Photo: Allison Knight
A cheer went up in the makeshift holding pen behind Section 112 of Staples Center on a Saturday night. Jeff Teague had just blown his first free throw in the closing seconds of the Hawks’ one-point loss to the Clippers. But watching the 80 or so cordoned-off members of the World Dodgeball Society made it obvious they were mostly psyched because the miss meant overtime wouldn’t delay their chance to nail each other in the chest in the same spot where DeAndre Jordan was throwing down dunks just an hour earlier.
By this point in the night these fully grown dodgeball players had already pulled on their headbands and neon kneesocks, and were now on to the stretching and peacocking phase of their pregame warm-ups. There was lots of self-consciously loud bantering and theatrical hugging. When the group was moved to a second holding pen, they clap-clap-clap-clap-clap-clapped and hollered “Ran-dom chant-ing!” It felt like Color Wars Day at summer camp and they were all CITs.
Once the stands cleared out and all the waivers had been signed, the dodgeballers were led to the court to play in an event billed as The Clash of the Clans. A few times every season the Clippers sell discount group tickets to the World Dodgeball Society and let them play on the Staples Center floor. Usually it’s for invite-only all-star games or city league championships, but this event was open to players from all over California. They were split into four teams representing Hollywood, Long Beach, Westchester, and San Francisco — a particularly frisky crew in blue-and-gold Golden State Invaders T-shirts that had come down from the Bay. In this round-robin tournament, each team would play the three others for 15 minutes apiece and whichever racked up the most cumulative wins over those 45 minutes would be declared the winner.
Grown-up dodgeball is nothing new in Los Angeles, nor is its sister sport, kickball. Michael Costanza started the World Dodgeball Society in L.A. 11 years ago, making its first home at the Hollywood Recreation Center. He felt that basketball and soccer leagues for adults usually attracted players who already had at least varsity high school or college backgrounds, scaring off anyone with more casual experience. Instead he looked for a group sport that offered a more level playing field. “Dodgeball was stuck in a time capsule,” Costanza says. “You went through puberty and have grown into your body since the last time you played dodgeball.”
In a World Dodgeball Society league, each team has 20 players and must maintain a 3:1 male to female ratio. Nationally, the teams play in 36 neighborhoods, but L.A. remains the epicenter, with 18 dodgeball communities. That means that year-round you can play an organized game of dodgeball any day of the week in the Southland. “It ended up being pretty therapeutic to a couple hundred of us,” says Costanza.
Despite the extra-positive attitude of the players at Staples Center, dodgeball remains a super-aggro game. Balls are chucked hard and the most common move is the exaggerated fakeout in order to intimidate someone who is already constantly scanning for threats. There may have been a Van Halen and New Edition soundtrack, but it was clear that everyone on the court was serious about this game. That included the guy dressed in a white unicorn onesie.
I asked a friend who is in a couple of dodgeball leagues on L.A.’s Eastside if there’s a lot of turnover among players on teams. She hedged for a minute then told me that the people who really get into it are pretty much there for good.
While watching the Hollywood vs. Long Beach matchup, I got lost in my head for a while thinking about why I couldn’t relate to those twentysomethings in their gym clothes who seemed to be having a great time and would later have the new Facebook profile pics to prove it. Why did I have the urge to be a dick and describe them as “peacocking” or call it “theatrical hugging” like I did in the second paragraph? Why did I just make that Facebook crack?
I don’t know about their struggles. I’ve never had to move to a new city where I didn’t know anyone else. I’ve never been great at the comfortable camaraderie of team sports. Maybe it would be nice to run into someone while in line at a brunch spot, and after a little playful chitchat and a smiling good-bye I would tell the people I was with, “Oh, he’s one of my dodgeball friends.”
And then a ball smacked into a seat a few spots down from where I was sitting, ricocheted high up into the air, and landed a few rows back in a puddle of beer. I made a feint move to fetch it, but someone else was thankfully closer than me. She tossed it back toward the court, a shagger wiped what he could off it, and then the ball was back in play, ready to take someone else out.
Eric Ducker is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles.