Dan Singer, 70, left, of Timonium, keeps the ball away from Charlie… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
They have survived badly sprained ankles and torn knee ligaments, mild concussions and more than their share of poor shooting days. Ralph Piersanti, one of the oldest in a group, has had two heart attacks.
But they keep playing a game that used to be thought of for mostly younger men and women.
Three times a week, more than two dozen men in their 60s, 70s and even a few like Piersanti, in their 80s, typically show up at the Bykota Senior Center in Towson — normally thought of as a place for more placid activities such as bingo and line-dancing — to play basketball.
The Bykota Center is one of a number of facilities in the Baltimore-Washington region where former players like Piersanti and Bucky Kimmett, who both played at Towson in the late 1940s and early 1950s, can try to recreate the moves they made more than 60 years ago. And others who never even played in high school can experience the exhillaration of hitting a game-winning shot.
Piersanti, a retired schoolteacher who will be 85 later this year, says playing basketball at his age is as much about inspiration as perspiration.
Along with keeping active, Piersanti said, "My main purpose for being here [playing] is for the other guys to see me around and say, 'I can do that.' That's a good feeling."
They play mostly half court — which means in games of 5-on-5 the lane gets as jammed as the Jones Falls Expressway at rush hour — but also go full court when the crowd thins toward the end of their two-hour sessions.
While the style of play is strictly old-school, featuring more set shots than jumpers, and a lot of picks but not many rolls, the players take it seriously.
"When the score gets to 6-6 and we're playing seven baskets win, it's very competitive," Piersanti said.
That was evident on a recent Friday afternoon. After watching his team's 6-3 lead cut to one point, Herman Smith encouraged the other four players. Actually, Smith seemed to be a little peeved.
"We were up three — let's not blow this lead," the 70-year-old Smith, who grew up in a hoop-crazed Kentucky town and later played at Eastern Kentucky, barked before his team held on for a one-basket win.
Smith said he thinks basketball has become more popular with older players because of an increased attention paid to keeping healthy, but boredom might play a factor as well.
"Many of the guys here will say, 'If it wasn't for basketball, I don't know what I would do,'" said Smith, who has played at the Bykota Center for the past three years after retiring after working more than 40 years for the Social Security Administration.
Ted Wroth, executive director of the Maryland Senior Olympics, said the popularity of senior basketball is growing even more among women than it is for men.
"A lot of the women didn't have the benefit of Title IX [which increased the number of athletic scholarships for women]," Wroth said. "But they've played over the years and now they are forming teams and leagues like the men have had."
Wroth said that there will be a women's basketball competition for the first time in the state's Senior Olympics, scheduled for Baltimore in early September.
A former college football player whose athletic endeavors these days focus mostly around golf, Wroth said basketball is certainly among the more rigorous sports seniors play — along with swimming, volleyball and track-and-field.
Like many in his age group, Smith thinks he is a better player now than he was even in his youth.
"I've developed more skills and what I've lost in physical ability, I've adjusted mentally," he said.
Though Kimmett, 83, still loves the workout a rigorous game of hoops can give him, he acknowledges "I do get upset when I can't do some of the things I used to."
Kimmett and others still challenge themselves by playing in local leagues as well as the Senior Olympics. A team from Bykota went to California last year to play in the Senior Olympics, which have 3-on-3 games.
"Unfortunately we didn't have any big guys — Bucky was our biggest guy, and there were teams that had guys who were 6-11 and also played in college," said Gill Hoffman, who helped organize the game at Bykota around 1999.
Most of those who play at Bykota are retired, but Dan Singer still teaches finance at Towson. He comes over on his lunch hour.
"This is a marathon — the goal is to play again tomorrow or the day after," Singer, 67, said.
Piersanti came back last fall after taking a spill that resulted in a trip to Maryland Shock Trauma "to get stitched up." Piersanti said he spent a day there "but three weeks later I was good to go and was back playing." He is still not sure what happened.
Larry Polen grew up playing in Pikesville but "wasn't good enough" to make the high school team. A scrappy player who gets to his share of offensive rebounds and other loose balls, Polen started coming to Bykota because the "guys took it seriously, but not that seriously."
When 20 show up for Friday's game, Hoffman and Tommy Crawford, another of the group's originals, break up the teams by age, height and reputation. Sometimes, it works out, sometimes it doesn't.
"One time I went out there and the four other guys on my team were in their 80s," Mike Hannan recalled. "But we won two of three."
Many in this group can remember back to when they were in their 50s and considered ancient when it came to basketball.
"When I came up in my 20s and 30s, if you had someone in their 40s it was rare," said Ron Watson of Linthicum, considered by many to be the most skilled player in the bunch at Bykota. "Now you go to some of these places and they've got leagues for guys in their 80s."
Watson plays three times a week at Bykota and on Saturdays with a younger group.
"Sometimes it tough to drag yourself out, but at least you sleep good," he said with a smile. "You sleep really well."