- Walter Novak
- Cleveland was once the second-best WhirlyBall team in America -- until those bastards from Flint got better.
Rookie Richard Busich comes prepared for practice. When you're the youngest player on the third-best WhirlyBall team in the nation, you can't mess around.
He has his training uniform: jeans, Bruce Lee T-shirt, and baseball hat turned backward over long, dark hair. And he has his modified scoop: a lacrosse stick from Dick's, taped for battle. Confident, he steps inside the large Bedford Heights warehouse, walking past the laser-tag arena without a second glance.
Game on. Game friggin' on.
WhirlyBall can be called a sport in the same tenuous way an El Camino can be called a truck. If horse racing is the sport of kings, this is the sport of drunks.
Think of it as lacrosse, only played with plastic sticks. There are five players to a side, whose goal is to toss a hard rubber ball through hoops mounted at each end of the court. Two points for a basket. Three if you can hit from half-court.
But here's the wild card: It's played on 300-pound bumper cars with no steering wheels. Navigation happens mostly by accident, by twisting a lever that sits between the player's legs. The directions are reversed for no apparent reason. To go right, the player steers left. To go left, the player steers right. To go backward, the player winds the lever and makes a wish.
It's easier to steer when you're drunk, which explains the bar five feet from the court entrance.
Players can bump and block, but they cannot ram or slash each other with sticks. Unless they are drunk (see above). "It's a little more physically demanding than foosball," says David Frey.
Rick Morad owns the WhirlyBall facility off Richmond Road. He built the two courts in 1987, after discovering the sport in Vegas. Later, he trained the Ohio team that plays at the nationals every year. You could say he single-handedly brought the sport to Northeast Ohio. But why would you say such a thing?
At the moment, Rick and his crew are warming up for the national WhirlyBall tournament in Toronto . . . which technically makes it international, but who cares? With few exceptions, his team has not changed in 16 years.
The players sit around his small bar, drinking Miller Lite. The sweaty, mostly middle-aged men have just come off the court. General Electric is holding a staff pizza party nearby. The place smells like a Chuck E. Cheese locker room as the guys talk shop.
Jeff Coyle looks like a used-car salesman in his polo shirt, khakis, and short business hair. He hopes to someday open a restaurant devoted to breakfast cereal. On the court, he's all trash talk. At the bar, he's all smiles.
"The first time we went to [the nationals] we lost 22 games, some against girls," he says like a psychiatric patient owning up to a harsh truth. "That's when I realized we weren't shit. But the next year, we beat the girls."
Apparently, it's Seattle that dominates the WhirlyBall world. They've won the Division-A title more than any other team.
"Seattle does things differently. They actually practice," says team manager/player/bartender John Degnan. Which is to say, this is not how real men behave.
Once, in the early '90s, Cleveland was up 66 to 62 in a game against Seattle. Then Coyle, Cleveland's primary scorer, choked under pressure. It still riles him. "We were up, and I went cold," he says, ready to pounce on any teammate who might agree with him.
But for a while, Cleveland was the nation's No. 2 team among the country's 15 WhirlyBall outfits. "Until Flint got better," laments Coyle.
Still, they remain among America's best. Which gives them an excuse to travel once a year to exotic places like Lombard, Illinois, where they can showcase their skills, hang with buddies, and, of course, drink -- which doesn't always go well with winning.
During one tournament, Frey partied until 6 a.m. on the morning of a big game. Teammates tried to rouse him, but could hear nothing coming from inside his hotel room. "We took the door off the hinges, because we thought that Frey was dead," says Bill Olah, an aggressive defender who looks like a Sunday school teacher.
"I had a few cocktails the night before," Frey shrugs.
Busich, a skinny 20-year-old, is amused by his older teammates. "These guys, they're just like big kids," he says.
When their bottles empty, the men walk back to the court and their favorite cars. The ref -- Busich's father, sitting on a metal platform above the floor -- turns on the electricity. Unlike their amusement-park cousins, these bumper cars are electrified from the floor. Soon, the racket of the cars colliding and sticks smacking the ground echoes through the room.
Degnan wipes down the counter, then gets around to answering the question everyone asks when they see WhirlyBall for the first time: Isn't it a little dangerous to let drunks play on electricity?
"I've gone out and put my hands down on the floor," he says. "It doesn't hurt, but it feels really weird. Like a nine-volt battery on your tongue."
It might be a tad more dangerous than that. Once, a screwdriver fell on the floor during a game. It shot like a bullet through the drop ceiling.
But there are risks in any sport. The men who will represent Ohio at the international "nationals" aren't afraid.
"This isn't like football, where you have to go buy a bunch of pads," says Frey with a scowl. "With WhirlyBall, you just throw some beer down their throats, and they're good."