In July, I was invited to speak at the Senior National Games about my memoir Home Sweet Hardwood, the story of a woman’s struggle to fit in society and play basketball in college, professionally and overseas at a time in America’s history when women’s sports was taboo. My intent was to motivate the participants, but I was the one that left feeling inspired.
As a guest of the National Senior Women’s Basketball Association, I met the lively participants in the women’s over 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s competing in the 3 on 3 basketball competition in Cleveland, Ohio, home of Rock n’ Roll. But I was taken aback when I found out I would be speaking at their socials held at the Hard Rock Cafe. Hard Rock Cafe, a venue for geriatrics? Pitch out whatever preconceived notion you once held of senior citizens.These ladies could play and party with the best of ‘em.
They weren’t just feting basketball, and competition, they were embracing life. They cheered, chanted and celebrated just being together.
Unlike addressing the quietly attentive business-suited businessmen and civic leaders at the Rotary as I did earlier in July, this event required hollering over the din of a crowd like during the « 3rd half » of a rugby match where opposing teams put rivalry aside, shared a meal and tossed back a beer together.
I tweaked my speech to hold their interest, opening with a few phrases in French. They glanced up from their meals.
« We grew up listening to a language as foreign as French, » I said and they set down forks. « In our hearts, we heard run, jump, play, compete.»
« When society was telling us, cook, clean, cheer, sit, sew, smile, bake, be mommy’s lil’ helper, daddy’s lil’ princess, when what we really wanted to be was fighting warriors on competing America’s playing fields. »
The rowdy crowd stopped socializing.
« WE grew up hearing a language so foreign, no one understood it yet. But they do now! Women can be doctors, lawyers, CEO’s even Secretary of State. »
Cheers erupted. I strode from table to table shouting into the microphone like a union leader as the audience clapped and roared. When I saluted them for staying in the game, they humbled me by rising in a standing ovation.
As a first generation Title IX athlete, I came of age in the infancy of women’s rights to participate in sport and benefited from the controversial bill mandating equal opportunities for women in all public institutes. Many women at the Senior Games grew up pre Title IX and never had the opportunity to compete, or played the old-fashioned 6-a side game where you broke your toes stopping at center court, limited to playing only one half side on defense or offense.
A lady on the Chicago Hot Shots, a 65+ team, told me, “I started playing at age 66.”
Another spunky guard, Carol Strickler, on the Memphis team drawled, “I survived cancer twice and just had hip replacement. Basketball keeps me mobile.”
They endured personal setbacks, career changes, job losses, and family crisises. They recovered from cancers, heart surgeries and joint replacements. Many, like me, stared down death, and refused to quit, “No! I ain’t done living yet.” They found not only a way to remain active, but to be competitive.
Basketball has become a way of life defining their days. They may have admired me for blazing a trail, but my awe of them was greater. My career ended at the age of 26 in a car accident that should have taken my life. Here were gyms full of women, past the half-century mark, who refused to give up. They were setting picks, blocking shots, knocking down jumpers, taking the charge and still walking off the court upright.
Against all odds, they found a way to stay in the game.
“Never again will we question our right to belong on the Home Sweet Hardwood,” I said.
« I came here to share my uplifting story and encourage you to read my book, » I told them, « but I am the one leaving the Cleveland Senior Games 2013 feeling inspired. I raise my glass. »
« You rock, ladies. Fitness for Life. Basketball Forever. »
We’ve come a long way, baby !
Amen, sister, amen !