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Reach for the sky: SlamBall’s back

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In SlamBall, spring beds elevate players like George Byrd (left) and Kevin Cassidy (right) to inhuman heights (Photo by Patrick Ecclesine)

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In SlamBall, spring beds elevate players like Dion Bailey to inhuman heights (Photo by Patrick Ecclesine)

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In SlamBall, spring beds elevate players like Chris Robbins (left) and George Byrd (right) to inhuman heights (Photo by Patrick Ecclesine)

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In SlamBall, spring beds elevate players like Chris Young (right) to inhuman heights (Photo by Patrick Ecclesine)

When Damien Speranza watched his first SlamBall game on television in his dorm room in 2002, he could barely contain his excitement. Ecstatically, he jumped up and down on his bed, blown away by the game’s demonstration of athleticism. For Speranza, then a basketball player at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, who at barely six feet tall had never been able to dunk, it was clear that SlamBall could take him to a new level. Literally.

In this full-contact sport, players use trampolines to propel themselves up to 15 feet in the air--and to score spectacular dunks. Speranza eagerly applied for the SlamBall league’s 2003 tryouts but had to bow out after he injured his ankle. Then, to his dismay, the league dissolved after its second season because of a disagreement between SlamBall creator Mason Gordon and partner Warner Bros. Television.

But Speranza and hundreds of other SlamBall fans across the country are getting another chance. Five years after the league disappeared, Gordon is resurrecting the extreme sport. Tryouts were held in April in preparation for an initial season to be taped in June. In Los Angeles, Brooklyn, and Bradenton, Fla., newcomers like Speranza competed with 45 returning players for 64 spots in the eight-team league.

In a draft of prospective players that concluded April 26, Speranza made the cut: He was chosen in the eighth and final round to join a team to be called the Rousties.

Now preseason training is underway while Gordon tries to sell eight professional franchises to major cities throughout the country.

“If the state of our negotiations continues at this level, what we are looking at is a professional league starting around this time of next year,” Gordon said. “I think the ubiquitous appeal of the slam dunk will translate the game worldwide.”

SlamBall is a hybrid sport that includes physical elements of basketball, football, hockey and gymnastics. Played on a shock-absorbing spring floor about the size of a basketball court, a set of four trampoline quads is located under each basket. A plexi-glass wall, as in a hockey rink, surrounds the court.

In the trampoline “slamzones,” players reach for the heights to score 3-point dunks (any regular basket is worth two points). Defending “stoppers” try to prevent the dunks by colliding with the attackers in midair. Players wear helmets, padded undergarments and knee and elbow pads, and full-body contact is allowed any time except when a player first receives a pass and has not yet begun dribbling. Each 20-minute match (the right length for a half-hour TV program) is played by four players on each team.

“You can’t have fear playing this sport,” said Speranza, 25, who was one of eight athletes in Brooklyn to be invited to a final tryout camp at the IMG Academies in Bradenton. “There is no other sport where you have physical contact 14 feet in the air.”

Speranza prepared for the tryouts by practicing choreographed dunks on a trampoline at a Brooklyn gym. “When you come off these trampolines you feel like you are floating,” he said. “For little people to be above the rim is a new feeling.”

SlamBall players come from a variety of sports backgrounds. Jeff Morgan, who was also invited to Florida, played semi-pro football in Canada and has no basketball experience. “You have to be very agile, have a great balance and a fearless mentality,” said Morgan, who wants to be a stopper. “It will be something to get adjusted to.”

Morgan, 28, was the fastest athlete to complete a drill that scout Rob Wilson had set up to evaluate the Brooklyn applicants. “We are looking for raw athletic ability and the ability to follow directions,” Wilson said. “Even big and strong guys may not have the passion and physical quality to bounce 250-pound guys around on the spring beds.”

Like Speranza, Morgan survived the tryouts. He was chosen in the draft’s fourth round to be a member of a team to be called the Mob.

The sport’s excitement lies in its spectacular, video-game-like dunks. Gordon, 31, a video-gamer who played basketball and football in real life, conceived of SlamBall as a way of combining his three passions. He drew his first SlamBall court on a napkin in 2000 and constructed a prototype in an East L.A. warehouse where street ball players experimented with the game. Within a year, 400 players enlisted and tryouts were held. In 2002 the game debuted on The National Network (now Spike) with a total of 64 players on eight teams.

SlamBall didn't make it past the second season. Gordon worked to secure the full rights to the game from Warner Bros. and then travelled around the globe to promote the sport. The response was particularly strong in Europe where SlamBall debuted on Italian television in July 2007.

The success in Italy was a key factor in Gordon’s decision to revive the sport in the States. He got financing from talent management company IMG and hired the former president of the Philadelphia 76ers, Pat Croce, as the league’s commissioner. Gordon believes a professional league is only the first step. “I think colleges will get after this really quickly,” he said.

Croce, who had been involved in the initial two seasons, agreed. “Everywhere I go people ask me when SlamBall is coming back,” Croce said. “I see every ice rink in America having a SlamBall court fitted inside.” Both Gordon and Croce said SlamBall has the potential to eventually become an Olympic sport.

Currently, the sport is attracting college and street ball players who never turned pro. Retired NBA stars are interested in being involved--off the court. Former New York Knicks shooting guard John Starks will coach one of the eight teams this season. “It’s something exciting and brand new, definitely a different brand,” Starks said.

Starks said he still had to learn the strategies and skills involved with SlamBall. And he is tempted to get on the trampoline himself some day, though playing competitively seemed to intimidate him a little bit.

But Gordon isn’t focused on recruiting retired NBA athletes to play. He would rather hire emerging alternative sports stars to lead his game. Said Gordon, “I am looking for an athlete that combines the athleticism of Michael Jordan, the physicality of Lawrence Taylor and the creativity of Tony Hawk.”