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Teens exchange video-game controllers for Kendama toy

Things are, quite literally, clicking for Anthony Paladino, 18, these days.

Spring break is less than a month away, and he was told recently he'd be playing third base for Mt. Lebanon High School's baseball team.

And that's not all that has him and scores of other kids in the neighborhood cranked.

Mt. Lebo is going crazy for kendama.

Whenever you see Paladino and Reese Eckenrode, both seniors, in the hallways between classes, chances are, a chorus of "clicks" and "clacks" is echoing in the background. At bus stops, on street corners, in parks, they're "Airplaning," "Lighthousing" and "UFOing," all wrist-bending kendama tricks.

"It's basically a healthier version of PlayStation," says Eckenrode, 17, effortlessly flicking a wooden lime-green ball into the air and balancing it atop a spike not much wider than a pencil.

Kendama builds on the old cup-and-ball game kids played generations ago, featuring a ball tethered to a wooden shaft. But that's where the aesthetic similarities end.

The kendama stick is fitted with three different-size-cups, upon which players try to flip and land the ball.

Theories abound as to how and where the game started, although most people believe its roots are traced to Japan. Others say it was developed in 16th-century France, influenced by bilboquet.

Still, there are those who think it originated in Greece, China, Peru or even the Canadian Arctic. And, at least one Native American tribe, the Mojave, is said to have used a similar object during courtship rituals.

Today's kendama has evolved as a competitive game, one that has spawned scores of funky videos of players kicking kendama tricks, often to sick high-tempo beats.

"I swear I used it three hours a day when I first started," Paladino says.

While it's not likely adolescents will put down their video-game controllers anytime soon, more of them apparently are switching to kendama wood, particularly in the Pittsburgh suburbs, says Jeremy Stephenson of Kendama USA, the governing body of the game in America.

Several kendama devices have been confiscated at Jefferson Middle School in Mt. Lebanon in recent weeks, but Cissy Bowman, a spokeswoman for the school district, says they are not the subject of districtwide bans. But, like any other noneducational device, they can be confiscated if a teacher finds them disruptive or inappropriate for class, she says.

Mt. Lebanon High School hosted a tournament on a Saturday last month.

Competitions often are played in bracket-style tournaments. Competitors receive a list of predetermined maneuvers or tricks to do in a set amount of time. The one to complete the tricks without a mistake in the shortest amount of time wins.

Zack Yourd was a ninth-grader when his brother's friend, Colin Sander, introduced him to kendama. At the time, few people in Pittsburgh had heard of it.

Today, Yourd, 18, is a kendama pro.

"With this, you're learning how to balance, dexterity and hand-eye coordination," says Yourd, a freshman at Penn State. "It's so much better than having a kid sitting in front of a screen playing video games all day.

"There's way worse stuff out there for kids to be addicted to."

Kendamas can be purchased online at www.kendamausa.com and in area Learning Express stores.

Popular kendama tricks

Around the World: Landing the ball on the big cup, then onto the little cup, then onto the tower, then onto the spike

Around Japan: Landing the ball on the big cup, then on the little cup, then onto the spike

Earth Spin: Planting the ball on the spike, flipping it back onto the spike

Lighthouse: Balancing the tower on top of the ball

Airplane: Swinging the kendama stick to land on the spike while holding the ball

Details: www.kendamausa.com

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