The Way the ball bounces
By Fred A. Reed
Scenes from a Southern California boyhood – one of an occasional series
I invented Triangle Ball in 1956, my last year as a student at Pasadena High School. The summer before, a sudden and powerful surge had transformed me from a plumpish average sized teenager into a lanky, gangling wreck. I gained more than six inches of height in less than half a year. My extremities refused to obey. Nothing worked. Joints creaked, bones and muscles hurt.
Always slow, I now became clumsy and uncoordinated. Gym class was an unmitigated disaster. What was I to do?
There, as though waiting for me, laid inspiration. If I could neither run nor jump nor perform the simplest athletic tasks, I would invent a new game. A game for people like me: introverts with a taste for the unorthodox. It was thus that I conceived Triangle Ball, a game unlike all others. One that would rely not on athletic ability but on tactical and strategic acumen, on a flair for replicating on the playing field real world situations; less on teamwork in the classical sense, and more on the fine arts of diplomacy, i.e., scheming and duplicity.
Conventional sports like football, baseball, hockey and a host of others were metaphors for conflict, and war. Two sides battled it out until one was defeated or time ran out. Even the language of such sports was fraught with militarism and criminality. “Long bombs” were thrown in football. Bases were “stolen.”
My sport, however, would emulate the pre-war phase of traditional games.
Since it featured not two, but three teams, in order to win a team had to conclude and alliance with one of its two adversaries. But nothing in my rulebook would prohibit, say, Team A from conniving with Team C in betrayal of its prior arrangement with Team B.
Triangle Ball, which would have been played in a triangular stadium using a pyramid-shaped ball, would depend more on talk than on actual action. As a result, the winning team would not be able to dominate its rivals by athletic prowess, but by diplomatic skill.
It would be the perfect place for misfits, gawky growth-spurt victims like the author of these lines, un-athletic math and science geniuses, and budding subversives who hardly knew then what they were doing or were fated to become.
Thus, the majority of any teams members would be such people, who would caucus on the sidelines before the game began, and during time-outs, seek new arrangements first with Opponent 2 and then with Opponent 3, who would be actively engaged in the same thing, as would Opponent 2.
The possibilities were rich and virtually endless.
The pyramid-shaped ball made it impossible to predict where it might bounce, so even following the kick-off existing arrangements could be overturned by pure chance.
The few athletes on the field would be handed their instructions by their negotiators, and might themselves have entered into a secret deal with their active counterparts, a sort-of “Christmas truce” of the kind observed by warring soldiers on the Western Front in WWI.
The “ball” could be advanced by kicking, passing, running, dribbling or by any other means possible. The aim was to score against the opponent designated by the negotiators, while said opponent knew all along that he would soon be able to strike with impunity. But against whom? When?
Fans in the bleachers would not know from one moment to the next who was leading, which was playing the “long game” or planning a pre-emptive strike. Play could turn on the proverbial dime, leaving spectators mystified or, I hoped, enthralled.
The score would be displayed on a triangular scoreboard situated at mid-field, high up, like the bushel basket used in Korfball.
Marching bands and bouncy cheerleaders and pert pompon girls would keep spirits high and do all they could to focus attention on the ebb and flow of the game.
I tried to pitch it to the school’s athletic department. No one was listening.
Triangle Ball lay dormant for ten years, only to undergo an ephemeral revival in Montréal where I was then living in permanent exile, thanks to then-PM Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s decision to welcome American draft resisters to Canada.
On a hunch I managed to contact the editorial desk at Sports Illustrated, which had pretentions to literary merit. My purpose was to query that publication about my Triangle Ball prospectus. The conversation was as hostile as it was brief. “How did you get through to here?” a guy snapped and then slammed down the receiver.
Thus perished Triangle Ball, with barely a whimper.
Now, several decades later, it is clear that I was far too far ahead of my time. Today, the era of American unilateralism is ending, even though the high and the mighty of Washington haven’t yet understood it. In its place will come a multi-polar world, one where negotiation will be the rule, and ultimatum a formula for failure and defeat.
It couldn’t be soon enough.