Game of throws

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 April, 2012, 12:00am


The scoreboard reads 6-6, with less than four minutes remaining on the clock. Time continues to tick down as an argument ensues on the court over a questionable call. One of the two referees, a normally reticent arbitrator, glares at a player and shouts, 'You touched the ball!' The score is now 7-6, with EMB, last season's Division One champions, ahead of Junk Shot.

More pointing and yelling break out on both sides, eating up another full minute. With time running out, a woman on the trailing team screams: 'Stop talking, just play!'

As the game resumes, spectator Brian Li tells me, 'You're going to get to see a tiebreak.'

Li, the head of the Hong Kong Dodgeball Association, knows the game inside and out, to the extent that he can predict what is going to happen in the next couple of minutes.

Sure enough, Junk Shot win the next set, tying the match. The game goes into overtime and sudden death, from which EMB emerge as victors.

If this doesn't sound much like the dodgeball you played as a child, that's because it isn't. At the Division One level, the sport is an intense game of strategic pelting and instinctive self-preservation.

'Not only are you throwing [balls] at people, in their face, but people are throwing them at you, in your face,' says EMB's Kevin Burns, who is considered the best player among the 600 or so who strut their stuff in the Hong Kong Dodgeball League.

A game that has been played by schoolchildren in the United States for decades, dodgeball is, oddly, all grown up in Hong Kong.

Over the past few years, Li, 34, who works in a hospital by day, has tirelessly laboured to organise the sport. The league saw its greatest achievement two weeks ago, when an all-star Hong Kong team were declared world champions at a tournament in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

As far as Li is concerned, the next step is to establish the sport in the Asian Games, and then the Olympics - you can't fault a man for dreaming. When that time comes, he says, 'I want Hong Kong to be the best, as it is now.'

The sport varies from place to place, but in a typical game, two teams will face each other across a gymnasium, armed with about half a dozen large balls. Players throw the balls at opponents and those who get hit are out of the game. If a player catches a ball, he or she stays in, the thrower is out and a teammate of the catcher is allowed to re-enter the fray. The objective is to eliminate everyone on the opposing team.

Those who grew up in North America probably have memories of playing dodgeball in physical education classes. Some might have fond memories, but it is a game feared by the more timid students and scorned by some parents as sanctioned violence; the activity has been banned in numerous school districts across the US.

In Hong Kong, ahead of the Kuala Lumpur tournament, American Michael Costanza, a legend in the sport and founder of the Los Angeles-based World Dodgeball Society, recalls his childhood experience with the game: 'I went to Catholic school and it was how the nuns would punish you. It was like organised child abuse, but it was kid on kid.'

Few of those who recall playing the game in school would remember it as a sport that fosters co-operation, strategic thinking or athleticism. The two predominant types of players in the school gym were the big kids who relished slamming balls at their classmates and weaklings who stood near the sidelines, hoping for a painless graze that would excuse them from the court.

The year 2004 was a turning point for the game. That was when people learned to laugh at their childhood aggression/fears through the movie Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. With Vince Vaughn leading a team of misfits against a villainous, headband-clad Ben Stiller, the comedy piqued the interest of adults.

The film helped define dodgeball culture. Ask players where the tradition of dressing up in costumes originated and their answer is likely to be: 'The movie.'

Costanza also attributes the costumes to the casual, social vibe of dodgeball in the US, where a sense of humour is almost as important as a strong throwing arm. One of Costanza's flagship events is the annual Burt Reynolds Dodgeball Tournament and Mustache Expo, for which players are required to sport facial hair, real or fake. The Tight Supremacists team requires all members - men and women - to wear tights while playing.

The Hong Kong league includes The Dodgefathers, Balls on Fire and, of course, EMB, which stands for Eat My Balls. EMB's co-captain Cassie Mak says a spin-off girls-only team has been mulling a team name, and they are close to agreeing on EMV - Eat My Victory.

Although costumes and themed matches are less popular in Hong Kong, they are not unknown. Junk Shot are particularly fond of dressing up; they have played as cowboys, cross-dressers and characters from the Street Fighter video games.

Junk Shot's captain, Jeff Floro, says that when the team formed, two years ago, they thought the game was 'really silly'.

'Because you don't have to be formally athletic per se - it's kind of a middle-school game - adding a costume makes it more fun,' he says.

The team has made it to Division One - the highest of four in the 40-team league - but they have stuck with their sartorial tradition.

The term 'junk shot' refers to a hit that lands on a male opponent's crotch. But the ultimate hits are those to the face, known as 'facials'. Li says he does not condone facials - but that has not stopped him from compiling highlight videos of nothing but people getting hit in the face and posting them on YouTube.

Compared with the US, though, Hong Kong takes its dodgeball seriously, at least at the higher levels, where it resembles an organised sport. In the US, on the other hand, 'it's a little more energised', Costanza says. 'Imagine 80 people in the bleachers and music going the whole time.'

The Hong Kong Dodgeball Association has guided the sport into semi-serious territory. Independent referees are hired for the hundreds of 40-minute contests that make up each three-month season. Every match is captured on video and uploaded to YouTube, with the footage reviewed by a paid employee who records statistics, such as kills per set and winning percentages, for each player.

Li, aka Batman - whose team, Justice League, includes the Hulk, Venom and Green Lantern, at least according to their jerseys - says there were only four teams in the fledgling 2006 Hong Kong league, and few players actually enjoyed the game. The biggest problem, he says, was that the league's founder made up the rules as he went along.

Li saw to it that rules were better defined and established. 'We've seen everything,' he says. 'Anything that could happen, there's a rule for it.'

The Asian Dodgeball Federation now uses these rules for international tournaments, he says. Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines are in the federation. Pakistan, South Korea and the mainland also have leagues, according to Li.

The Hong Kong league even manufactures its own dodgeball, which has also been adopted by the federation, at least when members play one another.

'The old school playground ball is a lot more menacing [than the one used in Hong Kong],' Costanza says. Dodgeballs in the US are made of hard rubber and can cause serious injury when thrown by an adult. 'Getting annihilated is not very inviting,' he adds.

Local balls are made of foam with a plastic coating that makes them easy to hold and throw with one hand. They can travel as fast as 120km/h without causing nosebleeds on impact.

Li, who was born and raised in the US, describes dodgeball as perfect for Asians, because the size of a player is of little importance.

'You can have some baseball player who pitches at 100 miles per hour, and he won't be that good. [Dodgeball is], ultimately, a team effort,' he says. 'You've got to know the strengths and weaknesses of all the players and use them.'

Smaller players, for example, are harder to hit. Women tend to have slower throws but they are more accurate. And then there's the stamina needed for a 40-minute match.

'You're constantly running and sprinting,' says Li. 'You need [substitutes]; you can't play the whole game.'

Perhaps not surprisingly, the leagues in Asia are dominated by expatriates and locals with Western backgrounds. And as much as it is a game, a workout or just something to do, dodgeball is also a bonding experience.

Growing up in Canada, Kelly Jang played softball and volleyball, but in Hong Kong she found it difficult to find a sport she enjoyed. Football and badminton are popular here, she says, but neither of them interested her. Then she found dodgeball.

Now a member of the EMB team, Jang says a strong sense of camaraderie has developed in the league, largely because players come from similar backgrounds and are of similar ages: early 20s to early 30s. The vast majority have lived abroad and are hard-working professionals. Close relationships, professional and personal, have been forged in the cauldron of the local dodgeball court.

Furthermore, those who are ambitious at work tend to be ambitious at play.

'Sometimes I think, 'Oh my God, I'm getting stressed out about dodgeball. I gotta stop - it's freaking dodgeball,'' Jang says.

Mak, wincing from pain in her arm after having played two matches back to back, emphasises the social side of dodgeball.

'People go there for fun. People go there for beer,' she says. 'People play while drinking beer all the time.'

Li says he is trying to promote dodgeball to all age groups. The association gives away rule books and the custom-made balls to anyone who asks - and not purely for philanthropic reasons.

'Somewhere out there in Tsuen Wan, maybe, there's an eight-year-old with an 80-mile-an-hour fastball, and I want him on my team,' Li says. Currently, though, there are no children's teams in the city.

He says he is confident dodgeball will soon be recognised as a legitimate sport.

'This will be in the Asian Games, because there are so many Asian countries playing it, and they are all very good,' he says.

At the international tournament two weeks ago, an all-star Hong Kong team - the best players in Division One - beat Malaysia, Singapore, the US, Canada and New Zealand. The Hong Kong players admit that they did not expect to win - but in doing so, they have been declared world champions. Bragging rights aside, the win might help secure government funding, a goal Li is particularly focused on.

The biggest surprise was beating the teams from North America, which had long been considered the world's strongest. Li says competing against them was an eye-opener because of their style of play, which Li intends to study and emulate.

'They all have knee pads, because they play a very acrobatic game.

'I felt like we got lucky on that one,' Li says, about defeating the US and Canada. But he quickly catches himself and adds with a smile, 'Nevertheless, we are world champions.'