To learn to ride a unicycle without falling, get two friends to stand on either side of you, and wrap your arms around their shoulders. Sit up straight, look forward, and rest all your weight on the seat. Pedal a half-turn and stop, then a full turn, and then two turns. Once you feel you are in control, switch to holding onto your friends' wrists, then one friend's wrist, and then a wall. Finally, and God willing, you're ready for the open road — or perhaps the basketball court.
Learning to unicycle is 90 percent perspiration, 8 percent body control, and 2 percent brain, says John "the Uni-Cyclone" Foss, who helped pioneer the sport of mountain unicycling, or MUni, in the early 1980s. "It's a fun sport that teaches you you can do the impossible," he said. "People who like to do hard stuff are very interested in unicycling." Among the myriad challenges available to contemporary unicyclists — hockey, track and field, artistic freestyle, road racing, mountain unicycling, and "street" style included — the strangest must be unicycle basketball. The sport is an unexpected, unnatural collision of concepts that can be difficult to visualize without actually witnessing it, but it works. It can be as beautiful as a choreographed ballet one moment and as frenzied as a youth soccer game the next, but it's always interesting.
Unicycle basketball has been contested on an international scale since at least the late 1960s and its origins extend decades further. Today it's a slowly but steadily growing sport that figures as a central event at Unicon, the biennial unicycle world championships and convention.
At this December's Unicon XV in Wellington, New Zealand, one of the favorites — or at least a promising dark horse — will arrive from our own backyard. The Berkeley Revolution, a relatively nascent team with almost no experience against other formal squads (the closest one is in Phoenix), has nonetheless maintained a steady practice schedule since 2003. It now places itself among the top active teams in the world.
"If you play every week, you're gonna get good," agreed Foss, who is familiar with the Berkeley team but has no affiliation with it. The Revolution's weekly practices at Strawberry Creek Park bear this out. But how good are they? And can they give the Puerto Ricans, unicycle basketball titans who have won twelve of the last fourteen world championships, a run for their money?
The Berkeley team's roots lie, of all places, in the colder climes of Michigan. Marcus Hertlein was living in Ann Arbor in the mid 1990s when, encouraged by friends from a juggling club, he began to dabble in unicycling. He could ride only five or six feet without falling when Sem Abrahams, whose Semcycle brand is today a leading name in unicycle performance and sales, convinced him to try unicycle basketball.
Hertlein found that playing basketball on his unicycle led to drastic improvements in his riding, as the mind tends to focus on the game while pedaling becomes passive and second-nature. "It was incredibly fun," said Hertlein. "Every time I went, I improved incredibly, much more than I had previously." He was hooked.
About four years later, a job at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab brought Hertlein to the East Bay. It didn't take long for him to seek out like-minded folks, and he found them at the Berkeley Juggling Club. There he met Tom Holub, who picked up unicycling in 2000 for practical reasons — he worked at UC Berkeley and needed a way to get around campus. Walking was too slow, bikes too complicated, and scooters good only for downhill. It was three months before he could realistically use a uni and a year before he deemed himself proficient. By then he, too, was hooked.
Holub, a lifetime basketball fan, took quickly to Hertlein's idea of starting up a unicycle basketball squad in Berkeley. But few others shared his enthusiasm, and the pair had a hard time finding more than one or two other riders to show up for Tuesday night practices. "In the early days it was pretty informal and very small," said Holub. "There were times were I said, 'Oh, this just isn't worth it.'" But two years later, in 2003, the sport began to gain momentum in Berkeley. Soon Hertlein, Holub, and a growing number of unicyclists were playing regular three-on-three and four-on-four games.
Over time, the players' skill levels improved immensely. Yet continuity was hard to come by. They didn't consider themselves a team so much as an assemblage of unicyclists who practiced when they could. Attendance varied sharply as players graduated from Cal or left the area for other reasons and newcomers drifted in and out. Finally, in 2007, the team concept coalesced when a few regular players began to plan a date with Unicon XV two and a half years down the line. Today, with the New Zealand championships right around the corner, the team's foresight appears to have paid off. "In terms of the individual skills that we have," Holub said, "I don't think that there's a team out there outside of the Puerto Ricans who can top us."
Fog is rolling in thick over Strawberry Creek Park in West Berkeley. Darkness is falling, and the gathering bay breeze shows no signs of backing down. The park is empty save for a few stray dog walkers — and, at the south end, a sweaty band of six men and one woman playing full-court unicycle basketball on an outdoor court under timed lights. The sight is nothing if not surreal.
But the more you watch, the more it comes into focus. These guys can play. Jim Sowers, the oldest person on the court at 47, parks his unicycle at the top of the key and, before his defender can adjust, deftly sinks a three-pointer. Five minutes later he does it again. He's also a highly physical player under the hoop, and has made it his mission to acclimate his teammates to the aggressive play of the Puerto Ricans. They've been known to grab opponents' jerseys or attempt to knock them from their cycles — which refs tend to let slide — and Sowers worries this will throw the Revolution off its game.
A lifelong fan of the sport who grew up "in a basketball town in a basketball state," Sowers has become the team's unofficial coach and helped to teach plays, drills, and fundamentals to his teammates. Along with Adam Politzer and captain Lance Thornton, Sowers led the charge to derive a bona fide team of five to seven from the pool of fifteen to twenty players who attend the weekly practice sessions. Together, the three of them came up with the Revolution's team name, concept, and logo.
Thornton, the perfect captain, plays a John Stockton-like role on the court. He distributes the ball evenly and unselfishly from outside the key, attracts defenders then dishes to open teammates, and drives to the hoop for easy layups when a lane opens. He got his first unicycle as a gift from his parents at age eighteen. At the time he lived in rural Mississippi, hardly a haven for quirky behavior, and didn't start riding in earnest until he moved to Berkeley in 2000 and hooked up with the juggling club.
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