During the 1960s and 1970s, the Roller Games hit a peak of national and international fame. Flocks of fans gathered to witness highly competitive and brutally physical banked track skating games. The teams, consisting of skaters with catchy nicknames, were governed by audaciously aggressive coaches who were willing to contribute physicality to matches.
Among the teams were the Los Angeles Thunderbirds (also known as the T-Birds) which was founded in 1960. The National Skating Derby Inc. was established that same year and the Thunderbirds were the flagship team. The team evolved into one of the most iconic roller racing teams.
All banked track skating teams consisted of men and women. Two teams would go head-to-head in games. In the Roller Games, five skaters from each team would compete at a time. A “jammer” would have to lap the group of skaters and try to surpass their opponents. The opponent would use their “blockers” to set up a defense against the jammers.
Each team has two jammers each who score points and two blockers to keep jammers from passing. Skaters would quickly speed up to 40mph.
“You use a portion of your upper arm to stop an opponent from passing,” said Larry Lewis. “That’s where all the bumping and falling and hitting and kicking and all that stuff comes in at.”
Brenda DeShields was occasionally assigned to skate against men when her team did not have five healthy male skaters to compete, learning how to defend against men gave her a unique skill set when competing against women.
Her coach taught DeShields how to observe how skaters block and how they shift their weight.
“Men have physical strength while women have some physical strength and more mental strength than men,” she said. “We were able to combine those two in order to be able to field with the men as for skating.”
The L.A. T-Birds had their games at the Olympic Auditorium and games were broadcasted on KTLA. Fans came in droves to see games, standing in line for hours. The high action of banked-track skating had a strong allure. The raucous crowd did more than cheer, chant, and bring handmade signs. Lewis mentioned how the crowd was “wild.”
“Of course, we’ve got people fired up and they would throw things at you and they were really aggressive,” he said. “But it was all hype and exciting for us as skaters.”
Notable T-Birds stars of the time where Sam “The Man” Washington and Gwen “Skinny Minnie” Miller, both earned Rookie of the Year honors in 1967 and 1969 respectively. Other notable skaters were Terri Lynch, Little Richard Brown, Earlene “747” Brown, and Ronnie “Psycho” Rains.
“Earlene Brown, she was actually a shot putter in the Olympics,” Washington said.
Miller was known for the leaps she would make over the pack of skaters. For Robert “Ice Man” Smith, Miller was one of “the baddest women [he] ever seen.”
“Me and Gwen Miller were partners, teammates,” he said. “We wore the same number for over 20 years.”
Along with traveling throughout the country to compete, the Thunderbirds competed internationally. A team of American skaters traveled and battled skaters from Japan.
“I had the opportunity to go there and get against the Japan team,” Samuel “Sam The Man” Washington said. “We went there in a competition and it was very, very good. It was shown all over Japan, which was big at that time.”
Lewis joined the Roller ranks during his teenage years and was often underage when he competed early in his career. He could compete in different cities in Southern California but could not travel to other states until he was at least 15. The Thunderbirds traveled to several countries, including Mexico, Montreal, and Puerto Rico.
“You would leave California and be gone three weeks, six weeks,” Lewis said. “You come home for about three weeks, then you’re back on the road again.”
Along with competing, Deshields-Jackson loved the traveling aspect. During her time competing in Canada, she grew fond of the Canadian National Anthem.
“I went to Canada for six months and all over Canada, which was wonderful for me,” she said. “We met a lot of people and had a lot of respect.”
The biggest game the T-Birds competed in took place in White Sox Park in Chicago. Over 50,000 people came to see the T-birds compete.
“The track is sitting in center field, like in the infield and we’re so far away from the crowd,” Washington said. “But they were still into it.”
Thunderbird games also attracted celebrities, creating a star-studded audience which is typical of NBA games.
“[Antonio Fargas] was a season ticket holder,” Smith said. “Gwen Miller, God rest her soul, one of her best friends was Pam Grier.”
For the most part, the skaters built a strong bond among one another, considering each other as family.
“I got to be with people that cared about you,” Smith said. “You have a fraternity that you would never forget about.”