by Jeff Laughlin
Amidst foldaway lightsabers and store-made R2D2 costumes, I remembered how much I loathe conversations about Star Wars. I never understood the popularity of the movies and I’d be shocked if I ever did. Politely smiling and nodding, I’ve listened to more arguments about why I’m wrong for disliking Star Wars than I have arguments for why I should give the movies another shot.
Thing is, I could say the same thing about Greensboro Roller Derby.
For years, I’ve been told that I should be coming to these events. Friends of mine have participated, organized and taken on cult-like involvement with Derby. They crafted alter egos and clever nicknames. They drank together, raised money for charity and found any way they could work their obsession into conversation.
Meanwhile, I resisted.
Any sport worth watching needs to recruit superior athletes. While I respected the toughness and tenacity of those willing to get crushed, I also knew that these women represented the seedlings of something that would evolve. I just did not know how fast that would happen.
While I am tempted to classify roller derby as a racing sport, it happens at too graspable a speed. It’s not that the women of derby skate slowly on purpose. The opening of each skate, called a jam, places all the combatants of the two teams in one spot with their jammers — the only players that can score — patiently cutting through blockers. Once one of the jammers breaks through, they score in several ways, the most popular way by lapping the opposing teams blockers.
But it made little sense to me on Saturday, as the two teams of Greensboro Roller Derby — the Battleground Betties and the Elm Street Nightmares — took to the rink.
It all looked so arbitrary at first. I mean, all organized sports look painfully disorganized until fans get ahold of the rules. The beginning of each jam resembled electronic table football — pieces flipped backwards and piled on top of one another without rhyme or reason until the refs identified a skater ahead of the pack. The mass of confusion became so much clearer then.
The match had a slow, grinding feel to it. Strategically it makes sense to block hard and collapse around jammers. Like a basketball team collapsing into the paint, it makes for disturbing theater, but winning teams. The Nightmares decided to damn the penalties and win a championship.
Wrecking Belle, a member of the Betties, crawled off the track after a jam and collapsed in front of her team’s bench. The match had not gone long, but the skaters looked beaten already. The trend continued as the Betties put together an opening run to build a 19-7 lead. Belle had been hip-checked to the ground just as her teammate General Sew ended a 4-point jam, meaning she had passed the Elm Street Nightmares’ blockers once within two minutes.
The Betties looked dominant early, their jammers getting out ahead of the blockers in four of five jams, but the points they produced belied their performance. The Nightmares pushed their faster, craftier skaters forward with a series of rough blocks, taking advantage of their superior power.
A bit of strategy propelled the Betties to an unlikely halftime lead. After a time out to preserve one last possible jam, the Betties earned a one-woman advantage, or power jam, after a penalty against the Nightmares. That gave them a 52-45 lead and momentum entering the second half.
During the break, skaters mingled with the crowd and cheered on the kids in costumes while the coaches talked and laughed with the refs nearby. I had forgotten that the combatants were all friends. Derby is akin to beer-league softball, only more athletic and destructive, even advertising that the skaters would make an appearance at Stumblestilskins after the match.
All that ended just as quickly as it began, though, when they lined up for the second half. Schoolya Childs, jammer for the Betties, took over early, scoring 11 points on one jam to put the Betties up 18.
Then the Nightmares ground the match to halt. They blocked well, took advantage of a pair of penalties and won six of the next eight jams to take their first lead of the half. The Nightmares withstood several of these runs to answer with runs of their own. Frostylicious’ 14-point skate tied the score at 97 with 13 minutes left, a huge lift for the Nightmares.
Derby teams depend on these runs. Most jams end with 1-4 points, but the best teams bide their time and rely on penalties. The Betties looked gassed when the Nightmares took the lead for good on a Frostylicious 14-point power jam. On a controversial “cutting” call — when a jammer skates off the inside of the track to gain an advantage — the Nightmares pulled away for good. They won 135-113, with a 43-27 advantage in penalties.
As the teams commingled around the “trophy,” a leg-shaped lamp like the one in A Christmas Story, I had forgotten about the theme night. I had forgotten how long I had avoided the sport. I talked strategy with former players and coaches. And I, admittedly, had an agreeable time. I may not go to every match, but I’ll be back.
Just don’t expect me to have watched Star Wars by then.