Surrounded by no more than several zillion rhinestone tiaras, spangled tights and dazzling buttons proclaiming "Reach For It," Calvin Murphy returned to big-time baton twirling last week. The pro basketball player brought the three major television networks, the two major wire services and unaccustomed media attention to the United States Twirling Association's national championships. Then he got absolutely wiped out. "I embarrassed myself," he said. And he went home.
That left it to the veteran twirlers to save the show. So Marci Papadopoulos, 12, an almond-eyed junior high school beauty from Fremont, Calif. who is of Japanese-Greek descent, became twirling's reigning star. Marci won two grand national titles, was runner-up for two others and earned stomping, whistling ovations while performing all four of her exhausting routines without dropping the baton once. This accomplishment was considered amazing by the nearly 5,000 mostly young, mostly female contestants in the six-day championships at Denver. As Murphy himself said, in the vernacular of the National Basketball Association, "Marci, she real bad."
For those of you who missed it because the TV and wire service guys and gals took off as soon as the downcast Murphy left town, it should be pointed out that baton twirling is a blood-and-guts sport these days, demanding as it does quickness, strength, reflexes, courage, composure and durability, not to mention willingness to get yourself smashed in the face a lot by a flying steel stick during long hours of practice.
In other words, baton twirling is not a tubby majorette prancing in a parade in white vinyl boots. Baton twirling is not a halftime show. "This ain't no yo yo tournament," said one spectator.
Before Marci duplicated her feat of last year by winning her age group in all five categories—dance twirl, solo, strut, two-baton and three-baton—and by then winning divisional titles in four of those five, the USTA grand nationals belonged to Murphy. The 5'9" Houston Rockets guard has been carving a multi-level reputation in the NBA for seven years while progressing from being the consummate little man to the high-scoring little man to the consummate high-scoring little man who beats up on bullying big men with his flashing fists. In the world of baton twirling, however, Murphy has always been big.
As a Norwalk, Conn. schoolboy twirler, he was state champion for three years. Then he went off to Niagara University and twirled at halftimes of Buffalo Bills football games. While becoming a back-court fixture for the Rockets, Murphy continued to keep his hand in twirling by teaching it in the black sections of Houston.
After the NBA playoffs last spring, Murphy's pupils urged him to get back into competitive twirling. "Wanting to see what I had left," he put together a routine with the help of Frances Winkle, an instructor from Corpus Christi, and began practicing six hours a day in preparation for the nationals. Murphy won the Texas state tournament easily, and upon arriving in Denver he was engulfed by most of the young twirlers.
"I went over to watch Calvin practice," said Debbie Rolph, the current International Twirler of the Year, "but all he could do was sign autographs and talk to his fans. He never got time to twirl."
Murphy knew he was in for some hard times in the competition. "I've sacrificed for this and I'll be disappointed if I lose," he said. "But my experience is in show twirling. I do tricks and get the audience psyched up. Competition involves intricate body moves and mechanical technique. I've grown too strong in the shoulders to control the baton on my rolls. The thing bounces off me. The only way I can win here is to wow the judges with my style."
Twirling is judged on a 10-point system, five for content (variety and difficulty) and five for execution (speed, smoothness and showmanship) during a two-minute routine. Most of the USTA events are for twirlers 21 and under, but a few years ago the association added a division for adults, paving the way for Murphy and others.