Basketball Keeps the Spirit Young

Will the current crop of contenders NCAA men's basketball championship still be playing ball in 40 years? They could be, as some aging former college hoopsters are proving today. They're still making great shots, even if they've slowed down a little.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Secretary Albright, who teaches at Georgetown, will be cheering the boys when they go up against Ohio State tonight. Florida meets UCLA in the second game. But here's a question for today's stars. Will they be able to dunk and dribble in 40 years?

(Soundbite of basketball game)

SIMON: NPR's Tom Goldman met up with a group of former college players in Portland, Oregon ,and their answer to that question is a resounding yes.

TOM GOLDMAN: The play takes about seven seconds and it's all basketball instinct. The guard from Linfield College, dribbling the ball, makes eye contact with a player from Santa Clara University. Santa Clara cuts to the basket and takes a perfect bounce pass in stride.

(Soundbite of basketball game)

GOLDMAN: As a defender moves to stop Santa Clara, he fires a cross-court pass to Carl Wistrack(ph) from Stanford. Wistrack sinks a high-arcing jump shot while University of Oregon guard Dave Caforey(ph), watching from the sidelines, laughs.

Mr. DAVE CAFOREY (Former University of Oregon Guard): He never found a shot that he didn't like.

GOLDMAN: Then and now?

Mr. CAFOREY: Then and now.

GOLDMAN: Every Sunday and Tuesday, year-round, these men in their late 50s and early 60s meet at the confluence of then and now, a basketball court at Portland's Multnomah Athletic Club. They're college basketball affiliations ended decades ago, but their skills did not. Just a bit slower, says Caforey, who's 63 and always smiling.

Mr. CAFOREY: We developed a lot of those things in grade school and high school, kind of the things that we liked to do, our favorite moves, and we may have refined them a bit, but we pretty much - that's pretty much what we've got.

Unidentified Man: Can I have two razors and a baked potato and sautéed vegetables?

Unidentified Woman #1: Two razors, a baked potato and sauté, sure.

GOLDMAN: One concession to age: post-game food and socializing now are as important as a good sweaty scrimmage. Caforey and Carl Wistrack sit in a booth at the club's restaurant. Wistrack is a 63-year-old plastic surgeon with a gray goatee. He played two years of varsity ball at Stanford and always heard people say that basketball would fade as he got older.

Mr. CARL WISTRACK (Plastic Surgeon): It just, you know, kept going and you think, well, you know, yeah, you can't keep playing basketball, maybe we'll just, you know, one more year, you know, and pretty soon this masters thing popped up.

GOLDMAN: It was 18 years ago when Wistrack and Caforey started playing in masters events. Talk about a second wind for their basketball careers. Caforey coaches their travel team, named after Portland's East Bank Saloon. It has a core of six former college players who pay their way to tournaments around the country, and beyond. They've played in Slovenia, New Zealand, Brazil. They have hoops friends from Latvia and Lithuania. But don't assume these tourneys are friendly little get-togethers for over-the-hill athletes. Wistrack says that's especially the case at the international events, where the officiating gets a bit lax.

Mr. WISTRACK: They tend not to call anything away from the ball, so some of the most amazing screens occur. I mean you just get leveled.

GOLDMAN: Fortunately, Wistrack, the plastic surgeon, brings along his little kit to take care of mishaps. Like the time in Brazil when Caforey got head-butted in the face.

Mr. WISTRACK: I showed Dave and this other guy on the team up in the hotel room with a reading light there and I brought anesthesia this time. One year I didn't bring any anesthesia, but that was all right; I still sewed up this one guy. But he was a tough guy, so...

GOLDMAN: When they're not on the road spilling blood or playing their somewhat friendly games at the Multnomah Club, Wistrack and Caforey compete in an open league in Portland, where most of the players are in their 30s. It's all hoops, all the time, which with all the pounding wouldn't seem to be the best activity for an aging body. But Caforey says they're stuck.

Mr. CAFOREY: At our age you can't stop playing because it's too hard to get back in shape.

GOLDMAN: They've both been lucky and have avoided major injuries over the years.

On the other hand, do you notice changes in your bodies and does that - is that kind of a sobering thing for you? For instance, you're not - you know, your first step isn't as quick or you can't get your shot up.

Mr. WISTRACK: What do you mean, it's not?

GOLDMAN: In fact, Wistrack says he looks forward to getting older and what that'll mean for their masters tournaments.

Mr. WISTRACK: In a couple of years we're going to be in the 65. That's going to be great because then we're going to be the youngest people in the 65s and we'll kick ass with the 68-year-old guys that are, you know, they're a little slower. So you know, that keeps everything relative.

GOLDMAN: Right now the oldest age group at their tournaments is 70 and over. Asked if they can go higher, Caforey says if it does, we'll be there.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Portland.

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