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Rolling into the millenium
Posted: Tuesday December 22, 1998 05:49 PM
The incredible revival in the popularity of professional wrestling, which is now drawing more than 10 million viewers to its Monday night TV shows, Raw and Nitro, has prompted the imminent return -- are you ready for this? -- of Roller Derby.
You see, as in fashion, nothing in sport ever goes away. It just -- like the Roller Derby -- goes around in circles. The Derby has thrice been a sensation -- in the Depression, after the war, then in the 1970s. Each time the fad died out, it was written off for good. But here we are with Roller Derby, now re-christened RollerJam, which is, we are told, "super-charged for the millennium."
Yes, even as you read my breathless report, the first new Derby-cum-Jam matches are being taped in Orlando, ready to debut in January on cable. For those of you who have a hole in your heart because your NBA team is not playing, here are the RollerJam teams you can choose from to be your new sports favorite: the Illinois Inferno, the Texas Storm, the Nevada High Rollers, the California Quakes, the New York Enforcers, the Florida Sun Dogs.
Now, besides a cable deal, a new league needs two things. One is a commissioner and the other is players. It was easier getting the commissioner. His name is Jerry Seltzer, the son of Leo Seltzer, who personally invented the Derby in the 1930s. Jerry Seltzer was himself responsible for the last reincarnation of his father's sport, and like any good commissioner, he has all the answers. Like no other commissioner, Seltzer also has his tongue in his cheek.
Somebody asked Commissioner Seltzer the other day if the Derby was an illegitimate sport. With a straight face, he replied that he would never let the Derby sink to the entertainment level of the NBA, with the likes of Dennis Rodman. But, is not the Derby too violent? Commissioner Seltzer replied: how could it be thus if it does not have Latrell Sprewell on one of its teams?
Obtaining Roller Derby players has been more difficult, inasmuch as the visual history of the Derby has been interrupted. Specifically, none of the young Derby candidates have the foggiest idea what the Derby is. They have to sit around and watch old kinescopes to learn how to do what they're supposed to be doing. It's sort of like the Generation X employees at Williamsburg learning how to do 17th-century crafts that have been forgotten over time.
But since the RollerJam rookies have all grown up skating with the in-line models, technology has, ipso facto, made them faster than any of the legendary Derby heroes of the past -- the fabled Tuffy Brasuhn and Ken Monte, rough-tough Charlie O'Donnell, the villainous Ann Calvallo and the sainted Joanie Weston.
In fact, it is bittersweet, but interest in reviving the Derby began when Ms. Weston died last year, and the obituaries of this magnificent, forgotten female athlete reminded people of her fond and foolish sport -- one of the few that historically gave equal opportunity to women.
So-called legitimate sport has become so crass, so distant, so ugly, that I think, ironically, it is wrestling and now Roller Derby that seem to offer charm and humor and friendliness that appeals to fans who feel alienated by today's big-time athletes. Sometimes what is real comes across as so false, while what is arranged can appear more genuine.
Go, Sun Dogs!
These commentaries, which appear each Wednesday on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, are posted weekly by CNN/SI.
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