When Don Botsford closed his Ann Arbor Gymkana in 1986, he put his spaceball court into storage, quietly ending an obscure and glorious chapter in Ann Arbor’s sports history.
Or so we thought.
Last February Botsford, now 80, installed the court in his new gym, a 2,000-square-foot pole structure on his 20-acre nature preserve on the outskirts of town. It’s one of the few places in the world where people can still play spaceball – a game once dominated by players from Ann Arbor – and probably one of the few places in the world where anyone knows what it is.
“It’s a fun, silly game; it’s good exercise, and if you could get more people to play it they would get addicted,” said Washtenaw County prosecutor Brian Mackie, whose competitive spaceball career in the 1960s took him to distant shores (Cleveland) along with Botsford and two other players from Ann Arbor.
So What the Heck Is Spaceball?
Spaceball involves elements of basketball (throw the ball through the cylinder) and volleyball (get the ball past your opponent without hitting it out of bounds). This all happens on a court that’s a trampoline. We admit it’s hard to pick up some of the game’s subtleties when you’re bouncing up and down, but even with a sketchy understanding of the rules, the challenge is addictive. It’s not easy to chuck a soft, 8.5 inch diameter ball through a 10-inch horizontal cylinder some 8 or 9 feet off the floor while timing your bounce so that your opponent is down when you’re up.
“You can, when you learn it, exercise more body control and use the back as well as the bed to alter your time in the air,” Mackie said. “You can make the ball do crazy things.”
Botsford recommends using a two-handed overhead toss to shoot the ball – a lot like throwing a soccer ball in-bounds. But on a recent trip to play the game, one of The Chronicle’s volunteers quickly perfected a one-handed, tomahawk slam through the chute. Bolstered by success, he was, for the moment, da’ man.
The 6-foot by 12-foot trampolines are set up at floor level, stretched across a three-foot deep concrete pit. Besides leaving nothing to fall off of, the floor-level tramps create an experience where you step across the floor, take few preliminary bounces and realize you can fly. You can defy gravity, channel you inner superhero, Be Like Mike.
“We’ve gotta get one of these,” raved our senior tester, 12.
“He should do birthday parties,” our 10-year-old junior tester suggested.
The Early Years
Back in 1956 Botsford opened the Ann Arbor Gymkana in a building on Maple Road, where Top of the Lamp is now located. In 30 years, he says, the gym only finished in the black twice. He always worked an outside job to keep it going. He used to charge kids 50 cents a head to come into the gym on Saturday mornings and bounce to their heart’s content. They took turns on the spaceball court or, if the crowd was big enough, played an elimination-style spaceball game called King of Space.
They could burn all the energy they wanted, as long as they followed the rules – one at a time on the trampolines, and no flips. People’s propensity to get upside-down, in fact, is a big part of the reason Botsford’s insurance is so expensive. Most companies, he says, set the minimum at $10,000 a year as soon as they hear the word “trampoline.”
Botsford, once a collegiate gymnast at Central Michigan University, attributes the steady parade of backyard trampolinists through emergency rooms to a lack of rules and supervision.
“I have a list of 50 tricks that I’ll teach on the trampoline, and the backflip is trick No. 35,” he said. “You have to learn the first 34 before you try a backflip, and by then you’re so comfortable you’ll pick it right up.”
Mackie, who first tried spaceball as a break from weightlifitng at the gymkana, teamed up with a player from the Nissen Trampoline Company and won a doubles championship at a 1966 national meet in Cleveland.
“Cleveland was one dead town back then,” Mackie said. “(The meet) was underground, in the basement of a convention center. It was a weird place to go for a weird thing, but when you’re 17 it’s kind of cool.”
George Nissen, founder of Nissen Trampoline Company, created spaceball back in 1960 as a means of spreading trampoline love to people who wanted to do more than just bounce up and down. It achieved enough notoriety to get a spread in the July 12, 1965 Sport Illustrated magazine. Botsford and five women from the Ann Arbor Gymkana traveled to a New York resort to put on a spaceball demonstration for SI’s photographers during a national trampoline championship.
“We were probably better known in other areas where they had gymnastics and so forth,” Botsford said. “In Ann Arbor, people hardly knew about us because of the four inches of coverage we’d get.”
Nissen Trampoline made 250 spaceball “courts” like Botsford’s. Other companies made subtly different models, but Botsford says his is one of just 12 originals left in the world. Though he doesn’t advertise the spaceball court – hassles with the county over building codes have so far prevented him from getting the inspection necessary to open for business – family and friends come in and play nonetheless, and word is getting around.
The Botsford Nature Preserve is a regular stop for school groups and camps, and that brings in more spaceball neophytes.
“The other day we had 64 kids out here from the Green Adventure camp, and they let people come in and play spaceball,” Botsford said. “They didn’t get to play for a long time, but they at least got exposed to it. It makes people want to come back.”
About the author: Amy Whitesall is a freelance writer based in Chelsea.