Returning Home: Playing Basketball at 51

“Take a camera,” suggested a friend. But I wasn’t attending as a spectator. My goal was to PLAY.

Ever since I heard about the senior women’s basketball league in my area, I was intrigued, enticed, and drawn to return to this place — the basketball court – that had been my home as a child and young adult.

I knew people over 50 competed in softball, golf, and dozens of other sports in the Senior Games. Friends rave about this experience, and my own mother has competed in swimming meets there, winning medals in the 75-79 age group.

But basketball? Who knew that women between the ages of 50 and 85 can still play HOOPS?

Having turned 50 myself not long ago – and having retired from college, professional, then recreational basketball in 1981 – I was fascinated to learn that women my age, and MUCH older, are still playing.

My own retirement had been forced by chondromalacia (softening of the cartilege) in both knees – and it had not occurred to me that other hoopsters my age had escaped a similar fate. Though I successfully grieved my disability and shifted my attention to swimming — SUPERB — and golf — GREAT — basketball is simply THE BEST.

So when Helen White, coordinator of the NOVA United teams, invited me to “coach or give a pep talk or something,” I said, “What I’d really like to do is play.”

I then explained my knee situation – I cannot even go downstairs without limping; picture O.J. Simpson, of all people, as he painfully descended the staircase after his latest arrest – but somehow I just had to try.

When I pulled up to the recreation center, the first person I saw, as she unfolded her long body from her car, was a five-ten sixty-two-year-old with white hair.

“This must be the right place,” I thought. My peeps!

For the next three hours, about thirty women (up to age 72 on this particular evening) ran, rebounded, set screens, executed give-and-go’s, shot, high-fived, got knocked down, got back up, and kept moving, moving, moving.

And it WAS moving – to see the delight on their faces. I’ve met so many women over the years – easily hundreds – who have told me that they didn’t get a chance to play sports when they were young. Those women were angry about that, and sad.

No longer. Some of the women were from that three-dribble generation, when players were limited to one half of the court. Others had no athletic background at all. “Sports were not for girls,” said 71-year-old Jeannie, a children’s book author. “We were supposed to do embroidery.”

But the times, they are a changin’. “When we looked around for a gym, they didn’t know what to make of us,” reports Bonnie, a-62 year-old who plays on the 50-54 team and coaches the 60-64 team. “Rec centers are used to seniors playing bingo, but not seniors playing basketball.”

“I teach senior fitness at a local community college,” another player told me. “It used to be chair exercises. Increasingly, they want sport skills.”

The other early-arrivers welcomed me warmly and tossed me a basketball while they stretched. A standard women’s ball, it was smaller than the traditional (now men’s) ball I’d usually played with, and lighter – much easier to handle, lift, shoot.

(Karen Logan, with whom I played in the WBL, actually invented this smaller ball and we did use it in that first women’s pro league.)

For a while I was alone with the hoop. As in a dream, everything I shot went in. From the right, from the left, from the corner, from the free throw line: Swish. Swish. Swish. Swish.

Shooting a basketball through a hoop, and seeing it – no, FEELING it – swish through the net is one of the most satisfying physical activites, in my experience. Being back on the court felt so natural, so right, and so downright ecstatic, I’m sure that if someone else had brought a camera, they would have caught me BEAMING.

When it came time to scrimmage three on three, reality hit. I could not jump for a rebound, race after a loose ball, or even drive to the basket and extend upward, leaping off one leg (a basic layup). My knees are just plain too sore for such maneuvers.

Still, I could pass. I could shoot. I could play defense, in a gimpy kind of way. And since we played half-court, I was able to keep up enough to enjoy a few key assists, a few blocked shots, and a few more of those smooth swishes.

Peggy is a former history teacher who now works for the Department of Justice. Carol played college basketball at Indiana with Tara Vanderveer, Stanford University women’s coach. Sue played at the University of Pennsylvania. Gwen, a software engineer, is “just a rec league player” who recruited another player she met in her church league. Mothers and grandmothers, business owners and assistant bookkeepers and government employees, they have an easy camaraderie, joking with each other and encouraging each other: “Good shot!”

“We’re changing the face of aging, and changing the perception of aging,” said Bonnie.

We all chatted for a while afterward, and I cautioned them to take care of their bodies, especially their knees.

“Will you be back?” asked 60+ player named Hope.

I smiled at these happy, sweaty women. They’re having the time of their lives.

“YES,” I said.

(Want to play? Contact Helen White:

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

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2 Responses to “Returning Home: Playing Basketball at 51”

  1. Kay Seamayer Says:

    Hello Mariah…. Kay Seamayer, Dallas, Texas here…. I am a player/coach on the senior women’s Texas Challenge All Star 65+ team – and founder, president and team coordinator of our new non profit organization in Dallas, Basketball and Fitness for Senior Women (www.BasketballandFitnessforSeniorWomen).

    Helen White is a friend and colleague of mine. In fact, Helen was a guest in my home recently in Dallas. We made time to get to the gym to shoot some hoops!! (what else!!) and speak of lofty and exciting ideas on how we can take this great senior women’s compeititve basketball program to a whole other level…..hang on! much more to come!! We had a great visit and she told me about you. I believe you will be in the Dallas/Ft.Worth Area in 2008. I hope we are able to meet up at that time.. Contact me and we’ll try and make that happen.

    I loved your story and experience back in the gym…on the court….actually shooting and playing hoops! One of the most moving comments I get from EVERY woman (some teary eyed!) who comes in to our program is “I never thought I’d get to play basketball again”. All of us who had such a passion for the game from junior high, high school…and some of us beyond, are just in awe and VERY GRATEFUL for this fantastic program and trend sweeping America!

    Early on in my life I laid down a music career, got married, raised a family along with being a partner in a family business – and there was very little time for things I personally wanted to do. I did find time to play women’s basketball for a couple of years but thought at 36 was too old…so quit… went on to tennis… I played basketball in high school… turned down a basketball scholarship for a music scholarship – played some semi pro ball – but basically, had time only for my family, making a living and serving others… At 52, last kid grown and gone, I decided to go back in to music..which was a great move for me. I am a singer/songwriter/entertainer and work EVERY weekend – and much more – http://www.kayseamayer.com It is my great pleasure to speak..and to motivate other women to live their passions.. whatever they are… to live their bliss…. whatever it is… “use your God given talents…give them away… – take piano lessons – play a sport – paint a picture – anything you ALWAYS WANTED TO DO and just didn’t have the time or courage to do it”…. And NOW, i’m playing basketball again and have been able to bring other women in to this great program… The same story goes…living ones passion…..returning to something that brought such great pleasure early on – or as you said in your article… women who were not allowed to play basketball for various reasons (get out the knitting needles or your apron!!) – and now, there is a national movement which allows more and more senior women to become a part of this incredible opportunity.

    We here in Texas, in our organization, have big plans to help develop and grow teams across our great state… This will develop in to a regional set of teams…and then a state set of teams….giving us all an opportunity to play in competition right here in our state. We plan for this process to be duplicated on a national level… So we have many great thing in mind for senior women’s basketball……individually and collectively.

    Helen is a great visionary to work with. These are exciting times for us all… and if we go about setting up solid programs across the US, as Helen has done, and as we are doing here in Texas…senior women’s basketball will become a houselhold name – and will grow into a major force of its own.

    I’m always cheerleading and encouraging older women to empower themselves through doing things which develop their “own person”……satisfy their own personal desires and things they never had the opportunity to do before… in fact, I’m writing a book, “get UP!….get OUT!….and get your MOVE ON!….Living Life with Passion, Purpose and Courage after 50”

    Nancy Lieberman is based in the Dallas area and has been very supportive of our team and program. We have an open invitation to attend any of her clinics held here in Dallas… she attends our events whenever possible… even took a photo with us for our “team poster”…. She was absolutely in awe of how these women MOVE and shoot hoops! Had never seen such… We will be working further with Nancy to develop our program and working on putting together a major tournament (hopefully in her name) next year.

    Tausha Mills – WNBA – European League, lives near me and has been very instrumental in helping me get back in the game over the course of a year. She too is supportive and helpufl to our team in coaching and encouraging us when in town.

    It takes this kind of interest from people like Nancy Lieberman, Tausha Mills and YOU, and others who have come after us in our hayday… to recognize and help promote this important program for senior women across America (and beyond – as we’ve already been approached to play exhibitions in Europe ….and we are looking in to that)

    Thank you for coming out to play, for recognition and support of senior women’s basketball and of Helen White and all the other women you met at NOVA who are working hard (and having fun) keeping this program alive and growing!


    Best to you in all you have done and continue to do…. (get those knees fixed!)

    I hope to see you in Dallas.


    Kay Seamayer, Player/Coach – President
    Basketball and Fitness for Senior Women
    Dallas, Texas



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