n a recent Monday night, two teams are fiercely competing on the basketball court in the Magruder High School gym in Rockville. The scoreboard shows a tight game, and the players are cheering each other on: "That's the way to hustle!" "C'mon, let's play some D!"
Uniformed referees closely patrol the game: "Double zero -- push. Two shots!"
It has all the makings of a varsity high school game, except the pace is a little slower, many of the players are slightly thicker around the middle and thinner on top than high school players. The cheering from the stands is different, too: "Nice shot, Dad!" shouts a preteen girl. The men on the court -- ranging in age from their thirties to their fifties -- are playing their weekly game in an adult recreational basketball league.
Starting in fall and continuing through winter, this scene is played out several nights a week at school and community center gyms across the Washington area. Men and women (usually separately but sometimes together) play on recreational basketball teams in leagues that compete once a week for eight to 10 weeks and culminate in playoffs and a championship tournament. In most of the region, the primary basketball season runs from December to March, with registration beginning this month. YMCAs, Jewish community centers, church groups and some independent organizations, such as the Neighborhood Athletic Association, run adult leagues. But the biggest organizers are city or county recreation departments, which form leagues geared toward specific age groups such as 35 and older, or 50 and older, or ones open to anyone older than 18. A few jurisdictions offer multiple divisions per age category based on the caliber of the teams. Fees are charged to the team as a whole, with each player typically contributing $50 to $100 per season.
In some counties in the area, including Loudoun, adult league registration has been on the increase. In others, such as Howard and Montgomery, interest in adult league play has remained the same or declined slightly in recent years. There are no precise statistics on the number of local players, but nationally, about 1.8 million adults participated in league basketball in 2003, according to a study conducted by the New York-based market research firm American Sports Data Inc.
Why do they do it?
Many simply love the game. Dumfries resident Teddy Spittal, 38, played basketball on his high school team and has played in Prince William County adult leagues for several years. He is currently organizing a new one. Though he had knee surgery a year ago and last season had to play with two knee braces, he has no intention of stopping. "It's addictive," he says, adding that he even has basketball-oriented dreams.
Another explanation is the social component. Spittal, who lived in Europe for a while, came back to the Washington area and "met everyone I know from hanging out at the gym" playing basketball, he says.
Gambrills resident John Medford, 63, plays in five different leagues during the winter season: two in Anne Arundel County, two in Montgomery County and one at Fort Meade, which he can participate in as a retired Department of Defense civilian employee. He says the people he sees at the games "are about the only people I see outside of my family" in the winter. During the 40 years that he has been playing recreational basketball locally, his friends have come to include his teammates as well as opposing team members who return year after year.
Basketball also provides a terrific workout. "It exercises just about every part of my body," Medford says, admitting that he has jammed a few of his fingers over the years and that all the pounding that his joints take from playing causes occasional pain.
Many say playing ball is a fun way to relax and escape daily stresses. Consider Herb Krusen, 46, who works as an insurance agent in Montgomery County and has played in both fall and winter adult leagues there for about six years. He likes that the guys he plays with root for each other and that when he and others walk into the gym "we're all the same. Status in the community doesn't matter. Nor does it matter if you're the richest guy in the gym -- it doesn't help you shoot," he says. He adds that on his teams "no one talks business."
Krusen also likes the competition that leagues make possible. Compared with adult pickup games, "the level of play is higher, and you are playing with guys closer to your skill level," he says. In pickup games, some players get hurt if they get fouled deliberately, but in an organized gym setting, refs make calls and "most guys in leagues play clean," he says. On game days, Krusen thinks about basketball as early as lunchtime and tries to eat a nutritious meal to better compete. Once the game begins, his adrenaline starts pumping. Afterward, if his team loses, he is sometimes too upset to go out for drinks with his teammates. If they win the season championship, as his team did about six years ago, "it seems like we won something really important," Krusen says.
Hilary Hershey, 40, a computer scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, plays on both a men's and a women's team in Howard County in the fall and winter. For the women's team, which she formed about three years ago, she serves as both a player and coach. A few days before a game, "I'm already thinking about how to adjust the defense," she says, adding that she likes to be mentally as well as physically prepared for the game and "clear my brain before I go into the gym."
From the referee's perspective, the competition in adult leagues -- primarily in men's games -- can get too fierce. Ron Sinacore, president of the Cardinal Basketball Officials Association, a nonprofit organization that provides officials to all levels of basketball games in Northern Virginia, says that although men bond on the court, some seem to be trying to relive the games of their youth and get upset when the refs call a foul or travel on them. Adult games can sometimes get more heated than youth ones -- while it's true that parents often yell at refs from the stands, some adult male players take the game so seriously they start screaming at officials from down on the court. Some of the competitive spirit at adult league games stems from the fact that most of the participants played basketball in high school, college or beyond. Medford played at Annapolis High School. Hershey played at American University, and Krusen played at East Carolina University and professionally in Germany. Coming to an adult team with some experience is almost a necessity, players and organizers say, because most teams have no official coaches. "You don't see anyone like [University of Maryland coach] Gary Williams calling out plays from the sidelines," Medford says.
Additionally, gym time, particularly in the winter, is at a premium because youth and school teams are vying for the same play space, and typically the kids' teams take priority over the grown-ups'. So adult leagues often have no practice time and little opportunity to teach the fundamentals or even to plan offensive and defensive strategies.
Players count on one another's basketball knowledge to help them know where to stand and what to do on the court. "The benefit of having experienced players is that I can say, 'Okay, go to a 1-3-1,' and everybody knows it's a zone defense," Hershey says.
Medford advises people who want to participate in adult basketball but haven't played much in the past to consider playing pickup basketball for a while instead. Even those who have playing experience may find adult leagues too challenging if they are not in reasonably good shape. "You have to be able to get up and down the floor, or you can't keep up with the pace of the game," Hershey says. Medford agrees, suggesting that people practice their skills in their back yard if they need to brush up and "take daily runs rather than daily walks" to get into adequate shape. That's what Krusen does, putting in about 20 miles per week. He also lifts weights. Even so, he endures sore muscles the day after each game.
Though they may work out regularly, few adults who are in their thirties or older and played competitive basketball in their youth think they will return to the shape they were in years ago. Hershey says her knees and ankles have started to feel the effects of years of playing. So she and her thirty- and forty-something teammates adjust their game to their current fitness abilities and accept that it can be fun at a different level. "A pass that I used to get with no effort I now accept that I'm just not going to get it," Hershey says. Medford, who plays with guys in their twenties and thirties on two of his teams, says they know he's "not the go-to guy, but I can shoot from the outside." On his senior teams, he's not competing against guys who run quickly up and down the court and "you don't see too much dunking," he says, so it's easier to keep up.
One positive element to playing at a slower pace than the typical high school or college game: There are usually no issues about players getting enough court time. In fact it's the opposite in some adult leagues. Players want to take more breaks than they can get when only six or eight players show up. On Krusen's team, for example, when there are enough substitutes, players voluntarily raise their hands and let their teammates know they are ready for a rest, as opposed to kids who crave every second of playing time they are allotted.
But even at a sometimes lower level of play than their younger counterparts, adult recreation leaguers keep the game exciting. Hershey says her team has played some twenty-something opponents who "think they will wipe out us old ladies" and are surprised when they find out that "we know how to play." And Medford says some of the better teams in the 50-and-older league can hold their own against players in their thirties.
Some of the players' family members occasionally attend the games. Krusen's 12-year-old daughter Nicole, for example, comes often, cheering him on when he makes a basket and offering unsolicited critiques on the ride home. "She'll say, 'You missed seven shots and only got two rebounds,' " Krusen says with a laugh. He gets a kick out of this role reversal since he has served as his daughter's basketball coach for the past four years.
But, for the most part, there are few spectators at the adult games, and the participants are playing for their own satisfaction. For a lot of them, basketball is a hobby, a passion, a social outlet and a way to stay fit. With adult leagues offering competitive play opportunities for a relatively cheap price, they plan to play for a long time to come. "I will continue playing until a team doesn't want me anymore or until I can't," Krusen says.
Rebecca R. Kahlenberg is a freelance writer.