ARLINGTON, Va. – In a small gym at the Langston Brown Community Center, the air filled with the squeak of sneakers and good-natured heckling of pickup basketball, a group of ladies ranging in age from 40 to 75-plus sits on the sidelines.
They’re here to play, not watch.
Who’s got next? For an hour every Wednesday night, that would be Helen White and the other women in the Arlington County Senior Women’s Basketball program.
Yes, it’s a recreation league. It’s also some serious basketball.
“When I was 50 I wanted to know if there were any women that were playing basketball,” says White, the league’s 62-year-old commissioner. “I saw a little add in a local newspaper, went to the gym, found some people who were 5-to-10 years older than I but liked basketball.
“We decided to hang out together and commit to growing basketball.”
Thirteen years later, White recalls the now-successful program didn’t take off over night, but it now has more than 50 players on teams that compete around the country. (Age groups are-50, 55, 60, 65, 70 and 75-plus.)
White is also the founding member and first president of the NOVA United Senior Women's Basketball Association, which became a nonprofit organization in 2007.
It’s a group that has game.
At the 2015 National Senior Games, the Rapid Fire 50+ team finished in fourth place, the Triple Threat 55+ team finished in fifth, the Solid Gold 55+ team won a bronze medal, the Gold Mettle 60+ team and the Rebounders 65+ team both won silver medals in their age groups. The Classics 70+ team almost reached the medal round.
Despite the national success, the women say it doesn’t compare to when some of them visited West Point, stayed at the Commandant’s house and played an exhibition game during halftime of an Army women’s game. Or in 2014, when the women took the floor during halftime of a Sweet 16 NCAA game played at Old Dominion University.
“The chance to play in front of 5,000 people at an official NCAA tournament game? It doesn’t get better than that for people our age,” White said.
The on-court benefits are great, but for these women, it’s more than just a game.
“People become isolated as they get older,” said Barbara Porter, a regular with the Wednesday night group. “I think the biggest thing I’ve taken away is the friendships…We’re a family.”
Porter is known as Fred on the court, due to Barbara being a common girls name in the 50’s. The program had three on the same team, so she decided to go by Fred.
Porter started playing after she and her husband adopted a boy and girl form Russia in 2003. She struggled to connect with her son, who took to basketball, which got her thinking.
“I thought, ‘Well, if I play, we’ll have something to talk about,” says Porter, who was not known as an athlete in her school days. “I didn’t do any sports at all, but thought it could be fun. It did connect us, he was mortified at first that his mom was playing basketball, but he got me my ball and shoes and he has been coaching me.”
Porter said her relationship with her son is strong, as is her bond with her fellow competitors, on and off the court.
“It was a great comradery that we found here. I’ve gone from just getting off the couch to three leagues and a soccer league,” she said. “I’m a jock in my old age!”
Comradery is a popular word with the players. So are ‘health’ and ‘risk.’
“This is a risk at our age, but we have passion and determination,” said Marianne Simonton, one of the more experienced players. “We all overcome obstacles but still keep coming back. Broken wrists, torn rotator cuffs, therapy, everything.”
Simonton, who played basketball and tennis at both Ohio University and West Virginia, started playing again because of health concerns and her children. The Vienna, Va., native was diagnosed with diabetes and said that she just let herself go.
Her weight had climbed to more than 300 pounds. Simonton hated to exercise, despite being a physical education major in college, but at the urging of a friend started playing basketball again, two to three times a week.
“I never went back to teaching because I was overweight and felt I wasn’t a good example for the people I’d be teaching,” said Simonton, who has dropped more than 100 pounds and has returned to teaching P.E. to middle schoolers. “It’s a sport I love and a great way to get exercise. Then I got close to the women I play with and it became a huge part of my life.”
Simonton followed her story with one from their trip to nationals, where the NOVA United team met ladies in their 80’s, including one women who played with an oxygen tank on her back.
“The spirit us ladies have is amazing,” Simonton said. “We’re not as fragile as some would think, and our passion for the game still burns deep.”
“I’m going to play as long as I can walk and get out of bed,” said 54-year old Anne Bishop, who played softball in college before dropping out and joining the Marine Corps, where she played a little basketball.
THE MESSAGE: WHY NOT?
These women are making a difference, and the movement is starting to really hit its stride.
“I think we’re ambassadors for women’s senior sports,” said ‘Fred’ Porter. “A lot of these women were pioneers and playing before it was popular. They opened doors for the women that came after and now I think we’re opening doors for people at home who need to get out and do more.”
Deb Lowry, 60, who played on the first intercollegiate team at Duke in 1974, wrapped it up in one sentence.
“We’re definitely not Grannies Got Game, we’re senior women who have game.”
White says the message she wants to relay is simple: Why not?
“We all have this image of how people age and in many cases it’s sedentary. But for me, I think sports keep you in the game. They keep you alive. I want to be playing when I’m 100 years old. Why not? Why not?
“I want to change the stereotype of people as they grow older. There’s no reason to stop playing as you get older. People get old when they stop playing.”