Have you ever wanted to create something? More specifically, have you ever wanted to create a sport? Former NBAer and Olympic gold medalist Tom LaGarde did just that. LaGarde’s invention was mostly out of necessity and partly because he had an under-utilized artistic streak.
Let’s back track.
It was the 90s. Everyone was on blades in New York City – and anywhere there was pavement for that matter. LaGarde’s injury-riddled knees wouldn’t allow him to run. Instead, he in-line skated – a lot. And he often skated by pick-up basketball games.
At some point, he had a eureka moment: Basketball on rollerblades – roller basketball – why not?
Solo, LaGarde starts shooting around on blades. LaGarde starts searching for teammates, and he places an ad in an in-line skating publication asking for people to join “the world’s first-ever roller basketball team.” Just one person answers – but he’s a special person. Altitude Lou, a seasoned stunt skater, who grew up playing ball on the Lower East Side with ex-NBAer Jayson Williams.
For fun, Altitude leaps over taxi cabs in his blades. Altitude is the perfect sparring partner for LaGarde. In Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, Altitude and LaGarde wage fierce, full-court, one on one battles. They go hard. Eventually, more free-thinking skaters join, forming an eclectic mix, including every shade of color, all genders, the well-employed, the unemployable, the athletic, the unusual and the just plane weird.
There’s Al, the subway conductor from Ghana. By way of Connecticut, TK played semi-pro ball in Europe. A street kid is known as simply “Jordan.” No one knows his real name. Spinner, the most diehard roller baller, the man with the handle bar mustache, makes sure that the action does not hit a lull. “We’re burning daylight!” Spinner blares at some point every practice. LaGarde calls this nascent community NIBBL – the National Inline Basketball League. So what if the league is only in New York City – it has tremendous growth potential!
Eventually, LaGarde, the former University of North Carolina all-American, goes mad scientist, coming up with roller basketball specific rules: Four man teams, no inbounding after a conversion and one free-throw instead of two. As far as travelling, players can roll for five seconds without dribbling. Roller basketball could be awkward to watch and play at times, but it worked, ah, most of the time. I know.
I played for about four years, led the league in stitches courtesy of a few flailing elbows. Ultimately, hundreds of players played LaGarde’s sport, including the late Chicago Bull Brian Williams, who scrimmaged a few times. Sadly, roller basketball never became more than a fringe activity.
Roller basketball lasted for about five or so years in NYC. After 9/11, LaGarde and Spinner moved out of town, and I gather that street kids like “Jordan” went back to playing conventional street ball. Sadly, I don’t know what ever became of Altitude, who once dyed his hair green, despite the fact that we wore helmets. I’m sure Altitude’s still in the city, but I doubt that he’s blading. No one blades any more.
But roller basketball never died completely.
It inspired other hybrid sports such roller soccer, which got its start in San Francisco. Yes, it’s as painful as it sounds. It’s just tough to kick and roll at the same time. And thanks to the internet, roller basketball caught on in Europe and the Middle East. I have actually seen roller basketball players in turbans. No, they weren’t photo shopped. While roller basketball is extinct in its birth place, NYC, roller basketball lives on overseas.