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Whirlyball is a team sport invented by Stan Mangum that combines elements of basketball and jai alai, or rather a combination of lacrosse and bumper cars, with the players riding Whirlybugs, small electric vehicles similar to bumper cars. Because play requires a special court, it is played in only a handful of locations in the United States and Canada.
A Whirlyball team consists of five players. Each player rides a Whirlybug and carries a scoop, with which he or she can pass the ball, usually a Wiffle ball, to teammates and shoot at the goal, a circular target above the two opposite ends of the court. A score in Whirlyball is called a "Whirlic".
Players are not allowed to leave their cars or to touch the ball with their hands. Other than that, almost anything is allowed, within certain bounds of safety, e.g., one is not allowed to ram a player from behind (four-point penalty). Games played by veterans at a national level can get particularly vicious, although it is extremely rare for a serious injury to occur.
The scoops provided for recreational use are manufactured by Mangum's company, Flo-Tron Enterprises, while many players at the national level prefer to use a Trac Ball scoop due to the lighter weight. In order to use a Trac Ball scoop, players must use an industrial-strength heat gun to mold the scoop to fit the ball.
The game was first conceived in Salt Lake City in the early 1960s. Its creator, Stan Mangum, was already a patented inventor who was working to develop a small agile bumper car. This car eventually developed into the Whirlybug and is an integral part of today's game of Whirlyball. Whirlyball's popularity and dissemination is largely credited to Kim Mangum, Stan's son. He is the founder of Flo-Tron Enterprises, an organization that manufactures and distributes equipment for WhirlyBall.
A Whirlybug is similar to an electric bumper car. It is round, with a bumper going all the way around. Unlike most bumper cars, however, power is not provided by an overhead grid, but rather by alternating conducting plates that make up the floor of the court. This means that Whirlybugs are more complex than traditional bumper cars, but this is necessary, as an overhead grid would obstruct play. A Whirlybug is steered by a handle that looks like a crank. This handle allows steering not just side to side, but also backwards. In this aspect, it is very different from a traditional bumper car.
One of the downsides to a Whirlybug's controls, however, is the difficulty beginners will almost certainly have with them. One reason is that there is technically no reverse. This can make for an extremely difficult situation for a beginner who has run into a wall. A player must apply the throttle as they are twisting the handle in either direction. After a single rotation, the drive train reverses, and the car moves away from the wall. More experienced players may simply twist the crank a single time and then apply the throttle. The other problem with steering is that Whirlybugs often do not center the crank automatically, making it difficult for beginners to recover from a very tight turn or from "reverse". Once the particulars of the steering are learned—usually in one or two games—the controls tend to be easy to use.
Whirlic: A score in Whirlyball, two points.
Power Shot Comparable to a lay-up in basketball.
Slashing: Hitting an opponent scoop while going for the ball. In league play, a two-point penalty.
Pillow Block: Driving the Whirlybug into an opponent's bumper and attempting to slow them down by remaining there.
Roll-Off: While contacting an opponent's bumper, player does a 360-degree roll-off turn and continues momentum.
Wall Bouncing: Running into the wall and spinning around to advance oneself or lose an opponent.
Bounce Passing: Bouncing the ball off the floor while passing it to a teammate.
The Back Door: The area to the side of the key where people frequently lurk to make a quick move to the basket.
Key: The area directly under the basket. Similar to Basketball.
Whirlyball is played as a competitive sport with organized leagues, but it is more commonly played for entertainment. Many Whirlyball locations have a sports bar atmosphere, offering billiards and other tabletop games to play between matches. There are three locations in and around Chicago, three locations in the Detroit suburbs, and locations in Cleveland, Kansas City, St. Louis, Seattle, Dallas, Atlanta, Orlando, Toronto, New Jersey, Minneapolis, and Connecticut.
- Brian Alexander, "War of the Whirls", The Seattle Times, August 3, 2005, Sec. Times of Snohomish County, Pg. H14. Online copy