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In Cleveland, a big sporting event is wrapping up a two-week run. The National Senior Games features aging athletes, and there's some low-impact activities, like swimming and shuffleboard, but there's also contact sports. NPR's Tom Goldman found a team of 70-something basketball players still in it for the camaraderie and competition despite the occasional elbow.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: It's a few minutes before game time this past Sunday, and the women's basketball team She-Ca-Go, 75 to 79 age division, is about to play its first of the tournament. The competition is three on three, half court, and She-Ca-Go, spelled S-H-E-C-A-G-O - guess where they're from - has no one to spare. Only three women made the trip to Cleveland. Players four and five are dealing with Parkinson's and shingles. So the big three, the only three, crowd around coach Hugo Donado for final instructions.
HUGO DONADO: We're giving up a lot of size right from the start. We know that, OK?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I can see that.
DONADO: You have to understand, you have to understand when it comes to defense, we can not let them get behind us. They can't be closer to that basket than we are.
GOLDMAN: Pretty rudimentary stuff, but this is the team's first counting, competitive contest since the last National Senior Games two years ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: White ball.
GOLDMAN: First half highlights belong to the opponent, San Diego Class Act, which certainly is with its killer pick-and-roll plays and cuts to the basket. She-Ca-Go looks hesitant and a step behind. Early on, the team's post player, 5'10" Edwina Dennis, gets bonked with an elbow, raising a walnut-sized lump on her head. The price of doing business in a sport 79-year-old Dennis loves and needs.
EDWINA DENNIS: Everybody I know is dead. And my opinion, they're dead or in the wheelchair because they won't move.
GOLDMAN: She's been moving her entire life but only playing basketball since age 70, not the case with her teammates, basketball lifers Roberta Leone, 78...
ROBERTA LEONE: I just love the strategy, and there's a lot of thinking that you have to do when you play.
GOLDMAN: ...and Leona Cochran, 79, who always loved defense.
LEONA COCHRAN: I just felt I was good at that. At one time, I was. But that's the part I like, being able to get in there and stop this other guy from keeping the ball.
GOLDMAN: The three joined She-Ca-Go at different times. The team has been around for about 20 years. They've played together the last five, mostly practicing and scrimmaging every week at the Levy Senior Center in Evanston, Illinois. Through divorce and death, none of them has a husband, but they've all got families, both off and on the court, says Leona Cochran.
COCHRAN: It's good to be part of a team. You know, sometimes things aren't always smooth, but at the end, when you leave and what happens? You come back next week...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah.
COCHRAN: ...and you're back with these people.
(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)
GOLDMAN: The game ends with a 42-to-16 win for San Diego. The action, not surprisingly for this age, is fairly slow. Reaction times aren't what they used to be, but it's striking to see the jostling, the body contact, something you don't normally see with women this age. Is there some psychic benefit, I ask them, to putting your body to that kind of test? All three shake their heads no. Edwina Dennis, with ice pack firmly on head, gives me a look.
DENNIS: I don't like anybody to touch me. I don't like it, period. Don't even on a bus. Don't touch me. I don't like it, but you got to deal with it. That's life.
GOLDMAN: Over two days, She-Ca-Go loses all five of its games, the last one only by five points, and everyone contributes. But Cochran is noticeably hobbled by arthritic knees, and it's why she may finally be done. Her departure may mean the end of She-Ca-Go, but Leone wants to keep playing as long as she can, and Dennis, who turns 80 in January, says she may sign up with another team because, in her words, I ain't quitting. Tom Goldman, NPR News.