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Bumper-to-Bumper Fun

Whirly Ball players take their best shot at the new big leagues
By Stuart Sokolowski
Free Press Special Writer

On Court One, the Untouchables are just that. Hunched over in their bumper cars, they glide by their opponents and whiz toward the basket at Whirly Ball West. Though they trail by one point with 40 seconds left in the Monday night league game, they are in the driverís seat. Two scoop-to-scoop passes later, the cornermanóa Joe Dumars with a jaialai basket in his right handóflings a plastic ball the size of a apple through the net in a backboard above the court, providing the margin for victory. Final score: Untouchables, 51, Just Kidding, 50.

On Court Two, where non-league players are engaged, cars sit at haphazard angles as players struggle to scoop up the ball. When a successful pass is made, a player under the basket fires wildly and misses the backboard, and the slow-motion scramble starts again. Final score: 4-0.

Regardless of the level of competition, the stakes are always high at West Bloomfieldís Whirly Ball West. Non-league players are vying for bragging rights among their friends, while league com≠petitors are honing their skills and bracing for the big timeó the Road To The Nationals competition September 20Ė22.Players will travel that road in an electric, bumpercar like machine equipped with a steering stick and power pedal, but no brake. “The brakes,” says Tom Benavides, manager of Whirly Ball West, “are the other cars and the walls”. Played with 10 people in bumper cars, Whirly Ball is part jai-alai, part hockey, part basketball, part polo and part mayhem. Each player has a scoop to pass the ball and shoot with, and a backboard similar to a basketball backboard with a large netted hole that players aim for hangs at each end of the court. The team with the most points at the end of the game wins.

The sport has become as popular in metro Detroit as ice arenas in the winterówith little or no court time available during prime weekend hours. Leagues are growing, husband and wife teams are slugging it out on the weekends, and businesses, churches, graduating classes and families are reserving time for socials and corporate parties.

Whatís all the fuss about?

Randy Palinski, captain of the Untouchables team, has been playing for over a year, and was captivated the first time he played. “You get hooked. You just canít stop,” he says. Martha Little of Farmington Hills has played three or four times and admits that her motives are at times a bit underhanded: “Itís a good way of releasing frustrations, of giving paybacks, of getting revenge,” she says with a smile. “I get very aggressive during the game. If your friend told you that she didnít like your shirt, you hit her broadside. If your husband didnít treat you well the night before, your get him back, too.”

Humble beginnings

Created in Utah by Stan and Kim Mangum, WhirlyBall lore has it that Kim was riding in a golf cart and struck a can with a stick; prompting his father Stan to reply that it would be a good idea for a game. They continued to perfect the idea. Since then, the sport has continued to expand. “WhirlyBall is so universal, thatís the best thing about it,” says Benavides. “Iíve played with girls, Iíve played with huge, mammoth guys and Iíve played with little, scrawny guys. Everyone can play it. Anyone who just takes the time to develop their skills can play well. Youíre not born with a body that can play WhirlyBall; anyone can.”

An integral part of the play is the carórun by electricity and controlled by a handle jutting out from the floor≠board. One of the hardest aspects of the game is just learning to steer your vehicle. But thatís also half the fun. “Everyone who comes in always says that they remember riding bumper cars at the amusement park. But what they like is that itís not just bumper cars, thereís actually something that theyíre doing. They come here and it looks easy, and then when they go out there they really canít believe how much fun it is, because itís ac≠tually tough to get the hang of the car,” Benavides says.

A veritable whirl≠wind

A favorite tactic of beginning players is to use the car to ram opponents, a four point penalty in league play. With the speed of the car turned down to prevent whiplash injuries in non-league games, ramming seems to be a big part of the action. “I thinks itís fun because you can smash into people,” says Justin Ross, 10, of West Bloomfield. He has played four times and canít wait to get back. “It gets more fun each time because you know how to control the car better. Itís just an all-around fun thing to do. Iíll go anytime.” Jeff Epstein, also 10, shares the enthusiasm. “I like bumping into people, and scoring,” he says. “I like it because itís a challenge to try to score and drive at the same time.”

Besides family get-togethers and league competition, metro area businesses frequently reserve court time for employees and to entertain clients. “Itís a great entertaining tool,” says WhirlyBall West employee David Mitchell. “There are a lot of businesses entertaining here because itís a great way to keep your com≠petitive edge.”

Home team Just Kidding rallied in the final two games and won the WhirlyBall West Monday night league championship over the Untouchables, winning the final game with a last second three-point shot.

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