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Tom LaGarde glides down the basketball court, seemingly without effort, feet stirring in a soft shuffle. As if in a trance, he takes a pass in the backcourt, floats forward in two great strides and feathers in a five-footer. "The man's got wheels," says his pal Mike Levine. Ten, to be exact. LaGarde, you see, is the first—and finest—roller basketball player known in the world.
A member of the 1976 U.S. Olympic basketball team and a six-year NBA veteran, LaGarde, who is 6'10", decided last fall to cross basketball with roller-blading. "This is a terrific old man's game," says the 38-year-old LaGarde. "If I were to play real basketball for 20 minutes, I wouldn't be able to walk for a week."
LaGarde's knees are his Achilles' heel. He tore up his left knee during his senior year at North Carolina in 1977, and missed the Tar Heels' near-championship run through the NCAA tournament: They lost to Marquette in the final game. Two years later he blew out his right knee as a member of the Seattle SuperSonics—his fourth, and final, pro team. All told, he has endured four knee operations.
In 1988, while working as a bond broker in New York City, LaGarde began blading as part of his rehabilitation from his last knee surgery. "Every once in a while, I'd feel so good from skating that I'd play basketball in a charity game," he says. And every once in a while, he would screw up his knees again.
Fusing the two sports somehow seemed to solve the dilemma. "But I had no one to play against," LaGarde says of roller basketball. So last October he became a true roll model and published a notice in a local road-skating newsletter: "Basketball Players—Those interested in joining the first roller basketball team in the USA and the world please call Tom LaGarde."
About half a dozen people responded, and they've been the nucleus of Sunday pickup games ever since in Tompkins Square Park, on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Games begin at 9 a.m.—too early for local basketball players to object to the intrepid blade runners' hogging the entire court. "Roller basketball's not any fun at half court," says Levine, a 50-year-old social studies teacher at I.S. 394 in Brooklyn, who often plays while plugged in to Ladysmith Black Mambazo on his Walkman. Levine, as you might have guessed, is the freewheeling free spirit of the New York Wheels, the first and so far only team in LaGarde's fledgling National In-Line Basketball League (NIBBL). "Believe me," Levine says, "nothing's freaky about this sport."
Except maybe injuries. So far, there have been none. In the fast-breaking games at Tompkins Square, not one of the dozen or so players wears a helmet, knee guards or even elbow pads. "Playing hoops on skates is a lot less dangerous than playing off them," LaGarde says. "The blades help keep your feet underneath you. In fact, it's almost impossible to take an off-balance shot." Or travel. And as for the pick-and-roll....
The game's jump shot is still in its embryonic stages. About the only Tompkins Square regular whose skates actually leave the ground is Louie Casillas, a printing company employee who just happens to be the national roller-blade long-and high-jump champion. He's known as Altitude Lou. "This is a wonderful sport for white guys," notes LaGarde. "All men can't jump."
Which leaves LaGarde, who's 7'2" in his skates, a lot of unchallenged air space. "It just goes to show," he says. "If you want to be the best at something, you've got to invent it."