Less than two weeks separate Gage Smith from his first ESPN appearance. The black eye he currently sports does little to deter his anticipation. As Smith says, “This is my sport.” Sure, Smith has taken some hits throughout the training process, but he delivers his share of blows while rising high – ridiculously high – above the rim. Roughly 1,200 miles west of where he starred on the basketball court for Concordia, Smith has embarked upon a new journey, one that requires him to be fearless.
This unique venture still involves a round ball and basket, but it’s not exactly basketball. This is Smith’s introduction to a sport called SlamBall.
“It was overwhelming,” Smith said of his first taste of SlamBall. “A lot of these guys are ex-XFL football players and it’s a lot of G League guys and overseas basketball players. Some of them are professional trampoline dunkers that do halftime shows. To come from Concordia, this is crazy. After the first day of jumping super high, I was like, this is pretty cool. There is a fear factor for sure when you jump that high and try to dunk on somebody. At the start it was terrifying, but now I’ve figured it out.”
About 200 players convened in Las Vegas this summer in hopes of landing a roster spot on one of the eight professional SlamBall teams (seven players per team on each roster). The 6-foot-6 Bulldog alum’s skills were impressive enough for him to be drafted in the third round by a league team called the MOB. Not bad for someone who had to learn a completely new sport that features four rectangularly shaped trampolines near both baskets. As the organization’s website exclaims, SlamBall is “where basketball and football cultures collide.”
Audiences will likely need to see it in action to fully grasp the game, but it’s a version of basketball that rewards supreme athleticism and physicality. And there’s big money backing the sport considering SlamBall investors include the likes of David Adelman, David Blitzer, Blake Griffin, Michael Rubin and Gary Vaynerchuk. With their investment, the American version of SlamBall is set to make a return for the first time since 2008. The 2023 season will begin on July 21 with more than 30 hours of live SlamBall games set to air on ESPN across five weekends.
For Smith, this is his occupation. He’s on contract for this season and is training every day with his MOB teammates, who are led by head coach Brendan Kirsch. Says Smith of his schedule, “It’s a full-on grind. It’s like playing in college ball without the school part. There’s a lot of training. We usually have a team meeting around 8:30 a.m. and then by 10 a.m. we work out for an hour. We have practice for two or two-and-a-half hours and go eat and watch film. It’s kind of a packed day.”
In the evenings, Smith and his teammates settle into a Vegas Airbnb supplied by the league. The “crib,” as Smith calls it, even includes a swimming pool. The Elizabeth, Colo., native jokes that he tries to stay away from the casinos and other distractions. Outdoor activities like hiking and ATV rides are more his style anyway.
It turns out, SlamBall also suits his style. A well-rounded five-year standout for Coach Ben Limback’s program, Smith churned out career collegiate totals of 1,335 points, 899 rebounds, 282 assists, 138 steals and 74 blocked shots in 134 games. After leading the Bulldogs to a third national tournament appearance in four seasons this past March, the Business Administration graduate still sat undecided on his next move.
“I didn’t know where I was going to go after basketball was done,” Smith said. “I was thinking about trying to play overseas. Then Coach Limback got an email about SlamBall and I was like, ‘Absolutely.’ I remember seeing that on TV and thinking it was so epic. I love trampolines and honestly, I think this is my sport. I loved basketball, but this sport is insane. It requires so many rules you have to know. You have to be fearless when you’re jumping 30 feet in the air.”
Limback was aware of the sport of SlamBall and immediately thought of Gage as someone who had the physical talent to make the adaptation. In just a short time playing the sport, Smith has already developed the same type of confidence that Bulldog fans saw him use to his advantage on the court – and he’s definitely not afraid of a little contact. He continues to soak everything up.
“I learn something new every day, and we’ve been doing this for a month,” Smith said. “The first two weeks you have to dribble into traps and figure out how to time the stopper and make sure your bounce doesn’t match his. There’s three seconds on the island – kind of like three seconds in the paint. I’m learning something every day, like new tricks I can use in the games. There are ways to finish over the stopper with stiff arms and changing the ball to my other hand and dunking it. Right now they have me starting at stopper. We’ll see where I end up. You have to match their bounce on the tramps. It’s crazy how much thinking goes into the game, with the fear of people hitting you.”
The sport actually encourages hits on the opponents when dribbling the ball. Dunks are worth three points while layups and mid-range shots put two points on the board. There’s also a four-point line meant to spice things up. Most spectacularly, SlamBall offers the constant spectacle of both offensive and defensive players springing themselves off the trampolines and soaring high above the basket. Because of the contact and sky-high freefalls, all players wear padding to lessen the punishment.
As a “stopper,” Smith will employ his quick hands and knack for timing to ward off attempted dunks on the MOB’s defensive end. Just like when he bumped in the paint with Jamestown’s Mason Walters, Smith won’t back down. He’s developing that chip on his shoulder, believing people will overlook him as a small-town guy from a small-town college. However, it seems there are many people already taking notice of Smith.
He found SlamBall at just the right time. According to the sport’s creator and CEO Mason Gordon, “The level of interest in our hybrid team sport not just in the U.S., but across the world, has been beyond our expectations for the 2023 season. It’s clear that this is the best talent we have had in the sport’s history.”
Come July 21, catch Gage and the MOB on ESPN. Just as usual, his father Lance will be sitting courtside as all of the action takes place inside UNLV’s Cox Pavilion. Says Smith, “Hopefully it takes off because it’s a crazy opportunity. I wish I played when I was younger.”