He wore a tartan kilt, a beard bushy enough to hide a robin's nest, a Scottish beret and a yellow T-shirt stretched heroically across a more than ample girth. Dancing across the barroom floor to unleash a Nerf Ball hook shot, Dan Sillers looked like a cartoon character come to life.
"They didn't tell me I'd be using a ball," joked Sillers, who claimed he thought he had entered a drinking contest. The University of the District of Columbia professor, who competed Thursday night in a Great Shooters contest sponsored by Southern Comfort liquors, added, "I had to buy a bottle of that stuff this week and practice."
A dozen nerfball wizards showed up at Wolensky's bar on Pennsylvania Avenue NW for the second of six regional playoffs in this national competition to determine who has misspent more hours throwing a sponge ball through a tiny plastic hoop. Each contestant took 10 shots at a hoop six feet high. The top five were transported to the Capital Centre the same night to compete during half time of the Bullets' game against the Golden State Warriors.
"This is the short person's answer to the NBA. Size and skill don't really matter," said John Eckel, the referee for Thursday night's event and one of the originators of this subsport. "We haven't had to throw anybody out for drug abuse. Of course, we haven't done any testing, either."
Nerfball would seem the perfect sport for the elbow-bending patrons of a liquor company. It is the one sport, say aficionados, that penalizes speed and power. A soft touch developed during years of picking up dimes from wet bar tops will always triumph over pure athleticism.
"The skinny guys here have no staying power," said 47-year-old Tommy Flor, who has added an impressive amount of poundage to his frame since playing football for the University of Maryland a few decades ago. "I outmuscle everybody underneath. I'm used to the pressure. I don't wilt."
Monica Coleman, 21, the only woman in the contest, advanced to Thursday night's regional by winning a preliminary round against all comers at her local bar. During the practice session she waged her own psychological warfare.
"The only reason I won is because nobody else was there to compete. It was total luck. I don't have a chance."
Her prediction proved accurate. She missed every one of her 10 shots except the last, a driving layup to the six-foot-high hoop that was ruled illegal. The two big men, Sillers in his kilt and Flor, had only a little more luck. Flor managed to take all of his shots, including hook and turnaround jumper, without removing the torpedo-sized cigar from his mouth. Unfortunately he made only two.
The five who did make it to the Capital Centre fared much better at the bar. When the time came for them to compete at half time, after a bus ride and a few pitchers of Slam Dunk Shooters, a reportedly lethal alcoholic concoction, they melted under the lights.
Joe ("Nerfball is my life") Cuozzo, a 26-year-old accountant with three Nerf baskets in his home, hit just one out of 10 attempts at the basket set up at half-court.
"The wind out there was terrible," said Cuozzo. "And I'm used to bar lighting."
The winner, Barry Williams of Morgantown, W. Va., needed just two buckets to win. His reward will be a trip to New York for the finals on April 16 and a chance to win an all-expenses-paid trip for two to an NBA championship playoff game and a dinner with Hall of Famer Jerry West, now general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Thursday night Williams and the other four shooters earned no obvious reward for their efforts. When the contest was over, the crowd of 8,125 booed. One spectator took the trouble to lean out of the cheap seats and yell, "You guys stink."
"I can understand that," said Jim Burns, a 24-year-old student at the University of Virginia. "I'm originally from Philadelphia."