The latest cultural evolution of SlamBall

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The Sunday column on how SlamBall is picking up interest in China (linked here) deserves some context on how the cross-polination of basketball, ice hockey, gymnastics, football and … trampolining? … has come from when Mason Gordon dreamed it up in December, 2000 and held his first tryout camp (pictured above).

Gordon, a 6-foot-4 player who had dreams once of playing at UCLA at about the time the Bruins won their 1995 national championship, went to Claremont McKenna College and was ready to study law before he took an internship with Tollin/Robbins Production company, with the goal of dating an actress and attending a movie premiere. He did both — and also created SlamBall.

As this Answers.com website link helps explain (linked here), SlamBall got its first major exposure on TNN (which became Spike TV) in 2002-03, but then it kind of laid dormant, trying to figure out its next move.

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Gordon hooked up with IMG Sports & Entertainment and eventually created a league that played last summer at Universal Studios. Many local athletes found they excelled at it, including former Calabasas High basketball standout Michael Goldman (at left), former Birmingham High standout Stanley Fletcher, as well Dave Redmond (Canoga Park), Bryce Arledge (Agoura) and Craig Johnson (Notre Dame).

They were among the players who were distributed to the six-team league, with former Philadelphia 76ers owner Pat Croce as the commissioner, and coached by Ken Carter (inspiration for the movie “Coach Carter”), John Starks, Kenny Anderson and Rocket Ismail.

Goldman ended up leading the league in assists; Fletcher was the league’s leading shot blocker.

It still goes four-on-four, 20-minute games, on a court the size of a regulation college or NBA piece of wood, but with stragetically placed trampolines that allow players to get as high as 17 feet. A 12-foot plexiglass wall surrounds the court to keep the ball in play all the time.

CBS does the SlamBall league final (Channel 2, Sunday at 3 p.m.) with Gus Johnson and Tom Tolbert on the call.

While Gordon may have hatched the egg, TV and movie producer Mike Tollin nurtured it into a viable sport.

“As an old-school sports fan, I know you root for a team over the course of a season and built interest, so with a SlamBall league, you have the best of both — old-school tradition with a modern-day premium on performance,” said Tollin, a Philadelphia native who spent last week back in his hometown watching his Phillies capture the World Series.

“It’s all about organic growth. It reminds of when the NHL came to Philly (in 1968), and we didn’t know what it was really about, but it was cool to watch. Finally we had the community centers build ice rinks with bonds and bake sales, and I had one 15 minutes from my house where I could go to and skate and fell what a slapshot felt like or what it was like to get checked into the boards. It offered a whole new level of appreciation.

“So with SlamBall, we’ve developed a lot of new things like portable courts that are afordable and transportable. It’s like the growth of skateboarding in empty swimming pools that became vert ramps. Kids were allowed to experiment, then a company like Vans came along and sponsored it, and now it’s an international sport. Like BMX biking, now in the Olympics.

“That’s the dream of all this, not to have it a made-for-TV event but something played internationally and broadcast everywhere, with kids ultimately putting the leagues together. It’s the first real action sport that combines athleticism and the context and consequences of a league. It’s great to go to the X Games, but there are no box scores the next morning to see. You need that cumulative impact.”

With the Tollin touch, he’s worked SlamBall into a story arch on five episodes of the CW drama, “One Tree Hill” (Mondays on KTLA Channel 5) involving lead actor James Lafferty (as Nathan). Tollin, whose sports-themed movies include “Radio,” “Coach Carter,” and “Varsity Blues,” may also have a SlamBall flick in the production line.

Knowing TV has the power to keep a sport viable, it’s the Internet acceptance of this age demo that has the action-sports audience, and video gamers, the perfect target.

“TV is the main driver with all leagues, but on our website, we’ve had 40,000 player applications,” said Gordon. “It kind of relates to how mixed-martial arts has come into play parallel to boxing. With the NBA, you understand pretty quickly that unless you’re 6-foot-9 by the age of 13, playing in that league is a pipe dream. But with this sport, people see it and think, ‘I could do that.’ It’s similar to skateboarding with the suburban kids.”

More info, photos and video: www.slamball.net.

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