The Meanest Team on Land and Sea

In 1996, one Ultimate Frisbee team became National champs of nastiness: Wilmington’s Port City Slickers

By David Gessner

During my 17 years playing Ultimate Frisbee, I watched the sport change. I was one of the early players — the men in the leather helmets — and when I started in the ’70s many of the pot-smoking, hippie stereotypes of Ultimate players were true. The partying continued in the ’80s and ’90s, but something decidedly less groovy began to emerge with teams caring less about “flow” than about points, and winning Nationals became the quest that drove us for years.

I played for the Hostages in Boston and our chief rival was New York, New York, and it was that New York team that most clearly embodied the change in the sport. Not only did they train all year, but they were ruthless with themselves and other teams. Ultimate has always been self-officiated with no referees, but something called “The Spirit of the Game” — a lofty concept that insists that players make their own calls — is actually written into the rules. The New York players, who rarely showered and practiced on rock-hard fields at night in the city, sneered at the idea of Spirit and, many thought, took advantage of it.

I had dozens of hard battles with that team but eventually moved out to the softer world of Boulder, Colorado. I was struck by how nice everyone was in Colorado. There was always a kind of cruelty to the Eastern teams, a certain junior high school meanness. Sure, we still gave each other crap in Boulder, but it was such gentle crap.

There was really only one game in which I saw my unflappable Boulder teammates — the Stains — lose it. It was 1996, my final year of playing, and Boulder made it to the National Championships in Texas. Our first game at Nationals was during a rainstorm and we slopped our way around the field, battling a team I had never heard of called the Port City Slickers.“What the hell is the Port City?” I heard one of my fellow Stains say. I had no idea, but I did know that I had never seen a meaner group of Ultimate players, which was saying something, since I had played against New York in their nasty prime. I remember screaming matches and pushing and a game just this side of a brawl. I also remember that the Port City Slickers beat us by a point.

But maybe what is more interesting was what I didn’t know at the time. I didn’t know that the Port City was a place called Wilmington, North Carolina. I didn’t know that many of the players were from a university I had never heard of and that that team had won the college National Championships three years before. And I sure as hell didn’t know that later I would end up living in Wilmington and teaching at UNCW for going on 14 years.

Another thing I didn’t know, but perhaps could have guessed, was that the old New York team was the inspiration for the Port City Slickers and for Wilmington teams, in general. In fact, it was in the Port City — not the Big Apple — that Ultimate traveled the furthest it ever would from its pacifist hippie roots. Carolina teams seemed to find the Spirit of the Game unctuous and hypocritical, a tired old concept they had no use for except to work for their own advantage. The old hippie world was long gone. The Slickers spiked discs when they scored, got in the faces of other players and weren’t afraid to get physical. At the college National Semifinals in 1995, the UNCW team, the Seamen, got into a brawl with the East Carolina team, the Irates, and, according to the official history of Ultimate, “Police used bullhorns to break up the melee.” 

But there was an even deeper level to what I didn’t know.

Later, I would meet James Tully Beatty, who both played for the Seamen and had graduated from the graduate creative writing program where I would eventually teach. Tully, soft spoken, a good sport and a great player, put the lie to the image of the cheatin’ brawlin’ boys from Carolina. He was part of the 1990 UNCW team that came out of nowhere at College Nationals to shock two-time-defending-and-soon-to-be three-peat champion UC Santa Barbara in pool play 15-10.

“Heads turned after that,” Tully told me. “If you were on the outside looking in at a map, trying to find Wilmington, it was out of nowhere. The closest college Ultimate team to UNCW of any recent relevance was nearly 500 miles away in Philadelphia and nearly 600 miles away in Pittsburgh.”

By 1993, UNCW had bagged two second place finishes, one third place tie, and one National title — all in the first six years of the team’s existence (it was founded in 1988). East Carolina added two more college titles in 1994 and 1995, with UNCW taking third place that year. Meanwhile the UNCW women’s team, Seaweed, won in 1992 and 1996. Ultimate in North Carolina east of I-95 had exploded.

“Other teams resented our success,” Tully says. “They thought we were hayseeds and simple hicks. At one tournament outside D.C. in 1994, an older player on a Baltimore team gave us the dueling banjos from Deliverance each time they scored.”

Rather than reject the stereotype, they relished it. They smoked cigarettes and drank beers and got in people’s faces and never backed down. They kicked butt and won titles. Those were the true glory days of eastern Carolina Ultimate.

But the success they found in college did not translate to the club teams, the closest thing the sport had, back then, to pro teams. The Port City Slickers were a club team made up of both ECU and UNCW graduates, but while they brought the same attitude, they did not have the same success. And so, after falling short of the semis at Nationals in 1995, they came into Nationals in 1996 ready to implode. Which was when I made their acquaintances. My Boulder teammates have neither forgotten nor forgiven. One recently remembered that after our ugly game a couple of Port City players brought over a Frisbee to us as what we thought was a gift and peace offering. When we took it they started cackling and told us that they had spit on both sides of the disc.

“Our flameout was not unlike a band that goes out just as fast as it went up,” says Tully now.

As it turned out, Boulder was the only team Port City beat at Nationals that year and as bad as they behaved against us, it was just the beginning. In their last game of the first day, they spit — not on a disc — but on an opposing player.

It wasn’t until six years after that Nationals that I first set foot in Wilmington. I still knew nothing about the city before I took my job as a creative writing professor here. I didn’t know that it was the home of the only coup in American history in 1898 or about the race riots of the ’60s, and I didn’t know that the town — in its one great environmental stroke — put aside the land on Masonboro Island which would become my refuge. In truth, the only historical fact I knew about my new city was one few others knew, that it was home to the Ultimate Frisbee equivalent of the Detroit Pistons Bad Boys, the meanest team in the land.

The current Wilmington teams are nothing like the Slickers, but the taint of those early days still lingers. Just this year, a good-spirited UNCW team made it to the finals of college Nationals. Overall, the sport of Ultimate has mellowed out. This is partly because the game has become more civilized, cleaner, more professional. But it is also because of iPhone cameras and, more recently, the cameras of ESPN. It turns out that if you have to see yourself behave like an asshole on film you are less likely to do so.

Which means that not only were the Port City Slickers the meanest, and some would say dirtiest, team of all time, it is also a title we will likely never relinquish.

David Gessner is the author of 10 books, most recently Ultimate Glory: Frisbee, Obsession, and My Wild Youth. He is the chair of the Creative Writing Department at UNCW, where he also founded the journal Ecotone.

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