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Seeking Rubber-Band Ball Record Has Been No Snap

Two brothers are bent on getting their 31/2- year project into the Guinness Book. At times they have slaved at it 11 hours a day.

August 16, 2003|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Nabil "Billy" Kishek admits it. There are days when he dreams of burning the ball. He has thrown up his arms in exhausted frustration and told his brother, "I'm finished."

But such an act of defection is not possible.

For 3 1/2 years, the fates of Kishek and Samir "Sammy" Keishk have been tied to the bulging mass of rubber that sits shrouded beneath a dusty brown blanket in their Mission District corner store. It is, they believe, the world's largest rubber band ball.

Bested last year by a competitor from Wales, the brothers have vowed not to make their next pitch to the Guinness Book of World Records until they are certain they have left all runners-up in the dust.

Known to customers simply as Billy and Sammy, the brothers have sunk more than $15,000 of their own money into rubber bands, ordered in bulk from Ohio-based Keener Rubber Co. They have been hailed as folk artists by a Napa gallery, teased as crazy by loving family members and written up in an Arabic newspaper distributed throughout the Middle East as emissaries of peace.

As customers in this gritty neighborhood of immigrants and artists trickle through the Pride Superette to snag sodas, cigarettes and ice cream, the two have slaved away -- at times for 11 hours a day -- to keep the ball growing.

While Sammy holds a coiled mass of rubber bands he has carefully rinsed, dried and looped into chains, Billy stretches them tightly around the growing orb. Lately, it takes at least two to minister to the ball, which must be gently rolled off its small wooden stand. Otherwise, it remains covered, to discourage customers who can't resist the urge to snap its bands.

"It's art. It's not crazy," said Billy on a recent morning as his 10-year-old son, John, looked on proudly. "Besides, you make exercise when you do this. I used to have high blood pressure. Now it's down."

The Palestinian brothers arrived more than three decades ago from Birzeit, a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem that soon after became part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Immigration officials spelled their last names differently, and their characters have followed suit -- they are similar yet not quite the same.

Sammy, who shies away from interviews because his English is broken, is more darkly obsessive. It was he who began to amass the rubber bands in a tight little ball for his grandson and nephew, and it was he who vowed not to stop until it broke a world record.

But at 60, the bearded Sammy is more impatient than 52-year-old Billy, stuffing little clumps of bands under the ball's surface to hurry things up. Billy laughs easily and cares a little less. He is the self-proclaimed engineer who has carefully ensured that the ball grows in geometric progression and doesn't become square or unwieldy.

"I didn't see these before," Billy said last week, picking at the clumps in mock disgust. When Sammy came in the next day, he said, "I'm going to scream at him.... I don't want bumps."

The ball now stands 5 feet tall, with a 14-foot waist, and weighs an estimated 2,700 pounds.

The record was set last year, at 2,524 pounds, by Tony Evans of Swansea, Wales. But the brothers need not worry that Evans' ball is growing, too.

With cameras rolling last spring, Ripley's Believe It or Not dropped it from a plane one mile above Arizona to watch it bounce. It didn't. Instead, in a mishap likened to a Roadrunner cartoon, it sent up a massive cloud of dust and drilled a crater into the desert floor.

"Elastic bands shot in every direction under the sun," said Edward Meyer, Ripley's vice president of exhibits and archives. "The ball is dead."

Meyer said a 2,700-pound candidate would be a "serious contender for the record," but a surprise competitor might emerge when Guinness releases its new book later this month.

But the brothers aren't worried. A Lafayette, Calif., middle school student who was vying for the title a few years ago came to visit the store, and left dejected.

"They said, 'You'll never catch up to us! And don't touch our ball,' " laughed Robin Whitlock, whose son, Matt, is now 14 and "more interested in his computer" than setting the record.

For Sammy and Billy, however, long days in the family store -- which they run in addition to a San Francisco clothing store and a shoe store -- have provided a perfect canvas for obsession.

"These guys have lots of time on their hands," said Mike Ring, a customer who stopped in recently on his way to the Laundromat. "It's like prison art."

In fact, the ball and its creators were the centerpiece of an exhibit at a prestigious Napa gallery. "Faux Real: California Folk Activity" explored the definitions of real and imitated folk art. The ball could not be transported north -- curator Charles Linder said it would have cost $100,000 to remove the gallery's glass panes and hoist it inside -- but viewers were treated to a video and encouraged to make a pilgrimage to the store.

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