Agility. Speed. Strength. None of these qualities will be of any use in the highly competitive world of WhirlyBall. The declaration on the Whirlyball website instills optimism rather than disappointment as I doubt any of the above are my most prominent traits. For weeks prior to visiting I hear whispers around the office of strategy, deceit, and past battle wounds. I don’t get it, but am assured the thrill of the game will strike once I try.
In preparation for the epic encounter I try some research, learning Whirlyball was invented in Salt Lake City in the 1960s. There are varying descriptions ‘basketball meets jai alai’ or ‘bumper cars meets lacrosse’ Ok? There are hokey vocab terms incorporating “whirl.” There are a handful of Whirlyball locations in the U.S. including Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Washington, among others. Finally, Kid Rock has a state-of-the-art Whirlyball court installed in his home…right so it has to be cool.
The Chicago location holds three courts in addition to a well-appointed sports bar. Its location on Fullerton between Clybourn and Elston makes stopping in for a drink improbable if you aren’t playing, and I take the few hangers-on at the bar to be employees. They stoop over the counter and order shots of Patron as players in various states of business casual dress dart about offering threats and challenges of Whirly prowess to their coworkers. My culinary expectations are low, I admit, yet I am surprised by the quality of the house sandwiches, wraps, salads, and bar snacks.
The game starts and I am stuck in a corner for a several hanging minutes. I sit in a bumper car of sorts, with a central crank to steer, somehow. With the right combination of pedal stomping and frantic cranking I am off! Next, one must master maneuvering the vehicle while racing, blocking, and bumping your way to the prized Wiffle ball. Handling and passing the ball with your lacrosse-like scoop tool is your next task. Finally, score by catapulting the ball from your scoop through a basketball backboard with a hole in it and one can almost taste sweet victory.
There are five players per team with ten minute games. The acrid odor of gasoline stings your nostrils and adrenaline has your heart pumping. Some participants call out commanding plays as if it were a real sport, but it is mostly a tizzy of crashing, cranking, and flinging. It’s actually a great time.
As for those battle wounds I was warned about, a particularly nasty crash sends the crank smashing into my inner thigh and a week later it still looks like Tonya Harding took a swing at me. Playing with less passionate competitors may lessen the opportunity for long-term bruising, but they do make it interesting. For around $20 for two hours of play, and enough players to rotate games we had a Whirly good time. My personal version would include more alcohol-induced maneuvering and less intensity. With winter approaching, I’d recommend gathering a group for some indoor fun. Why not give it a Whirl? [Ahhhh sorry I had to!]
1880 West Fullerton Avenue
Chicago, IL 60614