This is Part II in a series of Six Articles on the History of the Rules of Ultimate Frisbee
Irv Kalb and the Spirit of The Gang
Ultimate Frisbee is undoubtedly unique in the world of competitive sports. It’s extremely addictive, the community rocks, the game is extremely fun and it’s rapidly approaching a $1B industry. Not bad for a game that was more or less started as a joke (see below).
In an attempt to trace the true origins of Ultimate, I was fortunate enough to interview Irv Kalb, one of the founders of Ultimate to ask him some questions about how he became the original curator of the sport and what types of influences and thinking went into coalescing a set of loosely written rules into the modern game we all know and love today.
Ultimate was created in an era where there weren’t meddling parents in little leagues and hovering and guiding their kids to be the next Pete Maravich or Mickey Mantle. For the most part, parents left kids alone to go out and play and that’s exactly what they did, playing from morning until night and only coming home when it got dark.
Irv Kalb grew up in New Jersey and recollects a time when the tribe he belonged to were the neighborhood kids he grew up with. From kindergarten, to elementary school, to middle school and high school, tribes would have snowball fights, play baseball/football/hockey/basketball together, hunt for critters, go trick or treating, build tree forts and eventually go through adolescence together and with practically zero parental supervision. It was not like it is today with all the control freak soccer moms, overbearing baseball dads and any number of coaches, babysitters and nannies watching over every activity.
He went to Columbia High School in Maplewood N.J., the birthplace of Ultimate but before he had ever even heard of Ultimate, his tribe, a group of kids that grew up on Richmond Avenue that called themselves “The Richmond Avenue Gang”, had been playing a lot of touch football. The Richmond Avenue Gang is something most kids from the 60s or 70s could relate to in their own neighborhoods growing up. Playing various sandlot sports for hours on end was as American as Apple Pie and playing Frisbee.
As the story goes, one of Irv’s neighborhood chums had heard about this new and exciting Frisbee game from members of the original CHS Varsity Frisbee group had made up and decided to give it a try. He liked it so much that he brought back the game to The Richmond Avenue Gang and they took a break from their usual touch football game to check out this new game and the rest, as they say, is history.
They played for a few months and just prior to the end of the school year (where Joel Silver and Bernard “Buzzy” Hellring were about to graduate from their senior years), the Richmond Avenue gang challenged the Columbia Varsity Frisbee Club to a match. In the first ever competition between two different ‘clubs’, Irv’s group got beat, but Joel was impressed enough with the fact that the outsiders had cultivated their own Ultimate club that he handed the reins to the sport over to them, and in particular Irv.
Now what’s important to understand here is that the entire thing was nothing more than a gag to Joel. It was just a big joke. Ultimate Frisbee was a satirical jab in the ribs at all the varsity jocks at his school that had lettered in three sports and certainly nothing to be taken seriously. Actually, while they used the name CHS Varsity Frisbee Squad, and played on a school parking lot, they (and later Irv’s neighborhood buddies) had no official affiliation with Columbia High School. Sure, Joel played a lot but it was just a fun thing to do after school, but not anything that he dreamed would live on after his graduation and if weren’t for Irv and the Richmond Avenue Gang, Ultimate Frisbee would never have made it out of the 60s.
But Irv and his crew had other ideas. To them, the burgeoning sport had the potential to be just as popular as basketball, football and baseball and he became an instant addict. After graduation from high school, his friends, most of whom he’d known since kindergarten, went off to the various colleges in the area and began to religiously evangelize the new game. Irv recalls bringing a group to a Guts championship in the upper peninsula of Michigan to put on a demonstration and spread the gospel about what Irv was sure was the greatest Frisbee sport ever invented. The way Irv describes it; it was practically biblical the way they went to Guts and Frisbee Freestyle tournaments proselytizing their new sensation with the evangelical zeal of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
From 1971 to 1979, Irv was custodian of the rules as he and his group iterated the rules from the 3 edition and in 1979, the Ultimate Players Association (UPA) was founded. An important note here is that the UPA was meant to be a players organization similar to the NFL Players Association and the UPA wasn’t intended to be the governing body of the sport (according to Irv). Therefore, in Irv’s vision there should be both USAU as well as the UPA in existence.
By 1982 Irv’s back had all but given up on him and his competitive days were over. Since he wasn’t able to play at the elite level that he had set for himself, he more or less walked away from the game and has worked as a software engineer in Silicon Valley ever since. What’s critical to understand about the birth of Ultimate, is how much the game was and remains to this day, a throwback to those carefree days back in the 60s and 70s in New Jersey.
In the end, Irv created something remarkable. The Richmond Avenue Gang was a group of fun-loving neighborhood kids that he grew up with and spent the lion’s share of the first twenty or so years of his life with. When they started a new sport, all the love, playfulness & exuberance that defined their tribe was woven into the fabric of the rules of Ultimate. If you’ve ever wondered what Spirit of The Game really means, it means The Spirit of The Richmond Avenue Gang and Irv successfully spread that vibe from coast to coast and around the world.
That’s quite a feat and its humbling to have played part of that, in whatever capacity I have.
If you took a poll of all ultimate players, I’m confident that the overwhelming majority of players would agree that the reason they play ultimate, work out like dogs, travel around the world, lose boyfriends or girlfriends, miss family events, obsess about tournaments, get fired from jobs is because of the social aspect of the community and this is no coincidence. The good hearted nature of the ultimate community at large is a direct reflection of the kids that grew up on Richmond Avenue in Maplewood, New Jersey in the 60s. They didn’t just codify a set of rules, they codified their tribe and imprinted the game with the respect and love they had for one another and that energy traveled with them when they graduated high school and began to evangelize their new game at their respective colleges and beyond.
However, it’s important to put things into proper historical perspective so we can recognize that many of the aspects of the sport have remained unchanged over the years and many others became obsolete within the philosophical framework of their original intentions.
Something that has been sorely missing in these past 49 years (Since Joel first came up with the basics in summer camp) has been an appropriate vetting process to examine whether the original intentions aligned with the perceived results.
Tactics and strategies advanced, players became more skilled and more athletic and we stopped playing on asphalt. Ultimate Nation has really never gone through an introspective validation phase to determine whether or not the assumptions and ideals that went into the game were correct or true.
This is mostly because there’s not a single person within the USAU, WFDF, MLU or AUDL that has a clue what those original assumptions and ideals were! In other words, intentions for rules decisions were based on a set of personal preferences and concepts. One of the biggest concerns here, in revisiting the origins of the game is that the object of the game seem to be a subjective experience. The goal of ultimate is to have fun but you can't legislate fun, fun is different for everyone and I can guarantee you that what's fun for you is most likely isn't fun for me.
Would perhaps different decisions about specific rules result in a more desirable outcome? If Irv had hung around to witness the Uglimate era of the late 80s and early 90s (that almost killed the sport), the answer would have been an unequivocal no. Back on Richmond Avenue, it may not have seemed like a good idea to count players’ steps, or to have a penalty if a player took too many, but can we seriously still say that today?
In short, there’s simply no reason why the rules could not be revisited while retaining the true spirit of the game, which was imbibed in the hearts and souls of Richmond Avenue Gang. If Irv had created a framework for Ultimate that included penalties, firm boundaries and limits and stricter enforcement, would it have torn the Richmond Avenue Gang apart at the seams? No. Of course not. It wouldn’t have torn them apart then and neither will it destroy the fabric of the Ultimate Community by doing so now. The reason Irv didn’t do so 40 years ago was that there simply was no need to do so, the system they came up with worked perfectly for them and amongst his childhood pals, the honor system worked just fine.
Don't you think that the game and community has matured enough by now to take an introspective look in the mirror to see if maybe Irv's notion of a game is simultaneously both 'downs-based' and 'possession-based' was a bit misguided and has led to some unintended consequences?
Is there harm in looking?
Frank Huguenard holds a degree in science from Purdue University and has spent decades in product development in Silicon Valley prior to embarking on a career in documentary film production specializing in films bridging the gap between Science & Spirituality. He draws on his research in the fields of combination of psychology, physics, wisdom traditions, sociology and history. You can see his films at www.beyondmefilms.com.