The Pain of the Disco Ninja

Even with ankles so weakened by injury that doctors are all but useless, Tuan Vu relentlessly pushes himself toward the complex stylistic perfection that will earn him the world singles championship -- of footbag

Marshall died of a heart attack three years later at age 28, leaving Stalberger to spread the gospel of footbag. To that end, Stalberger formed the National Hacky Sack Association and eventually sold the rights for the Hacky Sack to a company called Kransco (which also makes the Frisbee), whose Wham-O subsidiary began mass-producing the bags for an even wider audience. Although much of that audience consisted of teenagers and hippies who enjoyed the game for its communal aspect and easygoing pace, the Hacky Sack soon found itself at the center of two very competitive -- and very different -- sports, which bore only passing resemblance to the passive kicking more widely associated with the Hacky Sack.

Footbag net came first. With rules similar to volleyball and tennis, players kick the footbag over a 5-foot-high net strung across a badminton court. Although initially more popular among kickers because of its objective point-scoring system, the net game has gradually ceded center stage to freestyle, a high-adrenaline exercise that combines elements of dance, juggling, and aerobics.

The freestyle genre found its wings in 1981, when a young kicker named Kenny Shults grew tired of merely keeping the bag in the air and invented a trick to perform when the sack was passed to him. He called the move "Around the World," because it requires the player to kick a bag, circle the flying bag, in midair, with his foot, and then kick the bag again with his toe.

As the Disco Ninja (left) and Sunil "Tsunami" Jani look 
on, Tu Vu, Tuan's brother, elevates for a tough trick 
during practice.
Paolo Vescia
As the Disco Ninja (left) and Sunil "Tsunami" Jani look on, Tu Vu, Tuan's brother, elevates for a tough trick during practice.
Competitive freestyle footbag requires a player to be 
ambidextrous with feet and legs.
Paolo Vescia
Competitive freestyle footbag requires a player to be ambidextrous with feet and legs.

"At first, there was a strong cultural bias against trying hard tricks, because you'd drop it, and the circle would be angry," says Shults, who is often called the "Michael Jordan of footbag" because of his towering stature in the game and the 45 world championship titles he's won. "But when people saw 'Around the World,' they were just floored. The reaction I got from the playing community was so dramatic, and that fueled my inspiration."

The "Double Around the World" -- two circles of the footbag between kicks -- soon followed, and in 1984, Shults made a fashion discovery that would forever change the sport. He tried a pair of lightweight court shoes, manufactured by Adidas, called the "Rod Laver," after the Australian tennis great. Constructed of breathable nylon mesh with a square toe, the Rod Laver instantly transformed footbag, making it easier for players to catch the bag on the outside, inside, heel, or toe of the foot.

Around the same time, Shults arrived for his freshman year at the University of Texas in Austin. He started playing freestyle Frisbee games and was intrigued by the concept of difficulty levels attached to tricks. A couple of years later, Shults and another freestyle legend named "Rippin'" Rick Reese -- who had closely followed Shults' emergence and attained similar status as an innovator of tricks -- came up with what kickers call "the add system," and competitive freestyle tournaments would never be the same.

Complex and esoteric, the add system (as in "add one level of difficulty") rates tricks on a scale of one to seven, and mercifully replaced the practice of awarding first place in tournaments to the person who keeps the bag in the air the longest. (The record is eight hours and 50 minutes, in case you're wondering.) An "Around the World," as easy as falling out of bed for top-tier freestylers, is a one-add trick; a "Clipper," wherein the player catches the footbag on the inside surface of his foot with the catching leg tucked behind the support leg, is a two-add trick. The names of tricks -- "Paradox Blender," "Symposium Whirling Swirl," "Shooting Torque" -- get zanier as the level of difficulty increases, and now, more than a decade after he invented the scoring paradigm, Shults thinks the arcane add system might be one of the biggest barriers between freestyle footbag and mass appeal. Although footbag groups are lobbying the International Olympic Committee for a tryout, Shults thinks the sport's bizarre scoring methodology will prevent it from catching on as other so-called X Games have.

"Watching someone flip a motorcycle 40 feet in the air, you can tell it's cool," Shults says. "Someone doing a 'Blurry Whirl,' well, it doesn't have the same kind of immediate impression. On the really big tricks, you have to be highly knowledgeable to tell what people are even doing. Most of the X Game sports have a level of involvement where anybody off the street can have a reasonable amount of fun -- anyone can coast down the sidewalk on a skateboard, ride a bike down a short set of stairs. Footbag takes a pretty high level of investment before you get beyond the point where you're just picking the damn thing up. And you can't appreciate other people doing it if you can't do any of it yourself."

As a pleasant midsummer evening settles on the Richmond District, Vu opens his apartment door and shares some troubling news. "My right knee is hurting," he says with a wince. "When I go like this," and he simulates an inward kick with his right foot, "I can feel it grinding."

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