Posted: Wednesday January 5, 2011 1:19PM ; Updated: Wednesday January 5, 2011 5:22PM
Chris Ballard
Chris Ballard>ON SPORTS

Shooting stars: Arcade game Pop-A-Shot allows Joes to beat pros

Story Highlights

The game has taken different forms and takes coordination, rhythm to excel

L.A. busboy Ricardo Reyes has beaten likes of Kobe, LeBron, Carmelo

Several people claim that they're the best, but there's no good way to decide

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Busboy Ricardo Reyes has gone on Jimmy Kimmel several times to showcase his skills at Pop-a-Shot
Chris Ballard/SI

I have witnessed some unlikely sights in my day, but this was surreal. There on TV was Kobe Bryant, perhaps the most competitive man alive, losing a shooting contest. Not just losing, either, but getting his ass kicked. By a short, bald, middle-aged busboy.

The affair was so one-sided that Bryant, wearing a forced, pained smile, had been obliged to concede -- an act of which I had thought he was incapable. I was awestruck. Who in the world was this little man, this stone-faced marksman who had humbled the NBA superstar at the game of Pop-A-Shot in front of his hometown Los Angeles crowd on Jimmy Kimmel Live?

Now, I know what you're thinking: Pop-A-Shot? Who cares about Pop-A-Shot? That's not even a sport. And you're right, it's not a sport. It's something else entirely: a test of manhood and hand-eye coordination and endurance and your ability to function at peak efficiency after sucking down seven Guinnesses.

Go ahead and play your billiards and toss your darts, go Big Buck Hunting and strike from that tee of Gold. Flip the cup, toss the pong, lean on that rickety pinball machine, gobble those blinking ghosts and wrench that foosball handle. All these pursuits are enjoyable in their own right, but none offers the rewards of Pop-A-Shot, that rare bar game that provides true athletic bliss: that moment when shot after shot plummets through the net and your hands become a blur and the night slows down and it's just you and the machine and that swishhhhh sound repeating like a chorus of electronic angels. That's when it arrives, that intoxicating flood of endorphins -- what other bar game delivers endorphins? -- the kind that allows your sorry drunk ass, right then and there, in some dark corner of the world, to enter the Zone, to channel Reggie Freaking Miller. To allow you to be, for 90 seconds, immortal.

That's why you'll find pro athletes playing Pop-A-Shot at a random Chuck E. Cheese (as Albert Pujols has been known to do) or shooting alone at a Jillian's (as I once witnessed Paul Pierce doing in Indianapolis, his 6-foot-7 frame bent forward, his eyes locked on the rim, oblivious to the busty woman eyeing him from the bar). It's why the essayist Sarah Vowell, in an ode to the game in Forbes, of all places, called Pop-A-Shot "the crack cocaine of basketball." Why Drew Magary, in his classic essay about the perfect Father's Day, included heading to Dave & Buster's in a limo to "beat the living s--- out of a random 15-year-old at Pop-A-Shot." Because, c'mon, who wouldn't want to do that?

Part of the game's charm is that most anyone can be good at it. To be great, though -- well, that is another thing entirely. Which brings us to Ricardo Reyes, the Los Angeles busboy who destroyed Kobe, who is capable of making 240 out of 250 shots in three minutes -- or 1.35 shots every second. Reyes is the Rain Man of Pop-A-Shot, its Horatio Alger, its David to so many NBA Goliaths. Not only did he take down Bryant 82-58 in a 30-second match on Kimmel last spring, but he also torched Lamar Odom by 49 points, Carmelo Anthony by 46, Charles Barkley by 34 and LeBron James by 30. The reactions of the stars were priceless, ranging from good-natured laughter (Odom) to chuckling disbelief (Barkley) to mild disdain (Carmelo) to discomfort followed by insincere congratulations (LeBron). As for Kobe, well, at the moment when Reyes was about to tie his score, the Lakers MVP swatted his shot. It takes a lot of talent to agitate so much talent.

Watching Reyes, I wondered if a man like him has a gift, the way a great golfer or pitcher does. I wondered if he knows things, is privy to certain secrets of the universe. Which is why, sitting there on my couch on that spring night, I decided I needed to find Reyes, to understand him, to learn from him.

And then, of course, to beat him.

(Watch Reyes beat LeBron, Carmelo, Lamar Odom and Charles Barkley.)

*****

You'll find this hard to believe, but once upon a time there were glory and fame and riches in Pop-A-Shot. There was a national championship, held one year in Chicago, the next in Dallas, drawing competitors from around the globe and offering tens of thousands of dollars in prizes and boasting beer conglomerates for sponsors. Pop-A-Shot was the official game of the NBA. Steve Alford's dad was a franchisee, Dr. J was known to play, Paul Westphal was reportedly one of the country's best. All because of an old college coach named Ken Cochran.

It was Cochran who, while recovering from bypass surgery in 1981, dreamed up a contraption that let anybody, almost anywhere, play hoops. Cochran had rung up a 401-118 record while coaching for 18 years at the NAIA level, including a 106-game winning streak at Marymount College in Salina, Kans. He'd been to five NAIA National Championships, but at 48 he worried his heart was telling him to slow down. He needed another business. Basketball was about all he knew, but he knew it well, and he'd noticed something about people who played it. "I'd driven by driveways and courts and in 40 years I'd never seen anyone working on his defensive stance," he says. "It was all shooting."

Cochran's machine was elegantly simple: a backboard with a smaller-than-regulation basket that was 7-10 high and eight feet away. The goal: hit as many shots as possible in 40 seconds with three seven-inch-wide balls, which rolled back down a canvas slide to the shooter. The hook: Score more than 40 points and you got a free game. Cochran introduced the machine at his Heart of America hoops camps and noticed something telling: Even when campers had access to a gym where they could shoot regular hoops for free, they chose to line up and pay $1 to shoot on the Pop-A-Shot. Capitalism had spoken.

By the late '80s there were more than 5,000 Pop-A-Shot machines around the U.S. sucking down quarters. The one in Bobby Valentine's sports bar in Stamford, Conn., reportedly brought in $75,000 in two years alone. Sensing his moment, Cochran organized national championships, which drew upwards of 180 players from 40 states and Canada each year beginning in 1988. The event was covered by magazines such as Tavern Sports but also larger outlets, including Sports Illustrated. In 1989 a 21-year-old bartender from London, Ont., named Gary Kerr made every shot in the finals to set a new world record of 153 and win the title.

Kerr, like many of his ilk, bore little resemblance to an elite athlete in either physique or training methods. He'd honed his skills at the Fabulous Forum, a strip joint in London, often winning $100 a night hustling other bargoers. He never thought his skill would lead to greater glory. "When I found out I'd won an all-expenses-paid trip to Dallas for the World Championships, I was like, 'Holy crap!'"

Kerr won $6,800 in Dallas, blew almost half of it on clothes at the Galleria Mall and returned home a legend, at least to people who play Pop-A-Shot at strip clubs. Now 43 and living in the tiny town of St. Thomas, Ont., he finishes the exteriors of houses and was thrilled to hear from a reporter. He hasn't played Pop-A-Shot in ages and says, echoing a common theme among aficionados, "My wife didn't understand it at first." Now he hopes that "she'll realize I was once a world champion at something."

 
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