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Saturday, April 05, 2008

SlamBall Creator Mason Gordon: "We Are Bringing on Some Pretty Fantastic Coaching Minds Who We Think Are Going to Take This Thing to the Next Level.”

One reason that SlamBall Commissioner Pat Croce has enthusiastically embraced the sport is that SlamBall creator Mason Gordon is relentlessly trying to take the game to the next level in a variety of ways, from seeking out the most talented athletes to bringing in coaches from several different sports in order to increase the sophistication of SlamBall's strategies. I recently spoke with Gordon about how he created SlamBall and his vision for the sport's future:

Friedman: “How did you come up with the idea for the sport in the first place?”

Gordon: “I grew up doing three things and just about only three things and those three things were playing football, playing basketball and playing video games. So, as I got a little bit older I saw an opportunity to kind of put those three things together in a blender, hit the button and see what happens. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I went into a little warehouse in East L.A., built the first court from spare parts and it just kind of took off from there.”

Friedman: “What skills are the most important for someone to be good at SlamBall?”

Gordon: “It’s actually a very different skill set than what you find at the highest levels of basketball and football. The premium is really on ball specific skills but most importantly on body control, the ability to be able to hold body positions in the air, maneuver your body in the air and it’s a big adjustment for a lot of these guys who are used to being 35 to 40 inches off of the ground but now they are 140 inches off of the ground. Being able to maintain a semblance of body control and purpose at those elevated heights is really a unique skill and we’re going through the process now of trying to find elite athletes for the new season.”

Friedman: “When you bring in athletes from different sports—whether they are basketball players, football players or whatever their primary sport originally had been—how do they train to try to develop the body control that you need to be good at SlamBall? Are there certain exercises that they do or a certain workout program that you give them or do they just develop that body control through the process of playing SlamBall?”

Gordon: “It’s funny. We have tried out about 5000 athletes for SlamBall and almost universally there has been an adjustment period for even the most accomplished athletes that we have taken in. We use what is called progression based learning techniques to upgrade their skills. We usually take a gymnastics-style approach, teaching them very simple skills and then asking them to build on those skills and start linking those things together into more and more complex abilities. In very few cases—in fact, only three to date—we’ve had players walk into tryouts and we didn’t have to teach them a thing. They could just do it. We had a joke about one of the players that he must be an alien from a planet where they already had SlamBall. The guy just walked in and he could do everything right away; it was kind of like a native skill. That was very encouraging to us at an early stage that there were some people who were just gifted with this capacity.”

Friedman: “What background did that athlete have that enabled him to adjust to SlamBall so quickly?”

Gordon: “We don’t really know. He had played a little bit of college basketball and he was a standout multi-sport athlete in high school. He had a bit of a skateboarding background but it really wasn’t that. He just walked in and for whatever reason he had what we call the x factor; he had balance. He could really control his body and he didn’t get flustered from being 17 feet off the deck. He was very comfortable landing and crashing out into safety positions, which is something that we usually have to teach people. In basketball, when athletes take off for the rim or some kind of foray to the hoop they are immediately thinking, ‘Get back to my feet, get back to my feet.’ In SlamBall, we have to train away from that and get guys thinking that they are committing (to the air) and then they are committing to crashing out of that on to their back, their chest or their side because that is a much safer way to play SlamBall.”

Friedman: “I checked out the website and I looked at the rules. For someone who does not have a lot of familiarity with SlamBall, it looks kind of complicated to understand all of these rules and to see what is going on. For my readers or for people who don’t have any background in this and who don’t know about the sport, how would you describe in a simple way the basics of how the game is played, without all the intricacies of every particular rule and every kind of foul? Give a general sense of how the course of a game goes and what a team is trying to do on offense and what a team is trying to do on defense.”

Gordon: “The offensive team is trying to score as many points as possible by putting the ball through the basket in a variety of ways that are scored differently. The defense is trying to stop them by using the fullest extent of the contact that is allowed during the game in order to knock the ball loose and force the action the other way in an attempt to score. You have something that is very similar to the movements in basketball but it is actually even more like the movements in hockey because you are managing momentum up and down the court. Momentum is really what gives you an advantage at the rim over the defensive players. I think that people will see a lot of elements from sports that they do understand, like the hockey goalie—in SlamBall we have a position called the stopper, a guy who looks to stay back at the rim whenever possible in order to guard against easy slam dunks. That can lead to a really spectacular collision at the rim or a spectacular block or a spectacular finish. The entire game is funneled toward these fantastic midair confrontations and we’re looking to see a great proliferation of different skills this year as we bring in specialists like shooting specialists from major college (basketball) programs and enforcer-type specialists from football programs. So you will be able to watch the sport and really see who are the shooters, enforcers and high flyers. We think that there is going to be a really tremendous mix that is very engaging from the perspective of a sports fan.”

Friedman: “In basketball height is a very important asset. You can excel at basketball without being tall but then you are always working against that or working around your lack of height. With the trampolines being used in SlamBall is height particularly important or does it not make much of a difference how tall someone is?”

Gordon: “Height helps in certain situations but the great thing about the springs—as we like to call them—is that they do some really amazing things. First and foremost, they convert energy, so what you get out of the springs is what you put into them—very simple physics. We find these explosive athletes who manage to attack the springs with speed or verticality. A guy who can broad jump into the trampolines with these great strides and hit the angles just perfectly is going to get a tremendous result; you can also do that with speed, so we have had some smaller, quicker players be very, very dominant at the rim against bigger, stronger players by virtue of their athleticism and quickness.”

Friedman: “From what you are describing, power, speed and athleticism are essential traits for SlamBall players but in terms of having a winning team how much is based just on assembling the best, most explosive athletes and how much is based on a strategic component? If you follow what I write at 20 Second Timeout then you know that I really emphasize the strategic aspect of basketball. There are some deep, underlying strategies in the NBA; it is not just a bunch of talented athletes running up and down the court. How much of a strategic aspect is there to SlamBall?”

Gordon: “I would invite every one of your readers to take a really hard look at SlamBall as we debut on television again this year. There is a tremendous strategic development going on. Not to give you a long answer but to give you an example (of the differences between basketball and SlamBall): you cannot play defense in SlamBall the way that you do in basketball. It is completely futile to get down into a defensive position and slide your feet because of the speed of the game. You have to actually play defense in SlamBall very much like a defensive back does in football. You have to be in a crouched, explosive position, you have to open up to the ball, you have to follow pursuit angles and you have to make contact when necessary to jar the ball loose and get your teammates going the other way. In terms of team defense, you have to force the ballhandlers to the outside of the court and deny the middle part of the court because that is where the offensive players have the greatest advantage and the largest variety of ways to score. Offensive players need to have that Barry Sanders-Allen Iverson skittish kind of way of sliding through the defense--and full contact defense at that--in order to break through where the defense is trying to funnel you and thus gain an advantage. So, there is quite a bit going on strategically and it is evolving very, very rapidly. We are bringing on some pretty fantastic coaching minds who we think are going to take this thing to the next level.”

Friedman: “It sounds like what you are saying is that to develop someone into a good SlamBall player and then to assemble those players into a good SlamBall team is a two step process. First you have to get the athletes acclimated to the different kind of physical movements in the sport and then after they are acclimated to that aspect then you have to train them about how to apply those skills in the proper way from a strategic standpoint, such as keeping the other team away from the middle of the court and so forth. Would that be an accurate paraphrase or description?”

Gordon: “I think so. Some of the emerging strategies to look for this year include a midair pick and roll that we have developed that is pretty spectacular and some plays that are referred to as up and under plays or up and over plays that are two and three man plays that require a series of alley oops that are very intricately timed. There are secondary options and shot options based off of that, so it is really quite an impressive marriage involving the blending of basketball skills with football skills where you find ways to integrate core strategies from each sport. Then the other piece of it that I think is the most interesting is the psychological element of these athletes, the idea that they are bringing courage, fearlessness, coachability and professionalism to the table. We are finding a great number of very, very high caliber players who I think will represent this game very effectively on to the next level.”

Friedman: “Since this is a relatively new sport would I be correct to assume that most of the coaches you are developing are people who have played the sport and literally learned the strategies on the fly? There have not been decades and decades to develop coaching theory like basketball has; the theory is kind of developing out of practice. Would that be correct?”

Gordon: “We have players in our pipeline who are looking to become coaches and we certainly are trying to accommodate those transitions but we are also reaching out into multidisciplinary backgrounds, specifically basketball and football types but also rugby coaches—people who can come into the sport and hopefully bring some outside the box thinking and really help lay the groundwork for what we think are going to be very complex strategies.”

Friedman: “How can people watch the games on TV or go see the games in person?”

Gordon: “We are actually in the final stages of putting together our broadcast deal. Hopefully by the time you go to press with this we will be able to give you an answer about that.”

Friedman: “Is there anything that you would like to say about SlamBall that has not been covered in the questions that I asked?”

Gordon: “The sport seems to have touched a real nerve with a generation that grew up with video games and the idea of jumping higher and hitting harder. I think that it is the perfect kind of sport to bridge from the end of the NBA season to the beginning of the NFL season. I think that it is something that people can really get excited about during the summer and find a team whose style of play that they like; I think that they will see very disparate styles of play from the various teams and I think that they will find stars who they really can identify with.”

For more information about SlamBall, check out the official website.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:29 PM

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