.Fast Break

Can the Berkeley Revolution unicycle basketball team beat a Puerto Rican team that's won twelve of the last fourteen world championships?

To learn to ride a unicycle without falling, get two friends to stand on either side of you, and wrap your arms around their shoulders. Sit up straight, look forward, and rest all your weight on the seat. Pedal a half-turn and stop, then a full turn, and then two turns. Once you feel you are in control, switch to holding onto your friends’ wrists, then one friend’s wrist, and then a wall. Finally, and God willing, you’re ready for the open road — or perhaps the basketball court.

Learning to unicycle is 90 percent perspiration, 8 percent body control, and 2 percent brain, says John “the Uni-Cyclone” Foss, who helped pioneer the sport of mountain unicycling, or MUni, in the early 1980s. “It’s a fun sport that teaches you you can do the impossible,” he said. “People who like to do hard stuff are very interested in unicycling.” Among the myriad challenges available to contemporary unicyclists — hockey, track and field, artistic freestyle, road racing, mountain unicycling, and “street” style included — the strangest must be unicycle basketball. The sport is an unexpected, unnatural collision of concepts that can be difficult to visualize without actually witnessing it, but it works. It can be as beautiful as a choreographed ballet one moment and as frenzied as a youth soccer game the next, but it’s always interesting.

Unicycle basketball has been contested on an international scale since at least the late 1960s and its origins extend decades further. Today it’s a slowly but steadily growing sport that figures as a central event at Unicon, the biennial unicycle world championships and convention.

At this December’s Unicon XV in Wellington, New Zealand, one of the favorites — or at least a promising dark horse — will arrive from our own backyard. The Berkeley Revolution, a relatively nascent team with almost no experience against other formal squads (the closest one is in Phoenix), has nonetheless maintained a steady practice schedule since 2003. It now places itself among the top active teams in the world.

“If you play every week, you’re gonna get good,” agreed Foss, who is familiar with the Berkeley team but has no affiliation with it. The Revolution’s weekly practices at Strawberry Creek Park bear this out. But how good are they? And can they give the Puerto Ricans, unicycle basketball titans who have won twelve of the last fourteen world championships, a run for their money?

The Berkeley team’s roots lie, of all places, in the colder climes of Michigan. Marcus Hertlein was living in Ann Arbor in the mid 1990s when, encouraged by friends from a juggling club, he began to dabble in unicycling. He could ride only five or six feet without falling when Sem Abrahams, whose Semcycle brand is today a leading name in unicycle performance and sales, convinced him to try unicycle basketball.

Hertlein found that playing basketball on his unicycle led to drastic improvements in his riding, as the mind tends to focus on the game while pedaling becomes passive and second-nature. “It was incredibly fun,” said Hertlein. “Every time I went, I improved incredibly, much more than I had previously.” He was hooked.

About four years later, a job at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab brought Hertlein to the East Bay. It didn’t take long for him to seek out like-minded folks, and he found them at the Berkeley Juggling Club. There he met Tom Holub, who picked up unicycling in 2000 for practical reasons — he worked at UC Berkeley and needed a way to get around campus. Walking was too slow, bikes too complicated, and scooters good only for downhill. It was three months before he could realistically use a uni and a year before he deemed himself proficient. By then he, too, was hooked.

Holub, a lifetime basketball fan, took quickly to Hertlein’s idea of starting up a unicycle basketball squad in Berkeley. But few others shared his enthusiasm, and the pair had a hard time finding more than one or two other riders to show up for Tuesday night practices. “In the early days it was pretty informal and very small,” said Holub. “There were times were I said, ‘Oh, this just isn’t worth it.'” But two years later, in 2003, the sport began to gain momentum in Berkeley. Soon Hertlein, Holub, and a growing number of unicyclists were playing regular three-on-three and four-on-four games.

Over time, the players’ skill levels improved immensely. Yet continuity was hard to come by. They didn’t consider themselves a team so much as an assemblage of unicyclists who practiced when they could. Attendance varied sharply as players graduated from Cal or left the area for other reasons and newcomers drifted in and out. Finally, in 2007, the team concept coalesced when a few regular players began to plan a date with Unicon XV two and a half years down the line. Today, with the New Zealand championships right around the corner, the team’s foresight appears to have paid off. “In terms of the individual skills that we have,” Holub said, “I don’t think that there’s a team out there outside of the Puerto Ricans who can top us.”

Fog is rolling in thick over Strawberry Creek Park in West Berkeley. Darkness is falling, and the gathering bay breeze shows no signs of backing down. The park is empty save for a few stray dog walkers — and, at the south end, a sweaty band of six men and one woman playing full-court unicycle basketball on an outdoor court under timed lights. The sight is nothing if not surreal.

But the more you watch, the more it comes into focus. These guys can play. Jim Sowers, the oldest person on the court at 47, parks his unicycle at the top of the key and, before his defender can adjust, deftly sinks a three-pointer. Five minutes later he does it again. He’s also a highly physical player under the hoop, and has made it his mission to acclimate his teammates to the aggressive play of the Puerto Ricans. They’ve been known to grab opponents’ jerseys or attempt to knock them from their cycles — which refs tend to let slide — and Sowers worries this will throw the Revolution off its game.

A lifelong fan of the sport who grew up “in a basketball town in a basketball state,” Sowers has become the team’s unofficial coach and helped to teach plays, drills, and fundamentals to his teammates. Along with Adam Politzer and captain Lance Thornton, Sowers led the charge to derive a bona fide team of five to seven from the pool of fifteen to twenty players who attend the weekly practice sessions. Together, the three of them came up with the Revolution’s team name, concept, and logo.

Thornton, the perfect captain, plays a John Stockton-like role on the court. He distributes the ball evenly and unselfishly from outside the key, attracts defenders then dishes to open teammates, and drives to the hoop for easy layups when a lane opens. He got his first unicycle as a gift from his parents at age eighteen. At the time he lived in rural Mississippi, hardly a haven for quirky behavior, and didn’t start riding in earnest until he moved to Berkeley in 2000 and hooked up with the juggling club.

Politzer is more of a Horace Grant, a utility man with a quiet temperament. He’s versatile, well-rounded, reliable — the sort of guy you want on your team. He’s not afraid of contact, and his unicycling skills allow him to reverse under the basket for a better angle on a rebound, drop to the baseline and back-door a defender for a shot at the hoop, and apply enough defensive pressure to force a turnover. He picked up unicycling and unicycle basketball at the same time two and a half years ago and quickly became a core member of the Berkeley team.

The scrimmages, typically played by ones to seven or eleven, look and feel much like a traditional basketball game — except that movements are accompanied by whirring wheels and pedals. There are in-bounds plays, quick passes, weaves, picks, screens, give-and-go’s, drives, high-speed fast breaks, zone and man-on-man defense, steals, blocks. Players must call their own fouls. The Berkeley team’s shooting percentage from the field is impressive — sometimes as high as 50 percent — mainly because their shot selection is smart.

A well-executed play can be a gorgeous thing to witness. Consider the one that ended one of tonight’s games: Rolling across the top of the key, Sowers made a quick pass inside to Thornton, who accelerated past his defender, drove to the hoop, and kissed the ball off the glass and through the net. Moments like these make unicycle basketball a more fluid, visually pleasing game than its traditional counterpart.

Even on this dark, cool weekday night in mid-August, a few spectators have stumbled across the game and stayed to gawk, as they often do. “We thought we were going for a walk, but we’ve been standing here ten minutes, watching,” said Evan Pyke of Santa Clara. He and two friends found themselves transfixed twenty feet from the court.

“We are amazed and dumbfounded,” said Bronwen Stanford of Berkeley, wide-eyed. “It’s very impressive. … I was kinda confused that they’d be doing these two things at once.” After a bit more thought, she added, “Wow. I’d like to do that.” Practices are open to the public and unicyclists of all stripes, but any novice player who witnesses a couple minutes of the Revolution’s current scrimmages is likely to be scared from trying. This will change, the team promises, once the championships are over.

Even to the casual observer, play is physically demanding, punctuated by a constant stream of oofs, aahhs, and ughs. Sometimes it’s carnage under the hoop, with arms flailing, knees spinning, unicycles clattering and clanging against one another and crashing to the court like metal dominoes. Players who fall off their uni must scurry out of the way as quickly as possible, because if the ball touches them while they’re down it’s a turnover.

Injuries are frequent, from the garden-variety bashing of shins against pedals and the bumps and bruises of multiplayer collisions to less-forgiving incidents like riding into a pole or falling wrong. There are turned ankles, tweaked wrists, banged elbows and knees. Politzer sustained the worst injury by breaking his wrist after a fall two years ago; he was off the court for three months. The uniform of shorts, T-shirts, and tennis shoes is augmented as each player sees fit with shin guards, knee pads, elbow pads, and even the odd helmet.

Two and a half hours of this is more than just sport. It’s a serious workout that requires considerable stamina and strength. Regular riders may see a transformation in their legs and core; in Sowers’ case, he says, his entire body. Even when they’re tired, they keep playing. And after that, when 10 p.m. has rolled around and they’re exhausted and dripping with sweat, it is tradition for anyone on the team who is available to convene for snacks and refreshment at nearby Lanesplitter Pub. It seems that no amount of pizza or beer can put a dent in the conditioning unicycle basketball affords.

Among the many questions often asked of unicycle basketball players — How long has this existed? Does it hurt when you fall? Are you in the circus? — perhaps the most common is also the most pragmatic: What are the rules? The answer may come as a surprise, if only for its simplicity. Unicycle basketball follows standard Olympic basketball guidelines, with a few minor tweaks.

The modifications fill only half a page in the International Unicycling Federation official rulebook: 1) A player off his or her unicycle is considered off-side; 2) the player in-bounding the ball may have only one foot on the ground; 3) a player who receives the ball while progressing can make three idles (an idle is one half-turn forward and one half-turn backward to maintain balance) before dribbling or throwing; 4) contacting the ball with the unicycle is a nonfoul violation; and 5) the standard three-second rule is adjusted to four seconds.

These are the rules that will steer the play of the 25 or so teams expected to compete in Unicon XV’s round-robin knockout-style tournament. Puerto Rico (which is sponsored by Walgreen’s this year), Switzerland (the only other team to win at Unicon since 1994), Germany, and Berkeley will likely field the top teams, but the football axiom of “any given Sunday” applies to unicycle basketball, too.

At this summer’s national championships in Minnesota, captain Thornton had a chance to scout some of the Revolution’s competition. Twenty-two teams from cities across the United States competed, including ten that formed on the spot. Of those 22, about fifteen had a low skill level. Puerto Rico didn’t field its A-team, but it did send two second-rate teams and two highly skilled players, one of whom could leap off his pedals for a slam dunk. Thornton, the only player from Berkeley to attend, landed on a team from Rochester, New York, that lost 42-10 to the tougher Puerto Rico squad in the semifinals. An experienced team from Minnesota — likely Berkeley’s only continental competition — ended up taking first place.

Unicon XV, the first unicycle world championships to be held in the Southern Hemisphere, will feature more than twenty events. These fall into the broader categories of track and field (the most popular), mountain unicycling, road racing, freestyle, hockey, and basketball. In addition to the competition, the eleven-day gathering straddling New Year’s Day also features workshops, casual rides, and social activities. Ken Looi, chairman of the convention’s organizing committee, expects about 700 competitors in all. “It’s an amateur sport, so apart from shiny medals and bragging rights, there is no monetary gain from any of this,” he wrote in an e-mail. “People compete because they are passionate about unicycling.”

Eight members of the Berkeley squad, plus a 17-year-old MUni champion from Los Gatos who recently committed to practicing with the Revolution, plan on attending Unicon. A couple key players will be missing, and by the time the tournament rolls around the team will likely still be entirely untested. Refined basketball skills are the remaining weak link, and over the next three months the team plans on squeezing twice as much practice time into every week and devoting more time to plays and drills. Toward that end, the team is also hoping to find a volunteer coach, possibly from a local high school or community college, who could guide their progress from the sidelines.

It all adds up to a challenge, complicated by the fact that the trip won’t be cheap. Airfare to New Zealand typically runs about $1,600; multiply by nine and you get nearly $15,000 for the team. Add the $600 they’ll need for uniforms and it’s easy to see why the Revolution is in the market for a sponsorship or two of its own. Still, there’s no reason not to go for it. As Sowers constantly reminds his teammates, “This is our only chance to be world champions.”


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