On Wednesday night, in a midtown Manhattan warehouse, a modified 40-foot basketball court has been set up in the middle of what would otherwise make for a lively club atmosphere. Strobe lights swivel across the floor, a fog machine blasts a thin layer of mist into the air, and a resident DJ blasts rap to which people sporadically sway. A set of bleachers lines one side of the court with benches and scoring tables in front, but the other three sides are completely naked, waiting for the crowd to gather. Everything in the warehouse is black and white with minimalistic design, including the court, which has no lines of any kind save for one; a thick white stripe across the center of the black floor. The only other marking on the court is one word in the far corner: FIGHTBALL.
Despite the name, there is no sanctioned fighting in Fightball, a physically taxing eight minute one-on-one basketball competition with relaxed foul rules. Fightball isn't so much a new sport as it is a modified version of basketball that features what every old person thinks is wrong with today's youth: a short attention span, individual flare, and an insatiable appetite for highlights to the point where the game is nothing but highlights.
This was Fightball's first major event, in which eight players—including former New York Knick Chris Smith, brother of J.R., and several former NCAA players—faced off in a single elimination tournament for a first prize of $10,000. Warehouse aside, the setting was unlike what you'd find at any basketball arena, unabashedly flaunting the combination of club and court, a tension with which NBA owners have been wrestling for some time.
In September, former Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson sold the team after he self-reported some racially charged emails relating to the gameday atmosphere. Levenson clumsily rambled about the demographics of Hawks home games and lamented the amount of rap being played. He wrote he wanted music "familiar to a 40 year old white guy if that's our season tixs demo." While abhorrently stated, Levenson touched on a broad trend in North American professional sports, where the affluent luxury box and season ticket holders are the team's main focus, not necessarily the passionate fan.
Fightball has no such qualms. Fans sit in temporary bleachers or stand next to the court. The music is loud and vulgar because music is often loud and vulgar. The players are allowed to scream and swear at each other and the referee, which, of course, everyone can hear. There are no technical fouls. Foul shots aren't really foul shots. The non-shooter can get as close to the shooter as he wants and say whatever insults he pleases as long as he doesn't interfere with the shot. Even then, the word "interfere" is interpreted loosely, which makes a foul shot a meaningless distinction from a regular one.
Photo via #FIGHTBALL/Dot Hong
The first matchup between Marvin Roberts from Bed Stuy—who had the unfortunate nickname of "Child Abuser"—and Mike Keyes from Philadelphia featured approximately 30 seconds of up-and-down action before both players were sucking wind. To be fair to the players, Fightball is not easy: an eight second shot clock during one-on-one with relaxed foul rules requires intense physical exertion. Despite the freezing outside air coming in through an open door, Roberts was dripping with sweat within a few minutes. To compensate for the exhaustion, both took and allowed many uncontested jumpers. The MC, Joe Pope, who served a role similar to an antagonistic video game commentator, heckled players for looking exhausted or taking too many jump shots: "This is Fightball, not Jumper Ball."
In the second game, Allan Sheppard took a hard foul and remained down on the court, appearing to have suffered a head injury. Two medics rushed over and treated him, although he ultimately stayed in the game. Fans shouted all sorts of taunts at the injured Sheppard, even while he lay on the court mere feet away. "Get up you pussy!" "Take them panties off before getting back on the court!" Even the MC went in on Sheppard while he was down, repeating one of his favorite refrains, "This is Fightball. This is Fightball," which was ironic because nobody really knows what Fightball is.
Mike Tuitt, who played college ball at Hampton University, won the $10,000 grand prize and told me he planned to use the money for Christmas presents. Jonas Hallberg, Fightball's co-founder, hopes to raise the stakes soon. "The goal is to allow some of these players to make a living playing Fightball," which may or may not have been a nod to several of the evening's competitors recently wrapping up their NCAA careers.
If Fightball can become an attractive option to the echelon of college players not good enough for the NBA but better than everyone else, then the sport has a future. But finding the answer to that is a long way off; this was just the first night. "It was fun," Hallberg said with a smile, which, for now, is all that matters.