Mad for the game of basketball

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Barbara Ruben
Basketball pickup games and leagues offer exercise and camaraderie for older players throughout the metro area. Shown from left, at a pickup game on a recent morning at the Bauer Recreation Center in Rockville, Md., are Roberto Ortega, Rich Dixon, Steve Seisser, John Medford and KC Chin. Opportunities exist for men and women of all ages.
Photo by Frank Klein

While legions of basketball fans will be glued to their TVs this month for the annual rite of NCAA college basketball known as March Madness, many older hoops fanatics will be on local courts themselves playing in senior leagues and pickup games.

“It’s never too late for basketball. If it’s something in your heart, if you love to play, there’s a place for you. Often the oldest players have come to this bringing the most passion to play,” said Helen White, 60. White helps organize the NOVA United Senior Women’s Basketball Association, which offers competitive playing opportunities for women 50 and over across the Washington area, along with a less competitive senior basketball program in Arlington.

A league of their own

Silver Spring resident Steve Siesser sees it this way: “We’re like the Energizer Bunny. We just keep going and going. A lot of us have been playing since we were young and never stopped playing.”

Siesser, 61, participates in Montgomery County senior men’s pickup games that are played every Tuesday and Thursday morning at the Bauer Community Center in Rockville. On Monday and Friday mornings there are pickup games at Thomas Farms Community Center, also in Rockville.

Siesser works from his home doing tax returns and says he has plenty of time for sports. He moved over to the senior teams six months ago after “I had been playing a regular game with ‘youngsters’ but realized I couldn’t keep up.”

Similarly, Jack Staines, 74, migrated to the senior pickup games after having a hard time keeping up with his four sons on the court. “They’re very competitive and don’t let Dad shoot. They don’t show Dad no mercy,” he laughed.

But Frank Mallgrave, 79, still revels in shooting hoops with much younger players. He has managed a basketball team that plays after school hours in Montgomery County school gyms for “years and years and years.” Many of the players are college students, some towering up to 6 feet 8 inches.

But every Thursday, except for a break for Thanksgiving, he’s out on the court with them. “There’s three big loves in my life: basketball, my wife and my son,” he said. Mallgrave paused a moment, “Well, not necessarily in that order,” he amended.

Courting fitness — and injuries

Sprinting up and down the court and thinking on their feet give players both a mental and physical workout, said Jim Condell, who at 81 is one of oldest — and fastest — players in the Rockville senior pickup games.

Of course, it helps that in the warmer months he participates in track and field events, and holds the Maryland pole vaulting record for his age group. He’s also an avid volleyball player.

“I’ve just always liked sports,” he said. “I played as a youth, and it never occurred to me that I’d stop, even if I’m not quite as fast.”

But not only do older players find their game has slowed since youth, they are also more prone to injury, and their joints just don’t recover as quickly. Condell wears an elastic knee brace, less because he needs it than he sees it as a “security blanket.”

Glenn Orletsky, 71, was sitting out a recent game, waiting for hip replacement surgery in two weeks. “I’m having withdrawal symptoms,” he complained. “This is the first winter I haven’t played since 1952.”

Siesser has had numerous sports-related injuries and surgeries, including one on his ankle after a basketball accident.

Bonnie Ballentine, 68, founder of the NOVA United Senior Women’s Basketball Association, sees playing as she’s grown older this way: “I still love to play the game, but sometimes it hurts a little more to play.”

Giving women a chance

Ballentine grew up playing basketball with her mother in her South Carolina backyard. She played in high school, on intramural teams in college, and on and off as an adult.

After a 20-year break from the sport and then retiring, Ballentine tried to find a senior team to join. She came up empty handed.

So 10 years ago, Ballentine, who lives in Manassas, got together with a few other women and formed the beginnings of NOVA United.

In its early days, the association would “take anyone who could walk and chew gum at the same time,” White recalled. Over the years, it’s grown much more competitive, with teams divided by age level.

Now there are 55+, 60+, 65+ and 70+ teams that travel locally and out of town for 3-on-3 tournaments. Some teams have qualified to play in the National Senior Games in Cleveland this July.

NOVA United also plays half-time exhibition games during professional and college games, including those of the Washington Mystics, Naval Academy and Georgetown University. They will also play during halftime at the CAA Women’s Basketball semifinal games on March 16 at Showplace Arena in Upper Marlboro, Md.

For women who need to get back into shape or have never played basketball, White began the Arlington Senior Women’s Basketball program. An intramural league recently began its spring season, but drop-in sessions are available for both rookies (7 p.m.) and intermediate players (8 p.m.) on April 10 and May 1, 8 and 15 at the Langston Brown Community Center in Arlington, Va.

White herself grew up playing basketball with her seven brothers, helped start a girls’ basketball program in her high school, and was on her college team.

After moving to the Washington area, White stopped playing for a while, but resumed when she coached her son’s team when he was 5. She found a group of moms who wanted to play, and moved on to senior basketball with Ballentine when she turned 50 a decade ago.

Ballentine can’t imagine a life without basketball. “I see it as an opportunity to stay active. I also see it as an opportunity that many of us didn’t have before Title 9,” she said.

“There’s still that wish to get better, to see how far you can take that game. I don’t think we’ve peaked yet.”