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The Greatest Show on One Wheel

Jim Meyer

April 2, 2014

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The NCAA Championships are this weekend, and my bracket isn't looking so hot. Looking back, I am not sure why I picked Coastal Carolina over Lincoln Tech in the finals. Here's a little hard-won wisdom in bracketology for you: No matter how much you think the selection committee dropped the ball leaving out the Bartender's Academy, never go with a write-in.

It's for the best anyway. The finals may be in Arlington, Texas, this weekend, but the real March Madness is gonna be on the floor at the Baltimore Arena. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is in town, and they brought with them the King Charles Troupe, the greatest show on the court.

I must admit, I really wanted to meet these guys. When I say I used to want to join the circus, I am lying. I still want to join the circus. I even applied once, when I was 20, to join the Shrine Circus. I had an interview sitting in a trailer at the Timonium Fairgrounds and asked the guy who'd placed the ad if he was looking for any qualifications. "Can you shovel shit, boy?" he growled. Actually growled. Sometimes I wish I'd taken the job, but shit shoveler lacks a future. Kip Jones, on the other hand, can practically fly. When he was 15, he tried out for what he thought was just a regular basketball team in his native South Bronx. "We walk into the gym," he remembers, "and it's 20 guys riding unicycles." Now Jones is captain of the King Charles Troupe, the preeminent unicycle basketball team on the planet and, at 48, he's still out there wheelin', ballin'. "Life seems to have those unexpected doorways," Jones waxed, in what may be the absolute pinnacle of understatement, as I am reasonably certain no one on the planet expects to become a traveling unicycle basketball star.

If you've always thought basketball was a bit dull, that it lacked flash and, perhaps, unicycles, then the King Charles Troupe is what you've been waiting for. As I stood on the Arena floor talking to Kip, basketballing unicyclists whipped through my peripheral vision. A dozen men, each on one lonely wheel, flashed about the court. They fired off no-look passes, nailed hook shots, and formed a frighteningly fast figure eight-seemingly destined for calamity-but their timing was perfect. As impressive as it was, after a few minutes I was able to push them into soft focus and carry on a conversation like a regular human being. Then one of them dunked.

The Tomahawk Jam is my favorite dunk. It embodies the grace of basketball at its best, but also the raw physical power of an athlete in his or her prime. There are certain expectations most of us have about unicycles, and they generally don't include The Tomahawk. Unicycles are the conveyances of clowns and jugglers, not the launchpads of athletes, but a ferocious blur pulled me back to the game. Ramel Robinson, the Michael Jordan of unicycle basketball, came ripping from the right side of the basket, his body and cycle at a 45-degree angle to the Arena floor; then, from the baseline, about four feet from what would have been the outside of the key, his mighty legs exploded into the pedals and, for all intents and purposes, he took flight. It was the platonic ideal of a Tomahawk Jam: his back arched, his feet curving upward and his two chiseled arms, gripping the ball like Atlas, reaching back to meet them like coiling a spring. Like his body, the moment hung there, frozen. When I tell you I was stunned, there is no exaggeration. Listening to my taped interviews, at that moment, mid-sentence, I pause and mutter, "Jesus." Then the spring snaps, his spine curves back, legs thrust forward, and his hands bring the ball to the hoop like a fucking hammer.

The Troupe is so good, it takes on regular teams with players not balancing on what is, in all honesty, the most ridiculous vehicle this side of a pogo stick. While the games against traditional basketball teams often end up close, according to Jones, that's because, "We try not to rough 'em up too much." Unicycle basketball is an actual sport, but compared to King Charles, most other teams look like they're stooges set up to lose. The King Charles Troupe take it to another level, literally. For them, it's a game played in three dimensions. The Troupe is the Globetrotters to the rest of the unicycle basketball universe's Washington Generals.

The King Charles Troupe formed in the South Bronx way back in 1958 and pioneered one-wheeled hoops. Ten years later they auditioned for Ringling Bros. on the sidewalk in front of Madison Square Garden and, in 1969, they became the first all-black circus act in the history of Ringling Bros. They've been traveling around the world, sometimes with the circus, sometimes on their own, ever since. For many of the players, the Troupe has been a way out of some tough circumstances. For others, like 22-year-old Aaron Reid, it's a Bronx tradition and a family one too.

"I have eleven aunts and uncles and every single one of them rides the unicycles," Aaron says. "Three of my uncles and my father all travel with the circus. I was introduced to it by the whole troupe that's here. It was in the summertime, my father was here and I was like 8, they gave me a little bike, and within two weeks, I was getting down." Holding a ball in his hand and pausing before pedaling off to get back to the circus train, Aaron smiles and says, "Unicycling and basketball go hand and hand."