Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey add basketball troupe to roster

When most people think of the circus, they envision funny clowns, death-defying acrobats and trained  tigers and elephants performing tricks. And while this year’s version of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey extravaganza features all of that, the show also offers something unexpected: Basketball.

Of course, it won’t be your run-of-the-mill roundball, with athletes running up and down the court – that would be too easy.

No, the King Charles Troupe – the first all-black circus act in the 143-year history of Ringling Bros. – features 12 basketball players dribbling, passing and shooting the ball while riding unicycles, some stretching more than 10 feet high.

Try that, LeBron.

“We’re high-speed and bordering on chaos, basically,” says Troupe member Chad Trammell, who at 30 just completed his first year of touring with the circus. “We play standard five-on-five basketball, doing dunks and alley-oops and playing with jump ropes and whatever you could imagine, all on one wheel at a very high rate of speed. It’s pretty enjoyable.”

Hold on. Rewind. Jump-roping on unicycles? Sure, the theme of this year’s show is “Built to Amaze,” but come on.

“The things that we can do with a jump rope are just amazing,” Trammell says. “There are guys that can jump off their unicycle and then jump back on it in the middle of doing double Dutch. Our jump-roping prowess is something that will really blow your mind, like things you never imagined would be able to be done on a unicycle.”

The Greatest Show On Earth is taking over downtown Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena, where the Miami Heat hangs its championship banners, through Jan. 20. And Trammell, being a big NBA fan (“I love the game – that’s actually what got me into this”), is excited about the venue.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what that environment is like, and I’m gonna get to play in the Heat’s house,” he says. “That’s gonna be fun. But I’ve never really been one to follow a particular team – maybe because I’ve traveled so much and been around so many places in my life that it’s hard to really latch on to one certain organization.”

The King Charles Troupe might remind fans of the Harlem Globetrotters, but Trammell says the legendary theatrical basketball team wasn’t an inspiration.

“You’d think it would be, but honestly, no,” he says. “We weren’t inspired particularly by that – it’s just something that organically grew from scratch. I’m actually part of the third generation of this team – we’ve been around since the late ‘60s. It’s hard to explain, but it just happened.”

Obviously, the troupe is just one of the many attractions that “Built to Amaze!” has to offer. There are synchronized horses, an acrobatic high-wire act, a human cannonball and the spinning, gravity-defying Wheel of Steel, on which daredevils do tricks 40 feet in the air. But Trammell has his own favorite acts.

“The first thing that comes to mind is the Tower Tumblers,” he says. “This is something I’ve never seen before coming here. Basically, there’s this three-story-tall, translucent tower that has trampolines attached to it on each side, where these 10 acrobatic aerialists go through each other, around each other and over each other. It’s kind of like what we do, as far as weaving in and out of each other and barely missing making contact. You think we’re always gonna crash with this organized chaos.

“And then there’s the hand-balancing Duo Fusion and Duo Solys, where the ladies balance their men both on their shoulders and on their hands while wearing four-inch heels. It just amazes me that they’re able to have this level of power to hold these guys up while they do these amazing tricks. It’s definitely a sight to behold.”