Monday, March 27, 2023 Mar 27, 2023
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In Hurst, a Family Built Around Whirlyball

Maybe you’ve played the sport at a kid’s birthday party or during a corporate retreat. But for these men and women, it’s more than a hobby.
By Paul McDonnold |
People playing whirlyball in Hurst.
Dozens of players flew into Dallas for the 2023 whirlyball championships last month. Whirlyball - History Captured Facebook page

A winter sun shines on Hurst as the athletes begin arriving, their faces relaxed but determined. It’s the annual national invitational tournament, and they’re here from across the country, like old west gunslingers come to match their skills against the best around. After two days, many have already been knocked from the competition, sometimes literally. Most stay around to watch, sporting bruises like small trophies.

The air smells of beer and nacho cheese. Spectator conversation is punctuated by shouts and the shrill buzz of a scoreboard clock. If you listen closely, you’ll hear the flat hum of whirlybugs in motion.

Welcome to the world of elite whirlyball.

Maybe you’ve tried the game—a combination of basketball and lacrosse played from bumper cars—at a teenager’s birthday party or corporate team building event, where silliness and incompetence reign. But you still don’t know whirlyball.

“If anyone doubts it’s a sport, come on out,” says Clint Fisher, a longtime player from Michigan and something of a historian of the pastime. “Give me five minutes out there. It’s a very competitive thing.” While pointing out that “all shapes and sizes” play, he adds that it can get physical. “That car weighs about 240 pounds, and you’re using your whole body to manipulate it.”

Stephen Swanson co-owns and operates the Hurst facility (there’s another in Plano), and is a member of the Texas traveling team. He discovered whirlyball while still at Plano East High School. Austin Carter, his one-time teammate on the Panther football team, is the current president of the National Players Association. It’s a common theme, I find, ex-school-athletes who happened across whirlyball and invested it with their competitive natures.

Lately Swanson and Carter have been raising the prominence of Texas in the sport. 

“Texas has become the new place (for whirlyball),” Fisher says. Sam Kim, a prominent player from Michigan for whom this year’s tournament is named, agrees.  “Texas is on the cusp, right now, of being in the top tier.”

“The Texas guys are usually the loudest,” Fisher adds.

Though the sport originated in Utah in the 1960s, and has the most centers in the Midwest, Seattle’s team is the New York Yankees, whirlyball’s evil empire. That would make James Gill its Aaron Judge, the one people point to and say: “That’s the king.” In the last 34 years, he’s helped Seattle to 29 national championships.

Looking at Gill will tell you something about what whirlyball requires, and what it doesn’t. He’s tall with long arms, middle-aged and heavy-set. When not in use, his glasses straddle the top of his head like a professor. Driving a whirlybug, your vertical leap or 40-yard dash time couldn’t be more irrelevant. Hand-eye coordination rules. Experience is also crucial.

“Nobody’s just walked onto a court and been God’s gift to whirlyball,” says Kim. 

At this level, whirlyball is definitely a guy thing. But not 100 percent. While there’s no separate female division, Christi Finken Schmidt is among the players at Hurst. An ex-soccer-athlete, she plays on A-level teams, and is the only woman in the Hall of Fame (Yes, there is one. Inductees are voted in by existing members.).

There’s no money in whirlyball. Players travel to national events on their own dime, and the locations rotate from year to year. The 3-day competition at Hurst was the 2023 invitational, taking place from January 21 to 23. Unlike at the national championships, the teams are geographically mixed. This made for a slightly less competitive scene. When it’s over, smiles break out and a group picture of all the players hits social media. That’s when the sport’s true gravity—the thing that has pulled all these people into its orbit—appears. It’s not totally about competition.

“It’s my guy’s night out,” Carter tells me when asked about his passion for playing whirlyball. It’s a sentiment I hear echoed over and over.

“I’m not even playing in this tournament,” Gill says. “But I’m here because of what we do after whirlyball. We go out to dinner, hang out. We’ll sit in the hotel until all hours of the night telling old stories.”

“I‘ve made the best friends I’ve ever had in my life in whirlyball,” says Kim. “They’re like family. We’re a big family.”

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