Brenda Heywood jams a couple of quarters into the Pop-A-Shot machine, grabs one of the runty basketballs and tosses it toward a hoop at the end of the mesh cage. The ball swishes through the net and before it rolls back to her, she pops in a second and a third and a fourth. "I don't even aim," she says. "I just throw them up, and they're sucked into the basket."
They were sucked in with such regularity at the Pop-A-Shot world championships on May 19 that Heywood won her second straight women's title. "I don't spend my life in arcades playing skill games." she said after outpopping nine other women at the Champions Sports Bar, in Chicago's O'Hare Marriott. "I just have big arms that don't get tired." The 34-year-old mother of two had come from London, Ont., where she works the door at another bar, the Fabulous Forum. "I haven't played basketball since eighth grade," said Pop-A-Shot's Mama Shot. It showed. "Her form is horrendous," observed Ken Cochran, Pop-A-Shot's inventor. "Her elbows are out, she palms the ball and she's got no follow-through. She's a coach's nightmare."
Cochran ought to know. In the 1970s, he guided the men's basketball team at tiny Marymount College in Salina, Kans., to a 106-game home-court winning streak and five appearances in the NAIA tournament. He quit coaching in 1981, the year before he conceived Pop-A-Shot while recovering from double-bypass surgery. "I'd been trying to come up with something that would make me enough money to buy a Florida condominium," he says. "And Pop-A-Shot popped into my head."
Cochran toyed with a three-ball prototype game at his sports camp in Salina. The object of the game was to score as many two-point goals as possible in a set number of tries. Eventually, he added a computerized scoreboard and 40-second clock (baskets made in the last 15 seconds are three-pointers), a coin box and electronic music. But his biggest innovation was a fourth ball, to eliminate waiting for the ball to come back. "I realized the higher the score, the more money that's put in the box," Cochran says. "The current version spouts coins like an oil well." Today he has 5,000 gushers in sports bars and bowling alleys across the U.S. "I made enough to buy that condo in Florida," he says. "Pop-A-Shot is every basketball player's fantasy," says Cochran. "No running, no defense, just shooting. You don't even have to be good at basketball."
Robert Cox isn't. "I can't play a lick," says Kansas City's reigning Pop-A-Shot king. "I'm totally uncoordinated. I can barely dribble. I can't even make a layup. In fact, I hate basketball."
Touch doesn't count for much in Pop-A-Shot. "The best players throw bricks," says Cox, who works for a florist and practices at Hitters Sports Cafè in K.C. "It gives you a faster return."
Among the 150 Pop-A-Shooters competing in Chicago, the one with the fastest return was Tom Blackshere, a 26-year-old electrician in earring, knee-length shorts and a ratty Dwayne Schintzius haircut. He usually plays hoops for a team called the Dirty White Boys on Chicago's North Side, but a gimpy knee has lately kept him off the courts. "This game is perfect for me," Blackshere said after creaming Cox in the semis. "I spent the first 16 years of my life on basketball courts and the last 10 in bars."
His opponent in the final was Robert Smeenk, the proprietor of the Fabulous Forum. A 6'5" former swingman for the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Smeenk practices on the job. "My goal is to be perfect," he said. He came close during a game in the semis, missing only two of 73 shots while amassing 165 points. "The only other time I get in this zone is when I'm into a really good book," he said. The last book to zone him was Ayn Rand's Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.
Atlas shrugged as Smeenk and Blackshere split the first two games of their best-of-five final. In the third, Blackshere had to beat Smeenk's 121. Blackshere reached it with three seconds left and began pumping his fists in apparent victory. The hundred or so spectators chanted, "U-S-A! U-S-A!"
"It's a tie," said Cochran.
"Huh?" said Blackshere.
"You needed 122 to win."
"I thought it was 121."
"Tom!" said his pal Dave Finnigan. "You know you're no good at thinking."
Blackshere clobbered Smeenk 133 to 118 in the fourth game and in the fifth again had to top Smeenk's 121 to clinch. "Remember," counseled Finnigan, "one-twenty-two." This time the blur of balls and the clock stopped simultaneously. Blackshere copped the crown with a 125.
Afterward, he downplayed his accomplishment. "Being the Elvis of Pop-A-Shot is no big deal," he said insouciantly. "If it wasn't for my knee, I'd be outside playing real basketball."