AFTER his forth major knee injury, doctors told former National Basketball Association pro Tom LaGarde that he'd be wise never to touch a basketball again. Instead, LaGarde formed his own league.
The twist is that LaGarde and his teammates do not run - they glide on roller skates. They are modern-day pioneers in the sport of in-line basketball.
``I really could not run or jump anymore,'' says LaGarde, who played on four NBA teams in his six-season pro career, including the champion Seattle SuperSonics in 1979.
The new sport resembles regular basketball, with the major exception that it is much faster, a study of constant motion. Trimming the squad to four rather than five players gives the skaters more room to cruise, and rules prohibit body checking and other aggressive play that could knock a player to the ground.
``I was actually kind of skeptical, because I was a basketball purist,'' says David Phillips, a computer-systems analyst and member of LaGarde's National In-Line Basketball League (NIBBL). But he was a convert after the first game: ``I had a really good time.''
Roller basketball is just the latest manifestation of in-line roller skating's growing popularity. An estimated 15 million Americans tried the sport in 1994, up from 6.3 million in 1991, according to Henry Zuver, executive director of the International In-Line Skating Association, an industry trade group based in Atlanta.
Other in-line skating lovers play hockey and participate in slalom races as well as sprinting events. In New York City, bike messengers, tired of locking bikes to signposts, skate between cars, packages hanging over their backs. Couples meet on dates to skate, and one area of Central Park serves as an in-line disco.
In-line basketball, of course, poses new challenges. With four wheels strapped to each foot, getting off the ground is no easy feat. After a year of practice, 6 ft. 10 in. LaGarde finally mastered what had come easily in pedestrian basketball: the dunk.
``The hard part is getting up,'' he says. ``If you can get up, you can get down.''
LaGarde's height gives him a distinct advantage: On skates, he stands about 7 ft., 1 in. ``When Tom wants to take over the game, he'll take over the game,'' says in-line basketballer Whit Washing, who stands 5 ft., 9 in. without skates. ``He's the king.''
Sometimes players fall, but LaGarde says that he has not seen a major injury since starting his league in late 1993. ``I've had a lot more injuries in real basketball,'' says LaGarde, who played basketball for the University of North Carolina before turning pro.
Trying to muster enthusiasm for a new sport, let alone build a new league, has been difficult. ``I tried to approach people you'd see on the street, and they thought I was crazy,'' he recalls.
Traditionally suspicious New Yorkers may not have known what to make of LaGarde. His large athletic frame certainly belongs to that of a sportsman, but his short hair and horn-rimmed glasses suggest the demeanor of a stockbroker - which in fact he was for four years after retiring from professional basketball. While in-line basketball is his passion today, he earns a living by teaching more traditional sports. He's a coach in an elementary school and teaches an adult course on (regular) basketball for late starters.
Through ads in skating-club newsletters and other efforts, LaGarde recruited about 50 people into NIBBL, most in New York but some in Boston, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and other cities. League players hope to drum up some new recruits after they demonstrate the game Feb. 10-12 during exhibition matches at the NBA's All-Star Weekend in Phoenix, Ariz.
As for the future of in-line basketball, LaGarde says it will rise or fall with skating: ``If in-line skating continues to grow, we'll continue to grow; if in-line skating is just a fad, we're just a fad.''