I recently spent a couple of hours at the Jewish Community Center in Fairfax watching women in their 40s, 50s and 60s play two games of full-court basketball. These were rec-league ballplayers, but there was nothing casual about the games. They played organized zone defense. A ref in black and white stripes called fouls. In the advanced game, which included women who had played college ball in their primes, there was some sweet outside shooting and good ball movement.
A basketball league for middle-aged women is a rarity itself, but that’s not why I was watching.
I was there because they don’t keep score. They haven’t since the league started in 1991.
“It’s the game in its purest form. We love this game,” Heather Stevens-Kittner of Arlington said as she sat in a chair waiting to get back on the court. “We love playing this game. We don’t care who wins. We don’t care who scores. When someone on the other team makes a nice play, we cheer.”
We don’t care who wins? At a time when soccer parents are banned from sidelines and Congress is ready to shut down the government because nothing less than total victory will do, these women have found a way to eliminate much of that strife without sacrificing the essence of their endeavor.
They were still competing, at times fiercely. They were still getting their exercise. But they had managed, with this one decision, to change the experience in important ways.
Patricia Byrne, a 61-year-old psychologist from Alexandria who plays in the early game, believes the no-scoring rule eliminates most arguments on the floor and some of the rough stuff that can get out of hand, even in a friendly game.
“People play less recklessly,” she said. “It’s just more relaxed. We’re less injury-prone.”
Roz Renberg, 46, who drives over from Bethesda, said she would worry about shooting with a game on the line, especially when she was first learning to play. “Even though I’m open, I’d probably throw it to [a better player] so we could win,” she told me.
And Carol Gilchrist of Leesburg, who played for Indiana University in the mid-1970s and took part in the advanced game that night, said not caring about the result puts a different focus on each trip down the floor. The players can appreciate sharp passing or well-played defense whether or not they score.
“We’re competitive on each play,” she said. “It’s each play on its own merits, not the whole game.”
As for the elephant in the, er, gym: No, I don’t believe guys could do this. In my experience, two boys, a ball and a hoop equals a game of one-on-one. Or at least a game of H-O-R-S-E. Research shows that girls tend to play more cooperative games and boys favor competitive ones.
In December, I wrote about a group of men who have been playing in the same pickup basketball game for two decades. They spoke almost reverently of competition and camaraderie, so I asked their commissioner what he thought of not keeping score.
“It’s inconceivable that we’d ever even consider it,” Andrew Cohen told me in an e-mail. “Without a score, there can’t be a winner. And without a winner, the competitive juices don’t flow. It just wouldn’t be a ‘game.’
“Maybe the need for those competitive juices has something to do with the way the genders are hard-wired,” he added. “Even at my 7-year-old son’s learning games, where they don’t keep track of the baskets, every boy on the court knows what the final score is.”
Said Stevens-Kittner: “Men just don’t get it.”
We all know the value of competition. It’s how we develop everything from the best companies to the best athletes. Some of the women at the Northern Virginia JCC, in fact, play in another league where they keep score and took third place in a national over-50 competition.
But researchers also agree that overemphasizing victory, the perversion of the “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” philosophy of the legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, tends to cause needless problems — from the basketball floor to the floor of the Senate.
“I’ve had guys on my own team fight in the middle of the game,” said Holly Caporale, 51, of Fairfax, who organizes the women’s league at the JCC of Northern Virginia. “And I’d say, ‘Is it really worth it? We’re just trying to have some fun. We’re just trying to get some exercise.’
“At the end of the night, I don’t care what the final score is. I care how I did.”
The women’s league is looking for new players. For information, call the Northern Virginia JCC at 703-323-0880 and ask for Allison Colman. You do not need to be a member to join the league.