by Commissioner Greg Manley
This Winter I went to my hometown Oakland, CA during NYC's off season to see if I could develop some regular games there. Over the past 5 years, I've been out a couple times to see family and (in my spare time) I've hosted a few games. All my close friends have played, and people I grew up with generally know about the sport. They're a competitive bunch, these Bay Area boys. Talented athletes and amateur chefs, they consider themselves connoisseurs of good living, and it's hard to argue. Once you start comparing the Bay to New York, the air becomes thick with regional pride. I'll be the first to admit I've never let it go; as long as I've been in Brooklyn, I'm still from Oakland. Put a few drinks in me and my slang starts showing.
This is all just to say, prior to my recent stay, Oakland's fabled circle rules team was little more than a pride-puffed fantasy. I went there to see if they could back it up, and I figured two months would be long enough to see what was really happening. I started with my closest friend Joaquin. He had hosted games with his rag-tag friends for the last several years, at one point playing weekly at a summer camp in Yosemite. More recently though, he'd jumped on a basketball kick. Twice a week he'd show up at Mosswood Courts with about fifteen other late-twenties, Ph.D candidates, school teachers, and radio documentarians; getting their rocks off, knee braces, pot-bellies and all. The first time I showed up to play it hit me like a brick: we were all turning into our fathers back in the '80s.
I played basketball with Joaquin and his friends for a couple weeks before I invited them to try circle rules. My plan was to host a game immediately after basketball. They were already there, so why not? Obviously I hadn't considered that people get tired and sometimes have more to do on a Sunday than play sports for 8 hours. The only people who showed up had played circle rules before and they lasted about 30 minutes before wiping out. Strike one.
My next thought was to set up a regular weekly game in a highly-visible park, similar to our Sundays in Brooklyn. Earlier in the month, I'd stopped by the Astro Park, an under-used, multi-purpose field nestled between Lake Merritt, a Farmer's Market, a playground, and some palm trees. Perfect. I started expanding my recruitment. Some friends of mine were guest curating a gallery downtown with their organization, FlavourHood. Every other week, they hosted an impressive opening show, drawing about 100 people each time. It was that homesickeningly beautiful mix of races, professions, ages, and wages that I've been dying to recreate in New York ever since I left the Bay. Flavourhood would be my cross-promoter and Astro Park would be my pitch. We'd play every Saturday at noon, drink some fresh pomegranate juice from the market, and games would work just fine.
Our first few weeks comprised mostly of people I'd seen the day before, people who'd agreed to show up so many times I hadn't given them a chance to come up with an excuse. I expected some of them were showing simply out of friendship with little interest or ability in the game. Nevertheless, we had fun. Short, small games slowly grew longer and more skilled. Inevitably some toddler would wander onto the key and walk away with a cone. Some grade schooler would ask to join, and since we had no better answer, we'd let him.
I submitted an event listing to the East Bay Express and received a call about a week later. To my surprise, they wanted to run an article about circle rules and interviewed me about the development of the game. During the interview, something occured to me. I was in the middle of describing some esoteric theatrical underpinning of circle rules philosophy and the interviewer said something like:
"Wow, and all along I thought this was just some other sport."
In some ways, I wish she still thought that. I had dug myself into that same art/sport hole again. When the Express article came out, as flattering as it was, somewhere in the back of my mind I knew we wouldn't see a huge surge in players, just a few curious nerds like me. I don't like to admit it, but I was after athletes. That fabled Oakland team hadn't appeared on the field. Regardless of the article, my most athletic friends were keeping their distance. Nevertheless, our Saturday matches were growing. We made friends in the park and people began to take notice. It was coming together like New York had, four years earlier. The only problem was I didn't have four years in Oakland, I had one more month.
Flavourhood started talking about putting a team together. They said another group, Oaksterdam University, might have a team as well. My old friend Joanna heard about the sport and said her co-workers at Equinox gym might make a team as well. "Fine" I thought. "Bring them out on a Saturday and we'll teach them the game. The first step is showing up" I declared. All this talk about teams was too hasty. They didn't even know the rules and they were already forming teams? It seemed backwards so I didn't pursue it. "If it happens, it happens" In NYC we didn't have set teams for two whole years.
The Saturday games started to plateau at about 10 players. These "teams" weren't showing up, and more grade schoolers were joining our ranks. Occasionally, a real competitor would stop by, but they couldn't play hard with so many kids around. They wanted to shove, curse, sweat, bleed, and leave it on the field. I wanted to see it happen. I was growing tired of touting the "anybody can play, easy to learn" schtick. I'd forgotten the real goal of my expedition out west... I wanted to build a costal rivalry.
At my last Saturday match, I still hadn't picked a successor to host the Oakland games so I asked a regular player, John McKenna, to take the charge. He agreed to bring the gear to the field as long as players continued to show up, and it was all I could ask. If games grew or disappeared was out of my control. I wished him luck and told him I'd drop off the gear at his place before I left the following week. I still had one more game to host with PIXAR employees, a fun little match I'd been giddy about for a while.
That same Saturday night I went to a birthday party, which was in honor of one of my closest buddies, Mike. Mike and I played soccer together back in High School, and as luck would have it, quite a few of our old team showed up for the party. After ordering a few drinks and trying not to think about the future of Circle Rules Oakland, Chris Darby walked over to me.
"Hey Greg, I was talking with Travis earlier today, and we think we got an Oakland Circle Rules team that could take New York"
My screws started coming loose. I couldn't stand any more shit talking. Chris hadn't shown up on the field once in the last two months and Travis refused to play every time he passed by. They knew all about the Saturday games and they didn't play. What killed me is that they are some of the best athletes I know. What's more, they've got a community of even better athletes and they'd intentionally kept everyone away from my games. Chris and I had words, and I wasn't going to back down. I put money on team New York over Oakland and I told him I had no respect for all his trash talking. I told him he was treating me like a stranger, and that he was acting out of arrogance. I said a lot of thing that I could have phrased more delicately, but I was burning now and the tequila wasn't helping. But as fiery as our exchange became, we were both right. We both believed in the game and we ached for a coastal rivalry. But Saturday games were not necessarily the road to take us there. If we wanted competitors, we needed to create some competition. Those imaginary teams I'd forsaken were a missing part of the puzzle. Maybe it didn't matter if players had practice. Maybe it only mattered that they wanted to win. Chris drove me to tears that night because he helped me realize a strategy should have taken long ago. Building participation through rivalry.
The PIXAR game went well and they played again the following week. I returned to New York with a larger Oakland community and some fledgeling weekly games. But perhaps the most important move I'd made in Oakland was in Mike's birthday party. I told Chris that the New York team would come for Oakland and demolish them. I picked sides. This August I will be returning to the Bay Area and the Federation will host a Best of the West Tournament. The Winner gets a shot at NYC - and from what I've seen - Oakland doesn't have a chance.
Prove me wrong.