Men who are mad for basketball

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Robert Friedman
When not at work at NASA, Eric Groh (left) and Randy Hedgeland get a workout on the basketball court as part of a team called the Geezers. They are among a number of older Howard County residents who enjoy the sport, whether as part of a league or joining in pick-up games.
Photo by Frank Klein

March Madness is upon us, and the team known as the Geezers will be attempting to run, jump and shoot their way to a third straight title in the Howard County Basketball League 30+ division.

The middle-aged Geezers have dropped four of their first five games in the regular season. Fortunately for them, all eight teams in their division can compete in the playoffs, which tip off this month, at the same time colleges across the country vie for the NCAA basketball championship.

“We’re in a division this year with a lot of younger teams,” said Eric Groh, the Geezer’s 54-year-old player-coach. “But just as March Madness is for college teams that make the NCAA tournament, the playoffs are like a new season for us.

“Our hopes are high. We’ll be out there battling” for another division crown, said Groh, who spends his off-court working hours as an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

Groh is one of a number of Howard County residents over the age of 50 whose hoop dreams have not completely faded. They play the game, they say, for the love of it, for the companionship it engenders, and for the exercise that keeps them in shape.

No couch potatoes here

Groh, a West Virginia native, brought the Geezers together in the Crestwood neighborhood of Ellicott City for the 2005-2006 season in the league run by the Howard County Parks and Recreation Department.

“We called ourselves the Geezers because we all felt pretty old at the time,” he said. The team now consists of players from their mid-30s to mid-50s, Groh noted.

The coach, who stands 6 feet 10 inches, started playing basketball in middle school. But at the age of 28, Groh cracked a couple of ribs and went into “semi-retirement.”

At 46, he decided to make a comeback, and has been playing ever since. He cracked another rib last year, and now wears a plastic vest to protect his mid-section when he’s trying to snare rebounds.

“Now I’m good for about 15 minutes per game,” he said.

What do Groh’s wife and his two daughters, whom he coached when the girls were playing basketball in high school, think of him continuing to bash the backboards for rebounds despite his injuries?

“They say, ‘Why do you do this?’ I tell them I love the game too much to stop, and then they say, ‘You’re crazy.’ I accept their judgment,” he laughed.

Randy Hedgeland, also a NASA aerospace engineer and a teammate of Groh’s, reached the half-century mark just last month.

Hedgeland started playing roundball as a youth in the midget league of his hometown of Renovo, Pa. One of his self-proclaimed claims to family fame was that when he became fully grown, at 6 feet 2 inches, he taught himself to dunk the ball at will, proving that white men really could jump.

His brother, who stood 6 feet 4 inches, was called “No Jump” in high school. “I decided I wasn’t going in those footsteps,” he said.

Hedgeland said he would be following the March Madness games, especially when the playoffs come down to the wire, but noted he was not nearly as keen at watching the game on TV as he is in playing it.

“Every Tuesday night we play a league game [at the Meadowbrook Athletic Complex in Ellicott City] and every next morning I’m asking why my knee keeps hurting. But I’ll keep playing competitive ball as long as I can,” Hedgeland said.

“You want to continue to be out there on the court. You want to be part of a team. You want the exercise. You just want…to keep playing.”

Boyhood memories

Another Ellicott City resident who can’t stay away from the court is 54-year-old Al Hunt, who remembers shooting at a rim attached to the side of a barn on his family’s farm in upstate New York when he was eight years old.

Hunt, who is player-coach for Off the Glass, one of the division rivals of the Geezers, insists: “I’m still a kid in my own mind.” Convincing himself of his eternal youth, he often plays almost the full 40 minutes of league games.

However, like other over-50s who have intensely played the game, Hunt took a hiatus from the court, from the age of 30 to 45, after tearing some ligaments in an ankle.

“Now I’m back and I’m going to keep playing until…until I can’t,” said the construction company vice president.

What he especially loves about basketball, he said, is that it takes not only individual talent but also teamwork. To be a winner, you can’t have one without the other.

Unlike baseball or football, it is also a game, he noted, that an individual can play on his or her own. All you need, he said, is a ball and a rim. You dribble and you shoot. If you want, you keep score against an imaginary foe.

Vertically challenged are welcome

You also don’t have to soar into the sky to play the game. Howard Lechner, 53, who stands 5 feet 3 inches tall, has been streaking up and down the court for at least four consecutive decades. Those who- know say that basketball is as much a game of speed as of height.

Lechner began his play-making days before the age of 10 at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville, passing off to the big guys who went to the basket. When he reached the 7th grade, the middle-school coach told him, “You’d be on the team if only you were another foot taller.”

“That’s when I gave up my dream of becoming a pro,” Lechner recalled.

Meanwhile, the computer programmer plays three or four times a week in full court pick-up games around town that last up to two hours each. “I’m usually 20 or 30 years older than the others, but I can still run pretty well for my age,” he said.

Who are the sports idols for these diehard players? Such greats as Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Julius Irving and Jerry West came up most frequently.

Lechner, however, admires a player who was somewhat less of a basketball immortal. That would be Muggsy Bogues, who at Lechner’s 5 feet 3 inches was the shortest player ever to be in the National Basketball Association. Bogues had a 14-year career in the NBA, playing for, among other teams, the Washington Bullets before they became the Wizards.

Six decades on the court

For longevity, there’s Nate Block, who at 71 has been moving and grooving across the hardwood for the past 60 years.

A North Carolina native, Block said he learned his love of basketball from his mother, who played the game when she was going to school. Try it, he said she had told him; you’ll like it.

He played for his North Carolina high school team and for three years at Capital College, located near Laurel, where he earned his engineering degree.

How has time taken its toll on his basketball abilities? For one thing, he said, “I think I’m shrinking.”

While his best shot had been a one-handed jumper, it is now a one-hand set — the same shot except he no longer leaves the floor to take it.

“But I’m still good for full-court games,” said Block, who also plays pick-up games at local gyms rather than playing on a league team. “I can keep going for four to six games a night, with just a little rest between,”

he said.

How much longer before he finally hangs up his sneakers and gives up the game? “My body,” Block said, “will tell me when.”