Give it a Whirl

  • Bob Mortenson<br>For the Enterprise
  • Thursday, February 28, 2008 6:18am

Some call it a gas, but it’s really electric.

And if you try it, you’ll like it — at least that’s the promise from Bernie Tiffany, who manages WhirlyBall of Washington in Edmonds.

What is WhirlyBall, you ask?

Billed as the world’s only mechanized team sport, WhirlyBall is a fast-paced five-on-five game that combines elements of basketball, hockey, lacrosse and jai-lai — all while operating a bumper car known as a “whirlybug.”

Stan Mangum, who owned a brake shop in Utah, invented WhirlyBall in 1979. Observing his son trying to hit a tin can from a golf cart caused Mangum to conjure up visions of mechanized hockey.

Quickly realizing that hockey required extensive equipment, he switched gears and came up with WhirlyBall.

The game is played on a 24-volt electric floor that measures 44 feet wide and 80 feet long. At each end of the floor is a backboard, similar to the type used in basketball. In the center of each backboard is a round hole 15 inches in diameter.

The object of the game is to score points by propelling a perforated plastic ball through the hole using a hand-held plastic scoop. Each backboard is outfitted with a loud buzzer and two lights, which are activated when the ball strikes the net behind the hole.

A goal is awarded when that happens, with the number of points ranging from two to five depending on the length of the shot.

In addition to shooting, the all-important scoop is used to pass and to grab the ball off the floor. When the ball hits the ground, players whirl about in their cars and attempt to regain possession by positioning themselves to retrieve the ball with their scoops.

Sounds easy enough, right?

Of course, there is the distinct likelihood that while scooping, passing or shooting, a player’s car will be nudged, bumped or just plain rammed by an opponent.

As one might expect, the results are unpredictable.

“When players are yelling, screaming and hollering, it’s just a gas,” Tiffany said.

There are about 24 WhirlyBall centers in the United States and Canada. WhirlyBall courts can be found in major cities, including Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas and Toronto. There are also courts in smaller cities such as West Bloomington, Mich., Virginia Beach, Va., and Edmonds.

“Without a doubt, it’s growing,” Tiffany said of the unusual sport.

A national championship tournament is held annually at rotating sites. Players from the Edmonds center have dominated by winning 15 consecutive titles.

At Edmonds there are two courts. The center has leagues for beginners, intermediate and advanced players. The leagues run in three 12-week seasons and Tiffany estimates about 150 players participate per season. League games, which usually are held two nights a week, consist of two 15-minute halves.

Otherwise the center is available from noon to midnight for open play, parties or corporate groups.

Ten people can play for one hour at a cost of $145. The center is busiest in the winter months, but even in the summer groups of students from all around the world cycle through by the busload.

A group of Microsoft workers gathered for a round-robin team-building function last Thursday. Some of the employees hailed from the United States, but most came from an international cross-section of countries, including China, France, Germany, Greece, Japan, South Korea, Russia and Spain. For many, this was their first WhirlyBall experience.

“This is very non-traditional,” Viggo Forde of Everett said. “We’re always looking for something a little different than what they would experience in their own countries.”

Prior to starting the games, Tiffany gathered the players on the floor and drew plenty of laughs as he provided a quick rundown of the rules.

“The most important part of the game is your seatbelt,” Tiffany said. “And you must have one cheek on the seat at all times.”

Otherwise it’s simple: “Score more points than your opponent.”

Goals made from within 20 feet count as two points. Shots beyond that to the midcourt line are good for three. Shots converted from past mid-court are worth five points.

Rules infractions, such as concealing the ball or standing up in your whirlybug, result in additional points being awarded to your opponent.

The whirlybug does not have a steering wheel. Players must use one hand to grasp a cylindrical handle that rotates 360 degrees and allows the car to do likewise. Players are advised to not let go of the steering handle, otherwise it can spin freely and strike the driver in the legs, sides or elsewhere.

When the game started, members of the Microsoft group demonstrated they were quick learners. In short order many were passing and controlling their cars like seasoned veterans. Players passed unselfishly and called out enthusiastically for the ball when they sprang open.

After the first game, Kyle Martin of Charlotte, N.C., insisted the passing and catching aspect was not difficult. “The hardest parts are avoiding getting stuck and making the dang goal,” he said.

“It’s neat to see what aspects of people’s personalities come out when it’s not just mental, but physical too,” said Carrie Landry of Kirkland, who played and coordinated the outing.

A big part of WhirlyBall’s appeal is that people of all ages and athletic abilities can play. A sign on the wall says the game is open to people ages 8 to 80.

“The car is the equalizer,” Tiffany said.

As one might expect, children — especially teenagers — are fast learners and quickly become adept at operating the whirlybug and wielding the scoop.

For younger kids, Tiffany has a special recipe for fun.

“We just throw a bunch of balls out on the court,” Tiffany said with a laugh. “They could care less if they win or lose as long as they get about 50 shots and the chance to bump into each other.”

Bob Mortenson is a writer for The Herald in Everett.

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