Whether you realize it or not, you or someone you love has rolled. Probably, at your birthday party where a man dressed up as a furry rodent was attempting to lure a gaggle of screaming ten-year olds to pizza and arcade games. A few decades later, looking around Full Circle Bar, in Williamsburg, a few things have changed since the days playing skeeball at Chuck-E-Cheese. The man in the mouse suit has been traded for a bartender and beer on-tap. The screaming ten-year olds are your friends who have gotten taller and back-to-back Mission of Burma and Notorious B.I.G., means the music has gotten much, much better. Welcome to Brewskee-Ball.
Invented in 1909 by J.D. Estes, the folks at Full Circle Bar have reinvented skee-ball from an arcade and boardwalk staple to a full-fledged competitive sport with teams, coaches, trophies, national championships and a happy hour that lasts until 8 p.m. The League boasts 600 active members nationally, with 200 members based in Brooklyn.
Brewskee-Ball began the way most good ideas start, over an extended lunch. In 2005, co-founder Eric Pavony and a colleague, Evan Tobias, found themselves playing skeeball in Coney Island long after lunch had passed. (Pavony still runs the national Brewskee-ball league, but Tobias has since moved on.) It was after that moment that skeeball would move from the boardwalk to the bars.
For the first four years, Brewskee-Ball made a makeshift home at Ace Bar in the East Village. After years of camping out, the league opened Full Circle Bar in late 2009 to serve as as the national home of Brewskee-Ball and a tree house of sorts for those who roll. Now, on most nights, the Brewskee-Ball manager Pete Marinucci, aka “Nootch,” can be found egging on the crowd with his contagious enthusiasm and sense of humor. “During Brewskee-Ball season, things have been known to get a little punny,” Nootch explains. “Seasons are transformed into skeesons and there are three, three-month skeesons per year.” Among the team names you’ll find Aunt Beckskee, Skee-Diddy, Skeeanu Reeves, and Skeezus Christ Apostles. “Pretty much everything that can be punned will be punned,” says Nootch. As a group who spends a large amount of time talking about balls and sinking holes, “Brewskee-Ballers tend to have a good sense humor.”
Like most rollers, Nootch believes that it is the people that make Brewskee-Ball special. “We are a very tight-knit group. There have been numerous marriages and babies of people who’ve met here,” he says. “It’s a diverse crowd. We have bankers, bartenders, teachers, and musicians. We’re open to anyone who wants to have a good time.”
Nootch is right. Looking around Full Circle on tournament day, you might describe Brewskee-Ball as the great unifier. The bar is filled with people, who if not for this moment, would make you wonder how they knew each other. Unlike football or basketball, the players of Brewskee-Ball come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. They come donning team T-shirts and near perfect form. Whether they are 25 or 40, one thing is clear–they come to compete.
For rollers, the year has been building up to one thing: The Brewskee-Ball National Championship 6, also known as “The BEEB.” To be held Memorial Day Weekend at Full Circle Bar Austin, the winner of The Rollers Tournament (the individual competition) will win $3,000 and the winning team of The World Mug (the team competition) will win $1,500. Along with cash prizes winners take home a giant beer mug engraved with their names and all the street cred they can swallow. Around the country, rollers are vying for their chance into Brewskee-Ball history.
With athletic precision, Brooklyn Brewskee-Ball coach Dave Mahler, aka “the Bear,” steps up to his lane. His breathing is measured, his eyes focused, and his form is impeccable. “You become a better roller the same way you get to Carnegie Hall. Practice. At the end of the day, rolling one ball into the 40 [cup] is not difficult. We all know how to do it. It’s rolling the ball 90 times into the 40 cup that becomes more challenging. It’s a mental game. It’s finding that stance that feels good enough that you can do that every time. And then as a coach, we build on that.”
While the Bear is rolling, Jake Ziwich, a three-year veteran and ceramics instructor who happened upon Brewskee-Ball by chance and has since risen to be a high roller, gives me my first official lesson in rolling. Holding two skeeballs in his right hand for quick access, and another in his rolling hand, he says that the key is to hold the skeeball with your fingers, not your palm. He leans his left shin against the lane, “for balance,” he says, and quickly skinks three of the 40 point cups in a matter of seconds. Describing his transition into competitive Brewskee-Ball, Ziwich says, “When I first started rolling it meant coming to the bar and having a good time and trying to do alright in the matches. As I’ve progressed and become more of an elite roller, and my team is making the playoffs and the championships, it’s meant practicing on free days and making sure I don’t drink too much before big matches. Sometimes it even means nightmares about skeeball.”
Tracy Townsend and Amanda Sumpter traveled from Wilmington, N.C. for the championship game–even though they weren’t competing. Townsend has been rolling since 2010, Sumpter since 2008. “If you look at my cell phone, every single person I text with is a roller from some league,” Townsend says. “Right now a roller from San Francisco is texting me about how this tournament is going. I’ve been on flights to Cancun, Mexico and have talked to people about skeeball. Who doesn’t enjoy it? I went to Coney Island yesterday for the first time and there were so many kids lined up to play skeeball. It’s a fun game that takes you back. Why skeeball? Well, why not?”
For Sumpter, she encountered Brewskee-Ball while working at the TV station, WCT, when a spot for it came on the air. “I was with my manager at the time when the spot came on and we looked at each other and knew we had to try it. I’ve been hooked ever since.”
Like, Townsend and Sumpter, not everyone in attendance Sunday, came to compete. Joey Vargas, heavily tattooed, in what you could describe as that “Brooklyn way,” arrives early in the night, his black hair slicked back and the sides of his head shaved. He has a tattoo of skeeball cups on his upper left forearm, and wears a Taylor Swift t-shirt that he bought at the concert. Vargas describes himself as a retired skeeballer, simply here to support the other teams. “I don’t roll anymore, but Brewskee-Ball is hard to stay away from and it’s so much fun to watch. It’s great to see people have their first big wins.”
This Memorial Day, “Froot Loops,” Sunday’s winning championship team will head to Austin for their shot of The World Mug and $1500.
According to the Bear, there’s a certain magic to Brewskee-Ball. “There is something about getting a bunch of rollers who are all really good together,” he says. “I think one thing New York has always done really well is that we are all competitive, but at the same time we are all in this together. If the people you are rolling against get a great score, you respect that. You give them a high-five. Then, you beat them.”
The next “skeeson” launches Sunday, June 7th with a Kickoff Jamboree featuring free drinks for everyone in the league. Matches begin June 15 with 8-week skeesons and teams of three. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or to register.