Surrounded by no more than several zillion rhinestone tiaras, spangled tights and dazzling buttons proclaiming "Reach For It," Calvin Murphy returned to big-time baton twirling last week. The pro basketball player brought the three major television networks, the two major wire services and unaccustomed media attention to the United States Twirling Association's national championships. Then he got absolutely wiped out. "I embarrassed myself," he said. And he went home.
That left it to the veteran twirlers to save the show. So Marci Papadopoulos, 12, an almond-eyed junior high school beauty from Fremont, Calif. who is of Japanese-Greek descent, became twirling's reigning star. Marci won two grand national titles, was runner-up for two others and earned stomping, whistling ovations while performing all four of her exhausting routines without dropping the baton once. This accomplishment was considered amazing by the nearly 5,000 mostly young, mostly female contestants in the six-day championships at Denver. As Murphy himself said, in the vernacular of the National Basketball Association, "Marci, she real bad."
For those of you who missed it because the TV and wire service guys and gals took off as soon as the downcast Murphy left town, it should be pointed out that baton twirling is a blood-and-guts sport these days, demanding as it does quickness, strength, reflexes, courage, composure and durability, not to mention willingness to get yourself smashed in the face a lot by a flying steel stick during long hours of practice.
In other words, baton twirling is not a tubby majorette prancing in a parade in white vinyl boots. Baton twirling is not a halftime show. "This ain't no yo yo tournament," said one spectator.
Before Marci duplicated her feat of last year by winning her age group in all five categories—dance twirl, solo, strut, two-baton and three-baton—and by then winning divisional titles in four of those five, the USTA grand nationals belonged to Murphy. The 5'9" Houston Rockets guard has been carving a multi-level reputation in the NBA for seven years while progressing from being the consummate little man to the high-scoring little man to the consummate high-scoring little man who beats up on bullying big men with his flashing fists. In the world of baton twirling, however, Murphy has always been big.
As a Norwalk, Conn. schoolboy twirler, he was state champion for three years. Then he went off to Niagara University and twirled at halftimes of Buffalo Bills football games. While becoming a back-court fixture for the Rockets, Murphy continued to keep his hand in twirling by teaching it in the black sections of Houston.
After the NBA playoffs last spring, Murphy's pupils urged him to get back into competitive twirling. "Wanting to see what I had left," he put together a routine with the help of Frances Winkle, an instructor from Corpus Christi, and began practicing six hours a day in preparation for the nationals. Murphy won the Texas state tournament easily, and upon arriving in Denver he was engulfed by most of the young twirlers.
"I went over to watch Calvin practice," said Debbie Rolph, the current International Twirler of the Year, "but all he could do was sign autographs and talk to his fans. He never got time to twirl."
Murphy knew he was in for some hard times in the competition. "I've sacrificed for this and I'll be disappointed if I lose," he said. "But my experience is in show twirling. I do tricks and get the audience psyched up. Competition involves intricate body moves and mechanical technique. I've grown too strong in the shoulders to control the baton on my rolls. The thing bounces off me. The only way I can win here is to wow the judges with my style."
Twirling is judged on a 10-point system, five for content (variety and difficulty) and five for execution (speed, smoothness and showmanship) during a two-minute routine. Most of the USTA events are for twirlers 21 and under, but a few years ago the association added a division for adults, paving the way for Murphy and others.
Most everybody agreed it was wonderful of Calvin to lend his name and presence to the nationals, but the aficionados gave him no chance to defeat Michael Tagg, a 23-year-old twirling instructor from Chicago and a former University of Arizona drum major.
"Calvin does everything wrong," said twirling's foremost teacher, Brooks Going, who won the men's competition last year at age 40. "He twirls backwards counterclockwise. Both feet go up in the air funny on his leaps. He has terrible body work. With formal training, he might have been sensational. But, really, he's a klutz."
Doing his routine in the glare of special TV lights and in the blast of rock concert-type screeching, Murphy hardly seemed a klutz. But he made some terrible gaffes that gave him no chance to outpoint either Tagg or John Chamberlain, another instructor. Murphy dropped his initial high toss, then he flipped his baton nearly to the judges' table before retrieving it. Losing his concentration and seemingly going one-on-one against his own twirls, Murphy lost control of the routine and had three more drops before he settled down to do his "California bounce" trick and two kick-and-catch numbers, one calling for him to race several yards sideways to grab the baton. If not skillful twirling, it was heavy vaudeville. Murphy finished with distinction, hurling the baton halfway to Aspen and catching it behind his back.
Angry with himself, Murphy then made a fine backdoor move, rushing out of the building and refusing to show up for the awards presentation. The next day he said, "It felt like a giant man named Pressure came along and threw me to the ground. I had everything on my mind but twirling. I can't let this lie. If only for my pride, I may come back next year. I still think I'm the best man out there."
The best tot was Crystal Carter, 6, who won strut and solo in the under-8-year-old division. Said her mother Susie, "I put both my daughters into competition before they were 2. Back then they took some knocks from those 6-year-olds, but they've got the edge now. If we're gonna do it, we're gonna do it right."
In versatility and endurance, Marci Papadopoulos had the edge on everybody. A lithe and glowing seventh-grader at Thornton Junior High, Marci has been winning national titles in her age group since she was 5. Her father, Mike, and her mother, the former Maxine Furuike, who says she has been twirling and teaching twirling "forever," operate a nursery and florist shop where Marci helps with the arrangements.
At Denver the only divisional event Papadopoulos failed to win was dance twirl. But her friend, 14-year-old Anita Villarreal from the Fresno Firebirds baton corps, took that title and won the grand prize, too.
In Thursday night's grand finals the Papadopoulos family conceded two-baton and three-baton to the collegiate-division winners, Valerie Ludwick and Debbie Rolph, respectively, both from Richland, Wash. But Rolph made three drops (to Marci's none) and had to rely on her higher degree of difficulty to win the three-baton championship.
Solo and strut, however, were all Marci's. In the first event she performed a near-perfect routine that earned an exceedingly rare 9.9 score from one of the seven judges. While Marci's family and her instructor, Chet Jones, were rejoicing, however, a virtually unknown 10-year-old named Donna Landsome executed some immaculate rolls to rate a high score, too. Indeed, Marci needed every bit of her amazing score in the solo; she beat the precocious Landsome by just one-tenth of a point.
The final strut was not that close. This time Marci marched in as if she were leading a brass band—which she sometimes does at San Francisco 49er games—and proceeded to give another error-free exhibition. She received nine-plus scores across the board and won, as usual, giggling.
Marci's best friend, Shelly Sans, didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "With all the trophies, Shelly doesn't think we'll have room for her in the car," said Mrs. Papadopoulos.
Murphy dropped the baton four times during his performance but Marci never missed while winning the championships in the solo and the strut.