The employees at Inc. 500 company Revelwood gather every day to engage in a ritual of playing mini-basketball. The impact on the company's corporate culture may surprise you.
To understand the complex product that Revelwood Inc. (#344) makes, it's best to click onto the company's Web site, where you'll find a slick demo of its business-planning software. But to understand the company itself, you're better off dropping into its Manhattan offices any day around lunchtime.
Crammed into the conference room -- or out near the office's elevator banks if the conference room is actually being used for its intended purpose, which is training -- most of Revelwood's 35 New York City employees line up every day to throw palm-size colored balls at the Game Center Jr., a collapsible mini- basketball court. The manufacturer of the game, Playhut Inc., claims that the game is designed "for the little ones." Revelwood players, however, tend to be in their twenties or thirties. Those who aren't shooting jeer from the sidelines.
The game -- which is shaped sort of like a miniature pinball machine with a hoop -- is nestled next to a bookcase in the conference room. There's a whiteboard on the wall nearby where player rankings are updated daily. A Webcam scans the room, enabling Revelwood comrades who are stationed elsewhere to watch the game online or to nab employees who happen to be taking practice shots -- an activity that's expressly verboten, as spelled out in the company's 10-page rule book. Repeated offenses can lead to "lifetime banishment" from the game. Sound harsh? "We had to make a bunch of rules based on keeping our business going," says Robert Gordy, 33, Revelwood's chief technology officer.
Gordy, who blames his poor shooting percentage on "lack of coordination," nonetheless plays every day. "Every time you throw the ball, it's different," he says. "It's addictive." It was Gordy who plunked down $30 for the game a year ago, buying it for his two young daughters but never actually giving it to them. Instead he decided to bring it into the office. People took to the game instantly, each one lining up to take eight shots from 10 feet away. (A full match consists of three rounds of eight shots.) "By the end of the year it was like a fever," Gordy says. Because he had purchased the game, Gordy was invited to compete in the first quarterly play-off series.
"We had to make a bunch of rules based on keeping our business going," says Robert Gordy, CTO. "It's addictive."
By then employees had formed the American Mini-Basketball Association (AMBA) and appointed Jason Maston, Revelwood's marketing-communications specialist, as "commissioner." Product manager Joe Paradise, the 1999 AMBA World Champion, whose tiptoe shot has earned him the nickname "the Ballerina," assembled the rule book. There's also the lore-laden AMBA Council, which is described in Paradise's tome as a "closed society whose members are secretly chosen and who are inducted during an ancient and holy ritual." The regulations are still evolving; recently the rule book was appended to include a page-long passage regarding balls that exit the court's discharge hole and roll back to where the player is standing (known as Super Balls). Any player who achieves that feat three times in a row (a Super-Spectacular Ball) is deemed "possessed by the devil" and disqualified "until an exorcism is successfully performed."
Surely it would take an extraordinary ritual to counteract the sport's hypnotic effect. Nearly everyone in the office comes around to watch the play-offs and the finals, and trophies are awarded. "The pressure's really high," says Maston, a consistently high scorer who has sadly choked at play-off time.
Employees think of the game as the Great Equalizer, where the front-desk receptionist might go up against Kenneth Wolf, who is not only the five-year-old company's president, CEO, and cofounder but also a previous champion. Playing helps relieve the pressure of chasing relentless software-product cycles and otherwise keeping up with the pace at the fast-growing company, where sales soared to nearly $3.5 million last year. "It's really for people who like to lead the culture and like a challenge," theorizes Laura Cote, director of human resources and an avid spectator. "I'm more of a sustainer or an observer. Plus, I'm terrible at it."
Cote uses the game as an opportunity to observe how employees interact -- and how well a person deals with competition or diffuses an overly intense teasing situation. She felt reassured about her recent decision to hire Melissa Bruno-Torres as a recruiter after watching her play ball. "She was supportive and aggressive, and very competitive," Cote observes. "That's just what you need to be a recruiter." Paradise has suggested having all job applicants shoot some minihoop as part of the interview process -- an idea Cote has rejected as too extreme, even for Revelwood.
Besides, those who already work at Revelwood are sometimes stymied by the company's fascination with the game. "They have a lot of fun, but they work really hard at it," says Bruno-Torres, who joined Revelwood in June. "Sometimes it's taken a bit too seriously."
Things did look serious in the spring when word of Playhut's decision to discontinue the game reached the company. According to Gordy, Wolf heard the news from his wife, who called him directly from a toy store. Maston, as commissioner, called the game's manufacturer. As it turned out, the game was only being renamed. But a Playhut official, upon hearing about the adults' unusual devotion to it, assured Maston that she would be passing that nugget on to her company's marketing department.
Revelwood's love of the game has already caught on a bit. Wolf's brother-in-law, Gary Faber, got hooked after playing, and now regularly indulges in what he calls "extreme AMBA" with about 10 friends. "It's a hard game, but it's hilarious because it's designed for three-year-olds," says Faber, a publicist for Miramax Films Corp. "It's nothing like taking a 10-minute break and shooting pool. It's a state of mind."
That's about as cogent a description as anyone can -- or maybe cares to -- offer of the AMBA experience. Wolf admits to having "worried a bit about productivity" when Gordy first brought the Game Center Jr. to the company. Now Wolf's known for his superb come-from-behind clutch shooting in the postseason. "It's really important," he says of mini-basketball. But when asked why, he's at a loss for words. This much he knows, though: so far, no one who has played the game has voluntarily left Revelwood.
Samuel Fromartz, who played on his college basketball team, is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.