Introducing Donnie Nelson's Broncoball

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    NEWSLETTERS

    AP

    Witnessing the birth of a sport is pretty rare. So when I was invited to the debut of something called Broncoball, I was all for it.

    To watch, that is.

    Nobody said anything about taking part.

    I was lured in by Donnie Nelson, the James Naismith of Broncoball. It's a fitting connection seeing as Nelson has made a career out of basketball, the sport Naismith invented.

    Nelson has done so well as president of the Dallas Mavericks that he's become a part-owner of the Mesquite Rodeo. He loves watching the animals and riders, but his kids don't. That's what spurred him to come up with a new, hopefully dynamic game on the dirt of a rodeo arena.

    After more than a year of kicking around ideas, Nelson decided the potentially historic launch of Broncoball should come at a historic place, the 102-year-old Cowtown Coliseum in Fort Worth. He offered me a ride from downtown Dallas and when I climbed into the car, I was handed a whistle.

    Huh?

    He explained they were short one official and he'd volunteered me for the job.

    Sports writers aren't supposed to be part of the story, but this seemed like a plausible exception. Heck, between the background Nelson gave me a few days before and our conversation in the car, I was a veritable Broncoball expert.

    So, why not? It might even be fun.

    Then came another thought: Was this how those kids at the YMCA felt when Dr. Naismith invited them into the gym in December 1891 carrying two peach baskets, a ladder, a hammer, some nails and a soccer ball?

    ------

    One observer described Broncoball as "horseback hockey." That's a good start, just minus the sticks.

    There are two teams, each with four riders on quarterhorses, plus a fifth guy who isn't. Riders go from offense to defense like in hockey or basketball.

    The ball gets tossed from rider to rider, with at least three teammates required to touch it before taking a shot. The shot actually is a throw to the fifth guy, who stands atop a barrel inside the goal, a chalk-lined circle that's off-limits to riders. Catches made atop the barrel score two points; it's only one point if he comes off the barrel to make the catch.

    The ball is a practice softball. It's the same size as a regular softball only much softer, so it's easy to catch barehanded and doesn't hurt if it hits anyone -- or the horses.

    Luckily for me, there are only a few more rules:

    --Any ball hitting the ground is a turnover;

    --Riders have eight seconds to shoot or pass;

    --Defenders can jerk, jostle, shove and push opposing riders, but only with one hand.

    The biggest duty for those of us in zebra shirts is keeping a ball in play.

    Whenever one falls, or a goal is scored, an official flips another to the nearest player on offense. While everyone is on the other end, we collect stray balls in our area.

    This becomes more treacherous as the game goes on, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who has ever been around horses.

    ------

    Christie and D.J. Nelson are suburban teens from the X Games generation. They can't relate to rodeo.

    They like sports with a ball, a scoreboard and a clock. Something with teams and jerseys and nicknames that they can root for and against, especially if there are rivalries and other storylines.

    Their dad's challenge was to combine those elements with the power and grace of horses and the skill of riders. By February, he was ready, so he invited one believer and "nine highly skeptical cowboys" to a lunch meeting in Mesquite.

    "You want me to do WHAT?" one of the skeptics said.

    Then they saddled up. It was the first time anyone ever played Broncoball, and the only time before my turn in the ring.

    "By the fourth quarter, you could see something pretty cool developing," Nelson says. "Three guys asked about franchises."

    ------

    It's still very much a work in progress.

    "Let's come up with some hand signals," Nelson says once we reach the floor of the Cowtown Coliseum.

    While we laugh our way through whistle-blowing practice, two barrels that look like cans of beer are placed 10 paces from each end of the arena. Too far out? Not enough?

    "If you don't like it, we can change it next time -- or next quarter," says Steve Murrin, owner of the coliseum.

    Murrin is a rancher and businessman known as the unofficial mayor of Cowtown. He looks the part: high cowboy hat, bushy white handlebar mustache, white monogrammed button-down shirt and tight blue jeans tucked into boots that rise nearly to his knees.

    He also might be Broncoball's biggest fan.

    In the months following their test run, he and Nelson got together after Mavs games to brainstorm about the new sport, using forks, spoons and salt and pepper shakers to simulate riders.

    His eagerness spread to the team he's assembled. Organizer Joe Hub Baker was diagramming plays on a white board when we walked in. He pretended to hide it, then smiled and told Nelson, "You're going to hire me and we're going to win championships."

    ------

    The home team, the Cowtown Cowboys, trots out first, riding in circles and taking warm-up tosses from the umps.

    The foes from Mesquite, the Dallas Caballeros, arrive later and throw to each other. Call it a veteran move, as several of them played in the original exhibition.

    Everyone gathers at midfield to go over the rules and lay out the stakes. Nelson and Murrin each put up $200, with the winning players splitting all $400.

    "Good luck, brother," Nelson tells Murrin. "You're going to need it."

    The action is exciting and constant. Riders are so good that within minutes I take it for granted that the game is played atop horses, the way you accept hockey being played on razor-thin blades cutting through ice.

    A reminder comes when I chase a loose ball and the Mesquite guys start a fast break right toward me. I rush to the safety of the rail. The fact I made it in one piece probably has more to do with the riders.

    Mesquite is more in sync at first, throwing short passes and swatting at the ball while on defense. Cowtown figures things out quickly, like the worst ball-handler realizing he should take a throw-in from me to get his possession out of the way.

    Most guys switch horses between quarters. Still, when they come back from intermission (a herd of calves needing exercise was the unintentional halftime show), I see veins bulging and sweat dripping on a horse's face.

    Mesquite leads 14-10 going into the third, then things pick up.

    "That's pretty cool!" an early arriving cowboy tells a Mesquite player during a third-quarter break. "I want to try that."

    "It's fun," the player says, grinning wide.

    It's tied at 26 going into the final period, which is played during the Stockyards Championship Rodeo. We go on following the bull riding.

    There's now a different vibe. Maybe it's because the crowd has grown from 30 to 1,500 and most have no idea what they're seeing. The announcer explained it, but he was quick and few people were paying attention.

    The game seems to be played differently, too. Did the guys spend the last hour talking strategy?

    Let the record show the Caballeros were the inaugural winners, 36-34.

    ------

    Nelson spends the drive back processing it all.

    "This exceeded my expectations," he says, "by a lot."

    He's excited about his sport's unmapped future.

    Should they keep playing three quarters before the rodeo, and the finale during the show? Or can they build an entire night around a game, with all the trappings of a live sporting event?

    Will it catch on enough to build a league? How about several, with teams from cities and rodeos, colleges and ranches?

    What about television? Nelson already has talked to the local Fox Sports affiliate and wonders if ESPN would be interested. Another option is HDNet, owned by Mavs owner Mark Cuban.

    Imagine if TV does for Broncoball what it did for Roller Derby and MMA.

    Then again, Broncoball might never get beyond the Cowtown Coliseum and the Mesquite Rodeo.

    Whatever happens, I was there from the start, right in the middle of the action.