Back in 1986, Robert Rothbard wasn't much of a basketball fan. Soccer had provided his school-days sport, but his oldest son was suddenly taking to hoops as if he knew, somehow, that ten years later, he'd be a six-foot-two-inch 15-year-old. Rothbard chaperoned the kid to public parks around Houston for practice, and what he noticed wasn't junior's jump shot or vertical leap; it was the fact that almost everywhere they went, they ended up shooting for bare, netless rims.

That seemingly inconsequential observation gave Rothbard an idea. (Most things give Rothbard ideas.) He jotted down some notes in the black book he carries for such occasions. And thus began the quest -- part quixotic, part Naderesque, part get-rich-slow scheme -- that he carries on today. Robert Rothbard wants to re-net America.

He started collecting information about basketball nets, which wasn't that difficult, since his company, Appleseed Recreation, designs and builds playgrounds. Rothbard is a big name among the people who care deeply about slides and swings: he served on the committee that wrote the federal safety standard for playgrounds, and as a National Park and Recreation Association-certified playground safety inspector, he's called to give expert testimony in liability cases.

His research revealed that standard nylon nets last only a few weeks on a frequently used outdoor court; chain nets don't last much longer and they scratch the ball. Worse than that, every now and then some poor kid loses a finger in one -- say, when a ring snags a chain link on the downswing of a hard dunk. Rothbard says he's personally met three such unlucky players in Houston alone, and that's all he needs to know.

His patent searches revealed that there hadn't been a significant new product on the basketball equipment scene since back in the 1950s, when someone invented the chain net. So he set out to fill the void.

He fashioned a prototype net out of wire cable, before realizing that a single metal strand might unwind and potentially impale a player.

He liked prototype number two better. That one was made of loosely spaced vertical and horizontal bands of quarter-inch steel, powder-coated with plastic. He gave it a name -- PermaNet -- and installed some test models in parks. But the beta version failed. Players made up a new game: trying to dunk hard enough to bend the rigid steel bands. Besides that, the net clanked when the ball went through. Players didn't like that, Rothbard observed. They wanted a swish.

So he tried again. "I had some nylon strapping from a roof rack I used to sell," he says, "so I got the glue gun out and put one together." This third attempt was the charm. The new DuraNet looked sort of like the skeleton of a regular basketball net. It was simple. It was strong. It was hard to get tangled up in. It could last for years.

Rothbard never intended to market his invention. He's an idea guy, and he hoped to license the patent to a sporting goods concern or a large manufacturer. "It's hard," he notes, "to be an independent vendor unless you're wealthy. Bootstrapping is tough."

Small fish Rothbard couldn't get a bite from corporate, but he knew he had a good idea, so he forged ahead, jobbing out the actual manufacturing to a small Houston company. His current product line offers three models: the original DuraNet 1, the slightly stronger DuraNet 1.5 and the top-of-the-line DuraNet II, "four times as strong as our original net" and with a scalloped bottom ring for an extra-satisfying swish. DuraNet's price range runs from $34 to $40, roughly ten times what the standard replacement net costs.

At first, Rothbard tried marketing to the stars. He put up test nets in Houston's Grady Park, where John Lucas used to hold off-season NBA pickup games. He convinced Nancy Lieberman, the first woman Harlem Globetrotter, to shoot on one, and he says she liked its feel. He sent a net to basketball fan and then-employed talk-show host Arsenio Hall. He sent another, in five-colored nylon, to Spike Lee, who failed to use it in his Nike spots. He mailed one to then-Knicks coach Pat Riley and got a kind letter in response. He mailed a specially embroidered version to Michael Jordan and got nothing at all.

He's had better luck at trade shows and selling directly to parks and recreation departments and school districts and prisons. From the office in his converted garage, he coordinates 16 sales reps around the country. At last count, he'd sold nets in 42 states and eight foreign countries. He won't say how many nets he's sold, saying, with the small businessman's mild paranoia, that he doesn't want to let on how big his business is. But he will allow as how with 42 states and eight foreign countries, he's sold at least 50.  

Clearly, the market's got potential. "Nobody I've found has an actual number for outdoor rims," he says, "but if you drive around you'll see rims with no nets all around. So it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that even if I get a small percentage of that, I can retire."

Green Bay, Wisconsin, has been an especially good customer. Tom Fritsch, assistant parks superintendent with the Green Bay Parks and Recreation Department, says he was worried about the safety, but that he had a more pressing reason to get rid of chain nets: "The main thing is, people who live in quiet neighborhoods didn't like all the noise. I know that might sound weird, but when the ball would hit the hoop, the net would rattle, and people wouldn't like it."

Green Bay has used DuraNets for three years, and Fritsch guesses his department has installed close to 60 -- all of which, to his knowledge, are still up.

"The reason they stay up so long is because they're ugly, and the kids aren't ripping them off," he says. "I don't think the manufacturer's going to like hearing that stuff, but hey, it works for us."

Rothbard describes his invention over a chocolate shake at Denny's on NASA Road 1 near the Johnson Space Center. He's 42, and he's got a rumpled version of that odd-looking short-on-the-sides, long-in-the-back hairdo, and a vague reticence to spill his beans to a strange reporter. But once the ideas get cranking, with a concurrent acceleration of vocal speed, it becomes difficult to stay on the topic of basketball nets because, as it turns out, basketball nets are just one of a stormy sea of ideas crashing around in the man's head. "I've got lots of stories," he tells me, and he does not lie.

For instance: In 1980, he was contracted to build a model coral snake for the Houston Zoo's venomous snakes exhibit. Four years later, a nosy zoo visitor discerned that the snake wasn't moving and called the Houston Post to report it dead. Thus discovered, the fake snake garnered news coverage as far away as the London Times, and also won an Esquire Dubious Achievement Award and a Texas Monthly Bum Steer, of which Rothbard is particularly proud.

Neither the infamy nor the scores of ideas (good and otherwise) have made him rich, and he's grown cynical about the machinations of product development.

"There's a lot of good ideas that sit on a shelf because corporations don't want to pay independent contractors a dime. They wait until the patent expires and then they do it. So there's usually this lag time between good ideas and the market. Less than two percent of products that are patented ever go to market." An undocumented family legend has it that Rothbard's uncle invented the collapsible umbrella, but never did anything with it.

And Rothbard, conceiver of countless signed-and-dated journal notes, knows what that's like, too. He once invented a cage contraption that held pizza boxes level in car seats to keep hot cheese from heading south in a turn -- but Domino's didn't bite. He briefly marketed a videotape for pacing rowing machine enthusiasts, which he hoped to develop into a series filmed on the world's great rivers. "Always before, people had done it with chase boats, so on the tape you would hear the engine," but Rothbard perched his 13-pound camera in one end of the shell and came up with a silent, soothing video row. "It's still copyrighted," he notes. "I could still do it, if somebody wanted to put up the money."

He's presently mulling ideas for "automotive products, condom products, playground stuff, a mousetrap, stuff for barges, some new musical toys, some diggers, a lot of inflatable products, some tents, some skateboard stuff, some new stuff for airplane landing gear and a new spiral playground slide." He's also working on a device he calls a "cartoon product."

"You know the Salvation Army? At Christmastime they do this" -- he mimics the wristy ringing of a hand bell. "Well, this will be a little device that goes in there that generates electricity from the back-and-forth motion. They ought to be making some power." He laughs, but it's a laugh that suggests he's not entirely joking.

He says he can't be too specific about these projects because he hasn't completed his patent searches. And for most of these ideas, he probably never will. It's the curse of the independent inventor: too little time, too little money and too many brainstorms.

But Rothbard's intent on taking at least one idea, DuraNet, all the way. "This is kinda corny, but when I'm gone, something's left behind. I have changed nets that, except for the chain, have been the same way for 96 years ....  

"Other people have thought about this," he says. "They just didn't do anything about it.

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