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Sweet old ladies? Try serious athletes in this San Diego basketball league

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Marge Carl, 92, of the Splash, shoots against Young at Heart, another San Diego team, during a San Diego Senior Women’s Basketball Association game on Nov. 7.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Marge Carl, 92, of the Splash, shoots against Young at Heart, another San Diego team, during a San Diego Senior Women’s Basketball Association game on Nov. 7.

SAN DIEGO >> The sounds spilling from the gym suggested an ordinary basketball game: tennis shoes squeaking against a slick court, hollow thumps of a ball, a referee’s shrill whistle.

But inside was a rare tableau. Older women, some in their 80s and 90s, hustled to pass, steal and shoot. They dribbled and wove skillfully as they sprinted toward the basket.

Kirsten Cummings, a former professional basketball player, recalled the first time she walked into this YMCA in San Diego’s Mission Valley neighborhood.

“There’s this group of women who were playing, and I was so mesmerized by them. They were 75 years old,” Cummings said. “I got goose bumps.”

This is the San Diego Senior Women’s Basketball Association, one of the largest leagues in the nation for women 50 and older. California’s second-biggest city is home to several senior sports teams and hosts the annual San Diego Senior Games, which draws thousands of competitors from across the state for an Olympics-style event.

“We’re very outdoor- oriented, fitness-oriented, so it was a natural thing that Senior Games would flourish here,” said Cummings, who grew up in San Diego and now oversees the event. “San Diego has people who don’t think twice about learning basketball at the age of 79.”

On a recent Sunday morning, I chatted on the YMCA court sideline with Marge Carl, who has played in the women’s league since it was founded in the mid-1990s.

Carl, now 92, wore a blue jersey that matched her bright eyes. Her team, the Splash, which is for women 80 and over, was scheduled to compete in 45 minutes.

The league includes 75 women across 13 teams, roughly grouped by skill level, who face off every Sunday. The games are 3-on-3 for 30 minutes on a half court.

Carl, like most of the women here, came of age before Title IX, the 1972 civil rights law that significantly increased opportunities for women to participate in school sports. So she did not learn how to play basketball until her 60s.

But that is kind of her style. She graduated from college in her seventh decade. She retired well into her 80s.

Carl pointed to her temple and warned me, “This doesn’t die unless you let it.”

For her 90th birthday, she went skydiving: “There was a man strapped to my back. How bad could it be?”

Newbies to the basketball league learn to guard and rebound in its rookie training program. And once on a team, players might have 40 years or more to fine-tune their skills.

Cummings, who has coached the Splash as a volunteer, said she was initially surprised by the older women’s desire to improve. She once slept through a practice and was reprimanded by a player in her 80s.

“I’ll tell you, I never missed practice after that,” Cummings said. “The more I coached them, the more I got to see past that facade of, you know, they’re sweet old ladies. No, these are serious senior athletes.”

The league also thwarts the slow creep of loneliness that comes with aging.

Carl told me that her childhood friends have died. Other women have outlived their spouses by decades. Their children are often consumed with the responsibilities of their own families.

But these teammates meet on the court several times a week. Players have officiated one another’s weddings and taken trips together.

Carl nodded toward a younger woman lacing up her sneakers. This year she drove Carl to her COVID-19 vaccine appointments.

“They are the sisterhood,” Carl told me.

Currently, the league’s oldest member is 95, but she was recovering from surgery when I visited. Other players were sidelined with injuries or medical conditions that have worsened over the years. The physical toll of aging is rendered in stark relief on the court.

Marianne Hall, 86, coached women’s high school basketball when Title IX was being rolled out. But she had not played on a team herself until the 1990s, when her friend told her about San Diego’s newly created league.

“I don’t jump anymore,” Hall recalled saying.

“None of us jump,” the woman replied.

When games ceased last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, Hall wondered whether she was too old to return. She worries about falling. Though the league now has a vaccine requirement, many players have not come back since practice started up again in June.

But Hall, who recently became a great-grandmother, wore her headband and jersey that Sunday morning. She was ready to play.

At noon, women scurried onto the court for the next game, between Hall’s and Carl’s teams.

Players, many in masks, passed the ball quickly among one another. Some tried to intercept and block shots.

Within minutes Carl grabbed hold of the ball. She lifted her arms and heaved it toward the basket.

Swoosh.

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