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Indy's Brendan Kirsch coaches The Mob to Slam Ball title

Jan 30, 2024

When his team, The Mob, took a 28-point lead into the fourth quarter of Thursday night's Slam Ball championship in Las Vegas and it became clear he was going to lead the first undefeated champion in Slam Ball history, Brendan Kirsch's thoughts turned first to appreciation for a team that had put its pedal to the floor and never let up. Then, as the Mob continued to cruise to a 72-44 win over The Slashers to finish 18-0, he started thinking about his father.

Bob Kirsch played basketball and football and ran track at Cathedral High School and then played football at Butler. He was a mental health counselor and a huge fan of the Colts, Pacers and Notre Dame football, always inviting friends and family over to watch games in his well-stocked and decorated basement bar, which he called "the best not-for-profit bar in Indiana."

Bob was proud when Brendan -- who was a basketball and soccer player and track athlete at Bishop Chatard High School -- decided to get involved in coaching. Brendan was a student manager for Ball State's men's basketball team from 1996-2000 under Ray McCallum. He left to be the associate head coach for Bluefield College, an NAIA school in southwestern Virginia and he had success there. However, in 2001 he heard word of the creation of Slam Ball, a hybrid sport that would incorporate elements of basketball, football, hockey and soccer and played with the use of trampolines. It was Bob who told Brendan he needed to get involved and encouraged him to stay connected to it every time it disappeared and buy back in when it came back.

Bob died last year of rapid-onset dementia, and Brendan found out a few months later that Slam Ball was coming back after seven years of non-existence and 15 years in which it was not played in the United States. So he couldn't help but think of his dad as The Mob -- with help from former Avon High School track star and Pacers trampoline dunker Cameron Hollins -- finalized an exquisite season, by far the most dominant in the sport's limited history.

More:Avon's Cameron Hollins among three members of Pacers dunk team making Slam Ball impact

"He thought it was gonna be the future of sports," Brendan said Friday afternoon after a Sin City celebration that had lasted deep into the wee hours of the morning. "He was very critical in saying, 'I think this is a great opportunity and you should go do it,' when I had my associate head coaching job. He was always the guy who would give me notes and we'd talk about games afterwards and all that. To find out that Slam Ball was back after 15 years just a few months after he passed and then to have this experience ... after every single game I would think about him night on the drive home. What notes would he give me? What would he tell me? So those thoughts passed through my mind last night too because we had some time to think.

"I'm sure that he's proud of me and I wish he was here to see this."

Slam Ball has taken Brendan on a much different journey than either he or Bob expected. The sport has not taken a linear path, so Brendan's career has taken a number of corresponding turns.

Mason Gordon, then an employee at the movie and television production company Tollin/Robbins Productions, sketched out the idea for Slam Ball on a napkin in 1999 and first put it into action in a Los Angeles warehouse in 2001. Mike Tollin, his boss, agreed to finance the idea and in 2002, Slam Ball had its first full season. Kirsch was convinced by his father and a friend to fill out an application on Slam Ball's website. He and about 100 other coaches and more than 100 players came to that same L.A. warehouse to tryout for the first full season in 2002. Kirsch was one of six coaches who was selected, and he was then named head coach for The Mob. They went 4-5 that first year, but Kirsch was brought back for Year 2, and he led them to a 7-3 finish and a berth in the semifinals before they were defeated.

The league was dissolved after that season because of a disagreement between Gordon and a production company he was working with, but Kirsch had impressed him and, most importantly, Tollin, which led to work for Kirsch in Hollywood on TV shows and movies that included basketball as part of the plot.

"He really liked me as a coach and the Xs and Os side," Kirsch said. "And he was like, 'Man, we do so many basketball projects and the audience is getting so much smarter these days. They see when it's not real or authentic and there's an immediate disconnect from the audience to the film. We've gotta make it as real as we can.' And he was like, 'Can you help us out?'"

Tollin made Kirsch a sports choreographer, working with actors so they could execute basic plays and move like real basketball players. He did his most extensive work on "One Tree Hill," the WB teen drama that focused on two half-brothers who play high school basketball. He was part of the team for the pilot project.

The show ran nine seasons and provide him close to full-time work, but he also helped out with the 2005 Martin Lawrence movie "Rebound", the 2008 Will Ferrell movie "Semi-Pro", a TV series re-boot of "Teen Wolf," the HBO comedy series "Eastbound and Down" and the few purposefully disastrous basketball scenes in the NBC comedy "The Office."

Kirsch still had a job coaching in Slam Ball every time it came back. In the third season in 2008, the Mob went 7-5 with another semifinal run in the last season in the U.S. before this year. He then coached them to championships when Slam Ball went to China in 2012 and 2016.

But, of course, five short seasons in 14 years is not a coaching career, and he found sports choreography to be a little niche as well, so he looked for something more solid. He found work in the business side of the NBA, working on the corporate sponsorship teams for the Orlando Magic, Brooklyn Nets and Phoenix Suns. It was stable work, but he was putting in 70-hour weeks that got to be too much with a wife and two kids in elementary school, so he left the NBA during the COVID-19 pandemic and took a job as the head of sponsorships for sports and entertainment for Shift 4, a global financial technology company.

Corporate life was serving Kirsch just fine, but then he got a call from Gordon saying that Slam Ball was back with much more backing on a number of levels than they had the first time. They had raked in $11 million in Series A funding and had an agreement with ESPN to be their broadcast partner. Brendan knew Bob would have wanted him to coach again, and his employer was completely on board.

"I told my boss," Kirsch said. "He was like, 'Oh my God, that's so cool. You have to go out and do that.' They've been really supportive of me being out here on this hiatus."

Kirsch had the advantage of being one of just two coaches who were part of that first full Slam Ball season in 2002 so he went in with a 72-page playbook already drawn up. He chose Noah Ballou, who had been his team captain in 2003 and 2016, as his assistant coach, so that he had someone else on the bench who knew what he was looking for in a roster.

Slam Ball is a 4-on-4 sport played on a basketball court, but with a padded rim on the hoop and four trampolines inside the 3-point arc -- which in actually a 4-point arc in Slam Ball. It also includes boards and plexiglass along the sidelines like hockey.

Each team has three positions. The stopper functions sort of like a goalie, getting to hang around on the trampoline underneath the net and leap up to block any shot attempt. The handler is sort of a combination point guard and midfielder who can play on both sides of the floor, dribble between the trampolines and direct traffic. Each team has two gunners, who mostly exist to attack the rim and score.

In his previous stints in Slam Ball, Kirsch came to the conclusion that being a great Slam Ball team required not only excellent athleticism, but a sophisticated attack and unselfish players. Most stoppers are strong and athletic enough to stop one-on-one attacks, so the key is to involve multiple players in the attack as often as possible, make sharp passes, and throw off the stopper's timing.

"Our system is basically predicated on reads and misdirection," Kirsch said. "What we want to do is create an absolute assault on the stopper, an assault of cuts and the ball and everything else where he's overwhelmed and he doesn't know what's coming at him and when."

For a team to execute that kind of game plan, it had to have a group of individuals who were not only supremely talented, but intelligent and low on ego. They had to piece those qualities together from players who had never played Slam Ball, as no one who was a part of the last U.S. season in 2008 was invited to try out. So he and Ballou not only immersed themselves in pre-draft workouts, they also did as much background as they could on their targets, looking into their athletic backgrounds and also their social media accounts.

"We wanted to try and find the right character guys that would forge a bond that would get us through the season," Kirsch said. "We wanted to make sure that these guys were playing for something bigger than themselves, so we really did a deep dive evaluation during tryouts and camp and felt like we had an excellent draft strategy. We got every guy on our board and we got them like a round later than we thought we were going to get them."

Kirsch picked a handler first and took Cameron Horton, who ended up posting a league-leading 81 assists on the season. The next-closest competitor had 50. Then he drafted gunner Darius Clark, who ended up leading the league with 302 total points. He then drafted Gage Smith, a former basketball player at Concordia University, an NAIA school in Nebraska. He expected to be a gunner, but Kirsch convinced him to move to stopper and he was so excellent there that he was named not only Defensive Player of the Year, but the Slam Ball MVP.

"He just kept getting so much smarter and wiser," Kirsch said. "You could see his natural and organic evolution in the tramps. He learned from every single rep. We all joke and call him Artificial Intelligence, because every time something happens he adjusted. I told him last night, every single game he did something where I thought, 'Wow, I've never seen that before.'"

And The Mob got a steal with the fifth pick when they selected Hollins, a fellow Indianapolis area native and Pacers Power Pack team member who was one of the few players invited to camp without a referral because he was so devoted to sending video to Gordon and others. Kirsch brought Hollins off the bench behind Clark at gunner, but he finished fifth in the league in scoring and was named Fifth Man of the Year. He didn't get to play in the playoffs because of an ankle sprain, but he found ways to make a help anyway, pushing his teammates.

"Cam Hollins would 100% be a starter for us but I wanted a rotation where him and Darius were interchangeable," Kirsch said. "When teams would double Darius and try to take him away, I'd put Hollins in and when they were in at the same time nobody could stop it. He's an unbelievable talent and he's so valuable to our team. What he brings to the table, the intangibles, his energy, his character, his positivity, all of that is so valuable."

Kirsch only had a little over two months in total to work with his guys from the time they arrived in June and season's end on Thursday, but he and Ballou were able to make the most of every moment. Slam Ball players were basically living in Las Vegas for two months, and the league put each team up together in their own house. The Mob House, as they called it, was in Henderson about 15 minutes from the Las Vegas strip and when they weren't practicing they could watch film, study the playbook and talk shop there. Kirsch and Ballou took advantage of every moment they had with them and they took advantage of every moment they had with each other.

"It's like a dream, you know, it's kind of surreal," Hollins said. "I couldn't ask for a better group of guys to suit up and go to battle for every day. It's been a dream. Those are my brothers, they're family for life. Shout out to the coaches. It all starts with them. They made sure we had the right group of guys to make this dream a reality."

Through the first two weekends of play they were 8-0 and it seemed clear they were operating at a level beyond the rest of the league. When they hit 10-0 they started to sense they could do something special. When they reached the semifinals, they all acknowledged that an undefeated regular season wouldn't be enough. They pushed through and they went undefeated and won the title without ever being challenged.

Comparing Slam Ball seasons isn't easy because there have only been five seasons and they haven't been even close to uniform in length. Prior to this season, no team had ever played more than 14 games in a season combining regular season and playoffs and no team had won more than 10 games combined. But assuming Slam Ball has staying power, the Mob's dominance will likely stand the test of time.

The Mob won every game on their schedule by at least 13 points and combined to outscore their opponents 1,106-613, a humongous differential of 493. No other Slam Ball team finished better than 9-7, none had a combined scoring differential greater than 63 points and just one had a positive scoring differential.

"The closest thing I can compare it to is the NFL," Kirsch said. "There's so much parity and it's so easy to be off your game because it's a timing-based game and it's really hard to be on your game this many games in a row. That's hard to do for 16 games and then you get into the playoffs and those teams are peaking at the right time. It's an incredible achievement, and I think if you talk to anybody in the sport, it's never happened before and candidly I'm not sure it will ever happen again."

And that's something Kirsch knows his father would be proud of.