SlamBall.net (ended 2004)
When SlamBall made its groundbreaking debut last summer on The New TNN, the sports world got its first glimpse of the future; a non-stop, live-action human video game that broke all the rules of traditional sport and defined a new generation.
But for the game's creator, 28 year old Mason Gordon, it was much more. For Gordon, SlamBall's debut was the transfiguration of a vision that had been embedded in his imagination for years, to a physical reality that the rest of the world could finally see and understand.
In his youth, he could visualize it perfectly. In a recurring dream, it would happen over and over again. A guy goes up in the air. Another guy comes up after him. CRASH. There is a huge collision in the air. One guy takes control and pushes his opponent out of the way. Dream over. Every time he had the dream, it was the same thing. There was always a mid-air collision, but it was a different guy, a different uniform and a different move.
Despite the familiar dreams, Gordon didn't think about acting on this imagery until many years later. Like a growing number of sports fans, his interest in traditional sports was increasingly influenced by the creativity and intensity of action sports like skateboarding, bmx and motocross.
For Gordon, action sports had so much to offer the traditional sports world: non-stop action, riveting highlights, and most of all, fearless athletes. Yet, as a traditional athlete himself, he started to wonder about combining the best of both worlds. What would you get if you took the athletic components of football, basketball, hockey and gymnastics, and mixed them together with the insanity of action sports?
He went back to the dreams. Once he made the connection between his new idea and the imagery of the mid-air confrontations he had seen thousands of times in his sleep, his confidence was unshakable. He knew it could be done. The question was, who else would ever believe it?
Gordon took it to the one person who might, a visionary producer/director, Mike Tollin, principal of Tollin/Robbins Productions where Gordon had once worked as an intern. Says Gordon, "I approached Mike and told him I'd never bother him again, but that I just had this one idea that I wanted him to look at."
Gordon spent the next six months trying to convince Tollin to help him make SlamBall a reality. Tollin recognized the potential of the idea, and after much thought, had the brainstorm that would be the project's jump off.
Tollin did not see SlamBall as fitting into the traditional professional sports model. He didn't think it needed to develop in obscurity for several years at the grassroots level, build up a gradual fan base, and then hopefully find its way to television, as other, more established sports were struggling to at the time. If SlamBall was to be the future of pro sports, as Gordon intended, it would create it's own model: first put the games on TV, generate a mass audience, create a demand, and then back it into a more traditional league model.
In what Gordon describes as the pairing of his extreme sports mentality and Tollin's brilliant understanding of traditional sports dynamics, a working relationship was solidified. Together, they set out to build the first SlamBall half-court.
Constructed from spare parts: rusty gymnastics springs, second hand plywood and one trampoline, it wasn't pretty, but it would work. Next Gordon needed players. Combing the inner city parks, gyms, and rec. centers, he looked for what he calls prototype SlamBall players, vastly superior athletes who were creative, tough, and would play through pain.
"You have to be tough as aluminium siding to play this game," says Gordon, "and your heart has to be bigger than your entire chest. You have to possess boundless belief in yourself and your ability. If you don't have that, you can't come close to playing SlamBall at this level."
After looking at hundreds of players, he found his army, the five guys who would join with Gordon to make up SlamBall's Original Six: Jeff Sheridan, Sean Jackson, Michael Goldman, Dave Redmond and James Willis. Gordon chose to play and develop the game from the inside as a player. Gordon remembers, "We could only afford five players, so I had to be this sixth." In no time, all of them were seriously hooked. For three weeks straight they played 15 hours a day, going home completely beat down, and then coming back for more the next day.
"It was the most fun I'd ever had in my life. It was crazy," remembers Gordon. "Here were these five guys who initially thought I was a lunatic, who were giving up their bodies and playing a really rough game and loving every minute of it."
After testing the half court game, the group relocated to a downtown Los Angeles youth center where the first full court was built. With the addition of more players (including current SlamBall sensations Dion Mays, Stan "Shakes" Fletcher and Rob Wilson), the game soared to incredible new heights, literally. On the new court, Gordon added another trampoline at each basket. Gordon's recurring dreams would now be realized in flesh and blood, with spectacular mid-air collisions becoming one of the sport's main staples.
As word of mouth traveled and local crowds started to get bigger, Gordon and Tollin brought in TRP's production partner Telepictures/Warner Bros to show them the local phenomenon that was building. What they saw was a fully developed underground sport that captured the core attributes of the videogame generation, a new combination of wild athleticism and amazing creativity, never seen before. "Simply put," says Gordon, "they went bananas."
A 90-second highlight tape went to Albie Hecht, The New TNN's President. After one meeting with Tollin and Gordon, Hecht was sold. SlamBall would debut in the summer of 2002 as part of the network's "Slammin' Saturday Night" line up.
"From that point on, it was like skiing downhill atone hundred miles an hour," says Gordon. "We had six months to find enough athletes for six teams, hire quality coaches and teach them all the game from scratch."
Immediately, the group launched a series of radio campaigns to get the word out to potential athletes, and began reaching out to qualified coaches from around the country. Out of 400 coaching applications, the pool was narrowed down to 40 who were evaluated over a four-day clinic based on their understanding of the game and ability to formulate basic strategies.
Surprisingly to Tollin and Gordon, many of the top tier basketball coaches could not get their heads around SlamBall. It was the younger candidates who better understood SlamBall's youthful energy, and had the kind of passion needed to guide it. Some candidates in their early twenties, like Hernando Planells, Jr. and Brendan Kirsch were awarded head coaching positions and encouraged to innovate.
The search for players was equally as challenging. Three months and hundreds of athletes later, the first-ever SlamBall draft took place, producing six teams of eight players each. With players and personnel in place, Gordon and his team faced their biggest challenge of the sport's first season.
"In six weeks," he says, "we had to teach a group of players a brand new skill set and get them to where they could put a professional quality sports product on the floor. With our original players already at a certain level, we had to get the rest of the guys caught up. By this time, the addition of two more trampolines on each side made the SlamBall court complete.
Knowing the critical role credibility would play in establishing SlamBall's legitimacy, Tollin, a Philadelphia native, reached out to hometown businessman, Pat Croce, former President of the Philadelphia 76ers and one of the most successful sports entrepreneurs ever.
Three days after seeing the game live and up-close, Croce signed on as a SlamBall partner and became the game's premier spokesperson, generating a PR frenzy no fledgling sport could even hope to achieve. With little marketing and promotion behind the initial campaign , Croce's involvement came at a critical time and soon the mainstream media; including ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Time Magazine and The Jay Leno Show were all chasing the SlamBall story.
SlamBall made its national television debut on August 3, 2002, as a six-episode summer series and delivered the young and diverse audience TNN was looking for. Ratings were consistent throughout five consecutive re-run cycles as tremendous word of mouth brought new viewers to the game each week.
"The greatest thing in the world for me," says Gordon, "was seeing glimpses of the sport I wanted SlamBall to be. When players would work out some kind of intricate pass or misdirection of the stopper, I saw a new type of instinctive strategy. To me, that's what was so cool about the first season."
By December of 2002, SlamBall got the green light for Season Two. Seeing the potential for big ratings, the network more than doubled the number of SlamBall episodes, scheduling a 13-week series for the new season.
With increased exposure, Gordon knows the game will be scrutinized more closely as critics try to decide whether SlamBall is, in fact, a "real" sport. "I want people to look at us," he says, "because the closer they look, the more they'll realize that these players are tremendous athletes who are playing their hearts out in a game that's so exciting, creative and dynamic."
This year, the league added two new teams, the Riders and Bandits, and took tryouts national, something Gordon believes will raise the level of play exponentially, "What people don't understand is that we're just scratching the surface of the level of creativity and athleticism you're going to see in this game for years to come"
"One day, there is going to be a guy out there who will have an interdisciplinary skill set so far beyond anything we've ever seen before, that no one will be able to discount his ability."
As for SlamBall's future and the possibility of growing the sport, Gordon says it all depends on the fans. "If the fans want to see it, it's going to happen," he says, "but people can trust that everyone involved in SlamBall is going 24-7 on the accelerator to get it there."moreless