In the senior women’s basketball league, the love of the game never gets old

The noises from the gym sounded like an ordinary basketball game: tennis shoes crunching against slippery ground, the thud of a ball, the shrill whistle of a referee.

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

For memory :

12:23 p.m. December 18, 2021This story has been updated to clarify the Splash’s coach.

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 playing and I was so mesmerized by them. They were 75 years old,” Cummings said. “I had goosebumps.”

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

“We’re very outdoors, fitness oriented, so it was only natural for the Senior Games to flourish here,” said Cummings, who grew up in San Diego and now oversees the event. “San Diego has people who don’t hesitate to learn basketball at the age of 79.”

On a recent Sunday morning, I chatted on the sideline of the YMCA field with Marge Carl, who has played in the women’s league since its inception in the mid-1990s.

Carl, now 92, wore a blue jersey to match his bright eyes. Her team, the Splash, which is for women 80 or older, had to compete in 45 minutes.

The league features 75 women in 13 teams, grouped roughly by skill level, which compete every Sunday. Matches are played 3v3 for 30 minutes on half court.

Carl, like most women here, came of age before Title IX, the Civil Rights Act of 1972 that dramatically increased opportunities for women to participate in school sports. She didn’t learn to play basketball until she was 60.

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

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

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Basketball league newbies learn how to keep and bounce in its rookie training program. And once on a team, players can be 40 or older to hone their skills.

“San Diego has people who don’t hesitate to learn basketball at the age of 79.”

Kirsten Cummings, Team Splash Coach

Cummings previously coached the Splash as a volunteer. For the past six years, CJ Maloney has coached the team.

Cummings said she was initially surprised by older women’s desire for betterment. Once, she slept during practice and was scolded by an octogenarian player.

“I’ll tell you, I never missed practice after that,” Cummings said. “The more I trained them, the more I could see past that facade of, you know, they’re nice old ladies. No, they’re serious senior athletes.

The league also counteracts the slow progression of loneliness that accompanies aging.

Carl told me that his childhood friends are dead. Other women have outlived their spouses for decades. Their children are often absorbed in the responsibilities of their own families.

But these teammates find themselves on the court several times a week. Players have officiated at each other’s weddings and taken trips together.

Carl nodded to a younger woman who was lacing up her sneakers. This year, she drove Carl to his appointments for the COVID-19 vaccine.

“They are the brotherhood,” Carl told me.

Currently, the league’s oldest member is 95, but she was recovering from surgery when I visited. Other players have been sidelined due to injuries or health issues that have worsened over the years. The physical balance sheet of aging is rendered in relief on the ground.

Marianne Hall, 86, was coaching women’s basketball in high school when Title IX was being rolled out. But she hadn’t played on a team herself until the 1990s, when her friend told her about the new San Diego league.

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

“None of us are jumping,” the woman replied.

When games ceased last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, Hall wondered if she was too old to return. She is afraid of falling. Although the league now has a vaccine requirement, many players have not returned since training resumed in June.

But Hall, who recently became a great-grandmother, was wearing her headband and swimsuit this Sunday morning. She was ready to play.

At noon, the women rushed onto the field for the next match, between Hall’s and Carl’s teams.

The players, many of whom wore masks, quickly passed the ball between them. Some tried to intercept and block the shots.

Within minutes, Carl had the ball. She lifted her arms and pushed them towards the basket.

Swooshes.

Karlamangla writes for the New York Times.

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