Several years ago, a trip to Taiwan for an Asian all-star basketball game (I was covering it, not participating) brought a unique opportunity. During practice for the obligatory slam-dunk contest, a trampoline was dragged out. I was asked if I wanted to give it a go, and being a halfway decent player chained to the floor by genetic limitations, I jumped at the chance to unleash my inner Phi Slamma Jamma.
Big mistake. On my first foray toward the hoop, I leaned forward too far, resulting in a lump on my skull, courtesy of the rim I couldn't avoid. Pretending to be unhurt, I overcompensated on the next try, falling way short of the hoop so that I had to throw the ball instead of jam it, and an awkward landing wrenched my knee. Gimpy and woozy, I was determined to throw down one dunk, a feat I'd always dismissed as simple when seeing the Phoenix Gorilla do it.
My third attempt was better—at least I got to the rim in a position to jam. But I managed to hit the back iron with the ball and the rest of the rim with my forearms—hard. I then crashed to the floor with a thud on my coccyx, thus ending my trampoline-dunking career in howling pain. I still hurt three days later when I skulked to the airport in defeat.
Memories of my brush with aerial dismemberment came flooding back while watching SlamBall, TNN's new foray into made-for-TV "sports." The game is built around jumping off trampolines and dunking while the defense is allowed all manners of battery to prevent this from happening. Needless to say, it's great fun to watch, although you couldn't get me on a SlamBall court for all the pirated DVDs in Taiwan.
The rules are simple—four-a-side teams use trampolines, ringed with safety mats, to achieve artificial mad-ups and try to score. Because the name of the game is SlamBall, dunks are worth three points, while a trampoline-aided kiss off the glass nets you only two. Old-fashioned jumpers not using the tramps are also worth three.
Violence is not only allowed on defense but encouraged, as midair collisions are the lifeblood of the game (after trash-talking). Players can get smacked around while dribbling out on the court as well—the only time a player is safe is while leaping toward the trampoline. When the rare foul is called, a "face-off" results, which involves the fouler and foulee going one-on-one, boinging simultaneously toward the hoop and settling the dispute at the rim.
Until recently, TNN was The Nashville Network. National replaced Nashville a couple of years back, and the demographic went from 10-gallon-hat-wearing country music fans to 17-year-old boys. SlamBall fits right in with the Baywatch reruns and Robot Wars episodesthat litter the new TNN lineup—it's clearly trying to lure the PlayStation crowd. The slamballers like to call it the first team extreme sport, but this is an oxymoron—kids get into skating and snowboarding because they dislike the structure and reliance on others of team sports. It's really just a video game with real injuries, as instantly compelling and instantly disposable a product as Grand Theft Auto 3.
While the producers want you to think of ESPN's X-Games (right down to hiring Pat Parnell, the lead announcer/shill, who hosted an X-Games knockoff), I was reminded more of the XFL. Actually, SlamBall is everything the XFL wanted—and failed—to be. A traditional sport has been stripped down to its most athletic and violent elements, with all-access cameras recording every move while toughs with nicknames like "The Landlord" and "Inches" growl and taunt with WWF-like aplomb. Unlike Vince McMahon's Spruce Goose, SlamBall is genuinely exciting, and at a mere 20 minutes, the games are over before the mind numbs and the all-sugar content induces hyperglycemia (though ads and filler draw the program out to an hour).
Sure, the cynic in me sees the direct line between what makes SlamBall exciting—the high-flying, nonstop assaults on the rim—and the street-ball-based, forget-about-fundamentals style that has reduced the NBA to a boring game with no ball movement, little teamwork, and shockingly bad jump-shooting. Indeed, during the championship game aired last Saturday, when the quartet known as the Diablos needed to rally, it was traditional outside shooting that brought them from a double-digit deficit to the lead.
But SlamBall is a TV show first, sport second, and Parnell cut to the essence when he fussed, after a three-pointer gave the Diablos the lead, "It's called SlamBall, fellas!!" Sure enough, the opposing foursome, the Rumble, retook control with a couple of soaring dunks in the face of defenders three feet above the rim and won the inaugural United SlamBall Unlimited title, 46-41. Style over substance may not cut it in international hoops—see Team USA's sixth place finish at the World Championships—but it's indispensable for a TV show trying to attract viewers in a crowded cable landscape.
At one point during SlamBall's obligatory slam-dunk contest, Parnell screamed about one contestant, "What, does he got nothing else to do at home but dream up stuff like this?" Fortunately, for the creators of this basketball-meets-Australian-rules-football-meets-Cirque de Soleil gumbo, the answer was no. TNN is helpfully re-airing the entire season of SlamBall, beginning Sept. 14. Put down your game controller and give it a try.