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SPORTS COMPLEX Roll Bounce: An Author's Obsession with Roller Derby
by Jim Provenzano
2006-11-29

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Tim Patten has been obsessed with roller derby for as long as he can recall. The first time he watched games on TV, he wanted to be a part of it, and took up roller skating soon after. Whenever roller derby tournaments toured near his childhood home in Wisconsin, he begged his parents to take him.

He later competed in the sport/entertainment, ran a California women's league for years, and was the subject of a documentary, Jam, about his attempts to keep that league afloat, despite ongoing struggles.

This year, Patten self-published a novel, Roller Babes, a fictional yet historically accurate and personalized account of the national women's roller derby leagues in the 1950s. This past July, Patten and his lawyer finally negotiated the film option of his book with Los Angeles-based Kaliber Films.

'When it first happened, I was elated and couldn't sleep,' says Patten, who spent four years working on his novel.

The author of five other e-books, Patten says, 'I had already had a taste of self-publishing.' After numerous rejections from publishers and agents, he decided to put the book out himself. 'The process [ of getting published ] is crazy,' he says. 'I couldn't afford to wait.'

That's because Patten thought he might die. Diagnosed with an HIV-related brain infection, Patten spent months in treatment and hospitals, writing out passages of Roller Babes when he wasn't too sick to work.

'What's the point of waiting for an agent who wouldn't want to even deal with the property, knowing my personal complications? Fortunately, I did a lot of experimental medications, which doctors didn't approve,' says Patten, who still endures some symptoms. 'I thought [ the novel ] was going to be my last words to the world. It became like my final obsession to complete this.'

Patten was so worried about his legacy being lost, he took a pen name, that of his sister, D. M. Bordner, who lives in Wisconsin. Patten says she gets his royalties 'because I'm not supposed to be alive right now.'

His illness destroyed his balance and mobility, and could still affect his muscular system as well. 'I was prepared for all of that to happen when the MRIs showed that part of my brain was destroyed. I was pretty much a basket case for quite a while.'

Patten, 54, moved from Wisconsin to San Francisco in 1973. After graduating from college with studies in computer science, 'before there was even such a degree,' he balanced his work in computer development with skating.

Through 18 years of competing in men's and mixed leagues, Patten began working on owning and promoting a league. In roller derby, players loop a circular track, either flat or ramped, and compete to finish first as a team. As players often fall or collide, the more outrageous versions of the sport capitalize on the wilder action, with fights sometimes breaking out.

Such sensational changes have taken place in both men's and women's leagues. 'But I was always intrigued by the women,' says Patten, who has been out as a gay man for decades. 'Even straight people who love roller derby were always intrigued by the women and how vicious competitive women are.'

Of the private, locker room atmosphere, Patten says his experiences with men's and women's leagues varied. 'The men would be strategizing around [ how to play despite ] each others' injuries, while the women would be figuring out how to attack opponents. I thought this was fascinating—everything that nobody really sees.'

In Patten's novel, two of the female characters are lesbians, while the main story is about a straight player. Additionally, one irascible character, Eva Belzak, is a barely veiled depiction of roller derby icon Anne Calvello, who recently died.

So, is roller derby staged? Originally a competitive sport in its early depression-era Chicago origins, roller derby has gone through revivals and fallow periods, and has occasionally been known for theatrics similar to professional wrestling.

'There is some staging,' Patten admits. 'You're doing this every night for a living. But in my book, I wanted to show the real competition that goes on between players that the public doesn't see.'

Speaking of his own experiences competing, Patton says, 'Usually every game starts out with the idea of what we'll do. Then the claws start coming out. By the end of the game, you really are skating as hard as you can, and doing the best you can.'

Patten's enthusiasm and devotion for roller derby comes through clearly in his book and in his many promotional efforts over the years, including a website for a San Francisco team, www.baycitybombers.com .

'There is a transformation that happens to the crowd,' he says of even the most casual roller derby fans. 'They come and think it's fun, and then they get drawn in.'

Patten says that in his early years, he wasn't out in roller derby, but gradually found acceptance. 'There are lesbians in the sport,' he says, but wouldn't name any players on the record.

'Ever since it started in 1935, the sport's always been gay-friendly, even for the men, but especially for the women. Back then, women normally didn't choose a physical sport with body contact, and that included fighting and blocking.'

Although his accounts of African-American players being banned from certain hotels in the South while on tour were fictional, they were based on common practice at the time. 'I discovered it was easy to slip into these 1950s characters. I'm writing my experience as them.'

Patten says, 'I wanted the lesbian characters to be as real as possible, so you don't even trip on it. That's the way it always has been in roller derby. Lesbians have always been part of the culture, and it always had an interracial mix, too. Socially, [ roller derby ] was so far ahead of the curve in this area.'

Jim Provenzano is the author of the novels PINS and Monkey Suits. Read more sports articles at www.sportscomplex.org . He can be reached care of this publication or at sportscomplex@qsyndicate.com .


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