller basketball specific rules: Four man teams, no inbounding after a conversion and one free-throw instead of two. As far as travelling, players can roll for five seconds without dribbling, a rule which is not so easy to ref. At one point, LaGarde experiments with a lacrosse-esque face-off in lieu of a jump ball. No, that everything stuck.
Roller basketball could be awkward to watch and play at times, but it worked, ah, most of the time. I know. I played for about four years, led to the league in stitches courtesy of a few flailing elbows. Ultimately, hundreds of players played LaGarde’s sport, including the late Chicago Bull Brian Williams, who scrimmaged a few times. Unfortunately, roller basketball never became more than a fringe activity at least in the States.
Roller basketball lasted for about five or so years in New York City. After 9/11, LaGarde and Spinner moved out of town, and I gather that street kids like “Jordan” went back to playing conventional street ball. Sadly, I don’t know what ever became of Altitude, who once dyed his hair green, despite the fact that we wore helmets. I’m sure Altitude’s still in the city, but I doubt that he’s blading. No one seems to blade any more.
But roller basketball never died completely,
It inspired other hybrid sports such roller soccer, which got its start in San Francisco. Yes, it’s as painful as it sounds. It’s just tough to kick and roll at the same time. And thanks to the efforts of LaGarde and the aid of the internet, roller basketball caught on in Europe and the Middle East. I have actually seen roller basketball players in turbans. No, they weren’t photo shopped. While roller basketball is extinct in its birth place, NYC, roller basketball rolls on.
Jon Hart is the author of Man versus Ball: One Ordinary Guy and His Extraordinary Sports Adventures, www.manversusball.com. Find him on Twitter @ManVersusBall