“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: email@example.com)