From the desk of Jon Hart: Basketball on Wheels

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Jon Hart has written for the New York Times and an array of outlets that have sadly bitten the dust. He graduated first in his class from mascot school. Then again, he was the only person in his graduating class. As a U.S. Open ball boy, he was runner-up for rookie of the year. He has never been to the Olympics in any capacity, but he has done the Macarena with an Olympic gold medalist. He lives in New York City, which he hopes will not be held against him. He is author of Man versus Ball: One Ordinary Guy and His Extraordinary Sports Adventures.

Basketball on Wheels

I never won an NBA championship, but I played with two guys that did.

I accomplished this despite the fact that I didn’t really know how to actually play basketball. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s backtrack. I was a reporter chasing a story. Sound familiar? Anyway, I got a tip that some guys were doing something very unfamiliar. They were playing basketball on skates, blades to be exact. I tracked down Tom LaGarde, rollerbasketball’s creator, and we set up a breakfast meeting. LaGarde, who had won a title with the Seattle Supersonics, picked up the tab, and convinced me to show up for a rollerbasketball scrimmage. LaGarde was used to recruiting players in all sorts of unorthodox ways. He got his very first player, “Air” Louie, a man who often leapt over taxi cabs on his skates, by placing an ad in a skating magazine. In the earliest days of rollerbasketball, Louie and LaGarde would stage fierce, full-court one on one battles in Tompkins Square Park in New York City’s East Village. During our meeting, I had informed LaGarde that I wasn’t much of a hoops player but that I could skate. Actually, I had practically grown up on skates. I scrimmaged and didn’t make a total clown of myself, though that is often my first inclination. I graduated from mascot school, first in my class. I don’t like to brag, but if I don’t say it, no one else will. After a few months of scrimmaging, LaGarde taught me how to properly shoot a ball. Prior, I had been shooting it like a slingshot. I kept playing.

I was on a roll. Eventually, I played in front of thousands of people, mostly confused but impressed tourists. I’m not complaining. An audience is an audience. I played at half-time of a Knicks summer league game at Nassau Coliseum. I never led NIBBL (the National Inline Basketball League) in scoring or assists, but I did lead the league in league in trips to the emergency room–two trips. I had an unfortunate habit of catching errant elbows as I crashed the boards.

At one point, I also got to play with the late Brian Williams, who won a title with the Chicago Bulls. Brian was a monster on the court and a true gentleman off it. LaGarde did his best to make rollerbasketball a truly unique animal, with fun innovations. There was no in-bounding after a made shot. There was a four point shot. Instead of two foul shots, there was one. Instead of five players per side, there were four. It was a lot of fun, and the sport eventually caught on in Europe and the Middle East. However, rollerbasketball didn’t stand the test of time in New York. When it was played well, rollerbasketball was akin to a hockey game. When it was bad, it looked like a very bad roller derby contest. My rollerbasketball careeer lasted about three years. During which, I won one championship–and I did do an interview on national television–with my head wrapped in bandages.

Eventually, I put my skates away in a closet where they are now.

Perhaps it was for the best. I stopped rolling and started writing.

LaGarde’s creativity inspired me to look at things with a different perspective. I write more extensively about rollerbasketball and my other sports exploits, including roller soccer, in my book. Roller soccer? Yeah, it exists, and it’s alive and well, and, well, it hurts like hell. But you probably already figured that out.

Jon Hart