CARS HOMES JOBS

Unicycle hoopsters will pass and shoot as circus is in town

Thursday, May 1, 2014
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Pass and pedal are the names of the game when the King Charles Troupe plays its brand of basketball. The troupe plays tonight at the Times Union Center in Albany — part of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ four-day stand.
Pass and pedal are the names of the game when the King Charles Troupe plays its brand of basketball. The troupe plays tonight at the Times Union Center in Albany — part of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ four-day stand.

For NBA superstar LeBron James, shoving a basketball through an iron hoop is just another day at the office — catch, jump, soar and jam.

Maybe LeBron ought to try Kip Jones’ routine for quick points — pedal, catch, jump, soar and jam. And then pedal some more.

Traveling is allowed in Jones’ league — his players ride unicycles on the court, pass and catch basketballs and then jump off their cycles to crush the orange through the nets.

“I guess it’s simple for us, but for the average person, when they see us, they’re sitting on the edge of their seats,” said Jones, who will lead the King Charles Troupe onto the floor of the Times Union Center tonight at 7 p.m.

“Their eyes are wide open, they’re totally amazed at what we do. We’re very humbled to be given this opportunity to entertain audiences all over the world.”

Jones’ 13-man team of riders and fliers are part of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s “Built to Amaze!” show. The circus’ annual spring visit in Albany continues with performances Friday at 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m.; Saturday at 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m.; and Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: Built to Amaze!

WHERE: Times Union Center, 51 S. Pearl St., Albany

WHEN: Tonight through Sunday, May 4, eight shows

HOW MUCH: $15-$80

MORE INFO: www.ringling.com

The big wheels have performed with Ringling’s gang of clowns and aerialists for years, but left in 1998 to pursue performance opportunities in Europe. They’ve been back since 2012.

The 47-year-old Jones, originally from Brooklyn and now a resident of Delaware, loves talking about the group’s history. The idea for quick guys on cycles started with Jerry King, who saw a circus aerialist’s high-wire unicycle act in 1918. He always remembered the stunt — and learned how to ride a wheel that comes without handlebars.

In 1958, concerned about social issues in his South Bronx community, King taught his son Charles and other kids in the neighborhood how to ride a unicycle. King started a club, mixing athleticism with discipline, direction in life and Christian principles. Charles eventually led the group.

The club picked up fame and followers, and in 1968 auditioned for Ringling impresario Irvin Feld on the sidewalk in front of Madison Square Garden. Feld signed up the guys, and in 1969, the KCT became the first all-black act to travel with the Ringling-Barnum outfit.

Jones joined at age 15. He said Jerry King’s ideas are still part of the routine — King Charles tries to recruit young men who have experienced hard times with drugs, alcohol or have experienced other problems.

The guys use 9-feet tall basketball rims, and will show off their skills during lay-ups, alley-oop passes, assorted dunks and shooting. The five-minute show also features guys on unicycles jumping rope. The 10 riders are watched by three referees who are part of the act.

“We do have a choreographed game of basketball and comedy on unicycles,” Jones said. “Our game appears to be more of a fast-paced game because we’re on unicycles.”

The youngest rider is 22; the oldest guy on the floor is 50. At 47, Jones is well past his rookie season.

“I like to think about it as my fountain of youth,” he said. “It keeps me young.”

He also said performance is just one part of the team’s mission. They’ll visit high schools to show off their skills — “And we’ll talk about the troubles we experienced,” he said.

Practice is a must. A three-man weave on a basketball court is chaotic enough on the run. Guys have to watch their moves when they’re on the pedals.

“We do have our mistakes,” Jones said. “The hardest challenge is how to recover from those mistakes and not let the audience see them. The ball always takes a different bounce. Even though we have a choreographed routine, the ball may take a different bounce. The guys will bring the routine back together again.”

Traveling on the court — and in the circus train — suits Jones just fine.

“We live on the longest, family-owned train,” Jones said. “It’s over a mile long, houses over 125 performers from 17 different countries. We have a restaurant on the train, living quarters, showers. Think of an apartment, just on a smaller basis.”

Jones knows the Harlem Globetrotters are also on the road. And the ’Trotters also make their livings with basketball tricks. Jones wonders how a run — and ride — with the Globetrotters would play.

“There are similarities between us and the Globetrotters,” Jones said. “That would be an interesting game. If that ever took place, I would definitely look forward to that.”

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at wilkin@dailygazette.com.

 
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