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Reeve Robert Brenner is not your average rabbi. Your average rabbi's signature is not on his own line of basketballs, as Brenner's is. And even if it were, your average rabbi probably couldn't keep one of those balls spinning on his fingertip, as Brenner can. But let's say, for argument's sake, that your average rabbi can spin the ball. He surely would never do such a thing in front of the congregation. Brenner did. About a decade ago Brenner, performing at the pulpit of Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, N.J., spun a basketball before a couple hundred rather amazed temple goers. No, he's not your average rabbi.
Basketball has always been a big part of the 55-year-old Brenner's life. It was the favorite game of his youth in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, and he has continued to play as an adult—from pickup games in Bethesda, Md., where he now lives, to New York City to Tel Aviv. To hear Brenner tell it, he isn't your average basketball player, either. "If you add up all the points I've scored, rebounds I've taken, fouls I've committed, shots and steals," he says, "I don't know anybody who could put up those kinds of numbers, unless they've played three times a week for 30 years like I have."
Having outdone—at least in his own mind—Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain and Russell, Brenner has recently taken after another basketball legend: James Naismith. Brenner, too, has founded a basketball game. It's called Bankshot. It's a radically modified version of the sport, and it allows wheelchair and able-bodied athletes to compete against one another without giving special allowances to either group.
Inspired by his young cousin, Janice Herman, who was confined to a wheelchair after an automobile accident, Brenner came up with Bankshot while living in Israel in 1981. He wanted to develop a "nonexclusionary" basketball contest that entire families, including those with disabled members, could play. He decided not to alter the configuration of either the ball or the rim, so he began fooling with the backboard. He experimented with cardboard models, bending them to create challenging shooting angles. Then he hired a fabric manufacturer to make fiberglass versions of the most interesting backboards. He lowered the rim to eight feet from the floor, to better accommodate wheelchair athletes. And he ruled out all running and jumping.
The result is a game that is a mix of basketball, billiards, miniature golf and even fine art. Bankshot backboards have been displayed in New York City's Museum of Modern Art and in the Israel National Art Museum in Jerusalem. This is only fitting, inasmuch as Brenner cites modern art giants Picasso, Kandinsky and Moreau as influences on his designs. With their odd shapes and bright colors, Brenner's backboards have a surreal, futuristic look, like hoop saplings sprung from radioactive soil.
As with some modern art, Bankshot takes getting used to. The format is similar to that of miniature golf, with 18 stations plus a tiebreaker hoop, all set up in an area about half the size of a tennis court. The stations have uniquely shaped backboards that require different types of shots. At each hoop the shooter lets fly from three different circles on the ground. A complete circuit usually takes about 45 minutes.
The shots start off easily enough, with a straight-ahead bank shot off a conventional backboard at the first station. Varying points, determined by distance and difficulty, are scored for each shot that goes in, and bonus points are gained by hitting from all three circles at any given station. In the middle rounds the backboards get trickier, calling for wraparound shots and double-backboard ricochet shots. The game becomes increasingly difficult, culminating in the final two "very diabolical" stations, where points are doubled to a maximum of 20 per station. "Get your points early" is Brenner's advice. At the tiebreaker station, which Brenner calls the Black Hole, a player must bank the ball off two rimless backboards and into a basket a few feet away; it's enough to make Michael Jordan cringe. "You need a good touch, brains and a feel for physics," Brenner says.
A perfect score is 200 points. Brenner, the sport's Wilt as well as its Naismith, is the only player known to have reached that plateau, but he is now semiretired. "The inventor has got to make room for the players," he explains.
Bankshot is being played at miniature golf courses and parks in 65 cities across the United States and in Israel. The sport's first national champion, 16-year-old Mike Anderson of Monticello, Ind., won his crown last September by scoring 185 points. His best score ever is 188, and he's aiming to become the second Bank-shooter to reach 200. "Our court has been open for about three years," says Mike, who practices Bankshot at a local amusement center in his hometown. "It's outdoors and only open in the summer, so I have to get out right after Memorial Day each year to get my touch back."
While Mike is able-bodied, Brenner and others believe a disabled athlete will win the nationals in a future year. "The wheelchair athlete can sit right on each circle, just as someone who can stand up would," says Roy Ovesen, who with his wife, Jan, owns a Bankshot court in Centerville, Ga. The Ovesens' court, adjacent to their minigolf layout, is frequented by several disabled athletes who wheel up and pay $2.50 to challenge, and often beat, their able-bodied friends. "There's no reason at all they can't compete, as long as they can shoot."