The lithe, well-muscled young men leap and run across the grass, tossing the ball in the brilliant Cape Cod sunshine. The spectators cheer. The team in white, down 30 points only a few minutes earlier, has mounted a brilliant scoring burst and closed the gap to 97-95. "It's a whole new ball game!" shouts an onlooker.
Indeed it is. The 24 young men are playing an embryonic game called circular zoneball, the brainchild of David King, a 37-year-old former manufacturing manager from Barnstable, Mass. King has spent $200,000 and most of the past six years designing, refining and promoting circular zoneball—or just plain zoneball, as most people call it—which he claims is the first new team ball game in the U.S. since volleyball was invented in 1895. Says King, "I wanted a game that would challenge athletic adults but at the same time appeal to a kid who dreads getting hit in the nose with a baseball or flattened by a dodgeball."
King can empathize with dodgeballophobes; his own athletic career was brief and undistinguished. His parents didn't allow him to play football, and he broke his collarbone doing gymnastics in the eighth grade. He gave up a stint as a mediocre ninth-grade miler for an after-school job. Even now, he claims to have only a passing interest in sports. "I'm a fair-weather fan," King admits. "I only watch playoffs."
But he happened to be watching a TV special on football injuries one day in 1983. The violence of the game appalled him. "That 'put him out of the game' mentality was just crazy," he says. "It wasn't a sport, it was a bunch of gladiators. My inventor's mentality took over, and I decided to see if I could come up with a team ball game that had no physical contact whatsoever."
May 13, 1990
King sat down with pencil and paper and developed the zoneball concept in one session. "I had 90 percent of it figured out in 20 minutes," he says. The playing field that took shape on King's sketch pad that day is a 154-foot-wide circle divided into four pie-shaped segments and six concentric rings, much like a giant dart board. Each of the 24 sections, or zones, is occupied by one player, with opponents in adjacent zones. No player may stray from his zone. The idea is to throw a specially designed ball—a soft blue sphere about the size of a volleyball, but with craterlike depressions for a good grip—over an opposing guard player to one of two teammates in the center bull's-eye zones. If a bull's-eye player—called a point—catches the ball, his team gets two, three or four points, depending on which ring the ball is thrown from. The farther away the ring, the more points. The innermost ring is a defensive area only, from which no points can be scored.
The rules require a player to pass or shoot within five seconds. Teammates pass the ball from zone to zone to find an open man, while opponents try to intercept passes and shots. If an opposing point intercepts a shot in the bull's-eye area, his team gets the points.
Before the first zoneball game was played, King patented the game and the ball, and copyrighted the field layout and the name. "I wanted to make sure that I could literally take my ball and go home if the game didn't develop the way I wanted it to," he says. With the patents safely in hand, King strolled over to a city park in nearby New Bedford one Saturday morning in 1985 and asked a bunch of Softball players if they would like to try something new. That first zoneball scrimmage lasted only 10 minutes, but it was enough to convince King that the basic concept worked.
After some refinement, zoneball was formally introduced to the world at a radio charity promotion in Barnstable. Three thousand spectators watched 10 teams made up of employees of local companies play zoneball to benefit the Special Olympics. King was subsequently invited to put on a zoneball exhibition at the 1987 International Special Olympics, at Notre Dame. ABC cameras were standing by to broadcast a zoneball match nationwide when the producer learned that the plane of then Vice-President George Bush was arriving three hours early for the closing ceremonies. The TV crew dashed off to the airport, and zone-ball missed its moment in the spotlight.
But magazine and newspaper articles have spurred more than 3,000 inquiries about the game. King has sold about 800 zoneball packages (six balls, rules, instructions and a training videotape for $90) to schools and parks departments in 37 states and 13 foreign countries, including the Soviet Union, Japan and Nigeria. Belgium has become something of a zoneball hotbed, and King hopes to stage a U.S.-Belgium match this year, if he can find a sponsor. There's even talk of a U.S.-Soviet meeting.
If the call goes out for a John Wooden of zoneball to lead the way against the Soviets, the man for the job is Andy Rogovin. A 32-year-old recreation director in Dennis, Mass., Rogovin is player-coach of the blue-shirted Team USA, which is trying to hold off the surge by the white-shirted Shepley Wood Products team in the Cape Cod sunshine. Rogovin has assembled an imposing roster of players, including 6'8" and 6'11" point men and a pair of agile 6'5" guards. Two years of playing and coaching have put Rogovin on the cutting edge of zoneball strategy, and he has a surprise for the lumberyard guys today. "We plan to completely ignore the four-point shots," he tells a visitor before the game. "Too risky. If the throw's a little off, the other guy catches it—and boom, you've got an eight-point turnaround." Rogovin's big guns will be two-point specialist Randy Jackson, a high school quarterback, and three-point man Lincoln Crook, a javelin thrower.
As the game begins, Rogovin's strategy works beautifully. Jackson and Crook launch a blizzard of two-and three-pointers, and the Blue twin towers in the bull's-eye zones effortlessly grab them above the outmanned White defenders. White, meanwhile, seems to have no particular strategy in mind and is paying dearly for errant shots. Blue races to a 19-3 lead and is up 68-43 as the first of the three 20-minute periods ends.
But midway through the second period, White starts to come alive. Passing sharply, its players whip the ball around the perimeter to four-point gunner Rob Taylor, who has started to find the range. Taylor, a former college lacrosse star, repeatedly threads bombs between the Blue skyscrapers to his own sure-handed men. A Taylor four-pointer cuts the margin to two points amid much White fist pumping and high-fiving.
But Blue continues to hammer away with the two-point chip shots, and White inexplicably stops feeding Taylor. Blue also cashes in with numerous penalty shots, the result of White's overaggressiveness ("Take his face off!" one White player is heard to exhort a teammate, although he fails to make clear how this is to be accomplished in a noncontact game).
The players are not above chicanery. They are well aware that the five referees can't sight down curved lines for zone violations. And it's not until well into the second period that the refs remember that a point player must have both feet in his zone to make a legal catch.
Blue continues to pile up the two-point chip shots, and it eventually cruises to a convincing 191-165 victory, a high score by zoneball standards. "Yeah, we played like the Lakers today," says Rogovin.
King admits that zoneball is still in its formative, peach-basket phase and may need further tinkering. Some players feel the scores are too high, but King sees that as a plus. "Everybody gets to score a lot of points," he says. "For the person who's not very athletic, that's a real thrill. Who wants to play soccer for 90 minutes and see one or two goals?" Nevertheless, King is mulling over reducing the value of an inner-ring shot from two points to one, much to Rogovin's chagrin. Other players suggest that the penalty shot—an uncontested gimme lob to a point in the bull's-eye from the outer ring, worth one point—is too easy.
King admits to fantasizing about his invention's becoming an Olympic sport, and he even dares to dream of the day when Bo knows zoneball. "But if I got off a plane in Columbus or somewhere, and I was driving down Elm Street and I saw a bunch of kids playing zoneball in a vacant lot, that's all the gratification I'd need. That would be a real kick."
David Noland, who lives in Mountainview, N.Y., has written several stories for SI.