Frank Garcia can’t help but start laughing. He’s standing in the middle of the Bushrod Recreation Center gym on a Thursday night, wearing gym shorts and holding a small, red plastic ball that looks like a miniature version of the ones found in schoolyards from coast to coast. Two of his high school buddies are standing next to him, and they’re cracking jokes of the ball-pun variety at each other’s expense. All around the gym, these plastic balls are whizzing by, as dozens of people warm up for a night of dodgeball.
“We’re adults, but we’re playing a kids game,” Garcia says, stopping to laugh. “It’s really fun.”
Yup, adults. Garcia and his friends all graduated from Alameda High in 1995. Now they’re part of Oakland’s new dodgeball league, which is part of the World Dodgeball Society and has leagues in cities around the country. The Oakland League begins its nine-week season this Thursday, and members of the half-dozen or so teams will compete for an Oakland championship. Garcia’s team dubbed themselves “Deadliest Catch.”
Dodgeball is, of course, the popular kids’ game that has caught on strong with an older crowd in recent years. In the Oakland league, teams of up to 20 players line up against each other on a basketball court, race to some of those purple or red plastic balls lined up on the center line, and begin throwing them at players on the other side of the court. If you’re hit, you have to go to the sidelines. If you catch the ball, the person who threw it is out. Last team with a player left standing wins. (For more on the rules, take a look at the interactive graphic at the top of the page.)
With the season still a week away, Justin Barnes, the league’s organizer, set up a jamboree for this night, at which anyone can show up and either form a team or be placed on one. About 60 people crowded inside the Bushrod gym to hear details of the league, like the rules and how to join or start a team, before they broke up into two big dodgeball matches on either side of the basketball court.
Barnes thought up the idea of starting a dodgeball league in Oakland after moving to town from Los Angeles in October and finding out there was no place to play. He said the first thing he did after the move was to start the league, before he even started looking for a job. “I moved up here because I love Oakland and have wanted to live here for a long time,” said Barnes, who works in retail design. “I made sure I brought my favorite pastime with me.”
He happened to move right around the corner from the Bushrod rec center, and quickly signed up for a regular slot on Thursday evenings for an open gym. He began a recruiting effort that included placing fliers anywhere he could, plus he rolled out a push on Facebook. He carried a ball around with him for a while as a conversation starter. The open gym nights started in November, and soon there were 30 people showing up every night to play.
“People found out about this community building thing going on and jumped on it right away,” Barnes said. “It really impressed me and made me want to stay in Oakland, this sense of community.”
Adam Howe was one of those players. He’d been looking for a league to join for the nearly four years he’d been living in Oakland since moving out from Boston, and couldn’t believe it when his wife saw a post about the open gyms on Facebook. He’s been coming out pretty much every Thursday since. The team he formed is called The Dizzy Llamas after his team in Boston. He’s had some shirts printed: bright orange, softball-style shirts with a white llama on the front and his last name and the number 15 on the back.
“It’s that middle school game that everyone wanted to play,” Howe said of the draw of the game. “The beauty of it is, pretty much everyone can play.”
Barnes said he loves playing dodgeball because its good workout, and it’s fun to meet new people and get to know them through a little friendly competition and through drinks at the bar afterward.
“When you’re getting into your 20s and 30s, it gets hard to meet new people and new friends,” he said. “When we’re playing dodgeball, we’re all on the same page. It doesn’t matter what you do for a living or what city you came from or anything like that. We all have something in common when we play dodgeball, and then we go and drink beer.”
For Garcia and his friends, it means a high school reunion every week. He and his friends get together every week to have a few drinks before and after the games, and enjoy playing a schoolyard game in between. “I would see him twice a year, and now I see him once a week,” says Garcia’s high school friend Edgar Ednacot.
Then the whistle sounds and another game begins.
To sign up for the Oakland Dodgeball League, sign up on line here or show up to the Bushrod rec center on Thursday evening at 7:30 pm.
Text by Ryan Phillips, interactive graphic by Brittany Schell.