“Guys, let’s win this one for Norty,” one of his teammates shouts before the game. “Who knows if this is his last shot at a championship?”
A crowd of 30 fans buzz with anticipation at the finals of the JCC Klein Branch over-55 league in northeast Philadelphia. They worry it’s the end of an era.
Then again, they’ve been wondering that for 25 years.
Most NBA players are over the hill by 35 (At age 38, Tim Duncan is viewed as Methuselah). Recreational players tend to hang it up around 50 or so.
Not Norty. Norty Levine is one of the best 79-year-old basketball players in America. The former University of Miami athlete (on the squad years before Rick Barry) plays both full-court pick-up games and over-50 leagues several days a week. He won several medals at the National Senior Olympics.
He doesn’t shuffle slowly along the court; at 6-foot-2, Levine trades elbows, snags rebounds, and makes hook shots over defenders. When he sets bone-jarring picks for his teammates, the other players call it being “Norticized.”
Imagine Joakim Noah or Serge Ibaka, at 79.
By halftime, Levine, who turns 80 in September, barely looks tired. As usual, he displays a serene intensity. During one time out, while his teammates huddled around, yelling at each other, Levine stands a few feet away quietly gulping some water. Levine just lets his tenacious play do the talking.
He’s always been this way.
Levine was the star of his Miami Beach High School football and basketball teams. He accepted a basketball scholarship at the University of Miami and played one season, but withdrew from school after a year and moved to Philadelphia.
He worked as a hair dresser there for most of his life. Now, he works seven days a week along with his 53-year-old son Mitch (a sometime competitor) for Norty’s daughter’s Philadelphia restaurant, Randi’s. Over the last 60 years, he’s played in numerous basketball leagues. In 2009, Levine and his two teammates, Dan Fleming and Clarence “Bones” Gilbert won gold medals in the 75-79 age group at the National Senior Olympics at Stanford University, going 8-0 against a field of 16 teams.
“It’s exceptionally intense and very competitive,” Levine says. “We beat the crap out of each other. Everybody there can play, big guys, little guys. They’ve played basketball all of their lives and they’re knowledgeable players. There are no pushovers.”
Most people in their 70s turn to golf or swimming for recreation. Levine has managed to keep doing the thing he’s loved his whole life. “I never stopped playing,” Levine says. “I stay in good shape. I exercise every day. I haven’t eaten meat for 46 years.”
During the second half of the JCC Championship game, Levine’s team pulls away and captures a 58-40 victory.
In one stretch of the second half, Levine’s teammate, Jack Kapenstein, managed to leap over Levine to grab a rebound.
“You just climbed up the back of an 80-year-old man,” the ref said.
“He can take it,” Kapenstein replies. Indeed.