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Granny Basketball: Senior Sports Beyond ‘Ping Pong’

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Ping Pong, which is now streaming for free online tells the story of seven fierce senior athletes competing in the Over-80 Table Tennis Championships. But what if you are a senior who wants to remain active, but doesn’t wish to or think they can compete on the international stage? How do you you start an athletic league in your community? I spoke to Barb McPherson, President and Founder of the National Granny Basketball League, about her inspiration to start a league for women over 50 in her city of Lansing, Iowa.

“I was looking for a way to exercise and I realized that I didn’t really like anything because it was either too hard of work or I didn’t like it. I’m a people person – to go to a gym or something and be by yourself didn’t appeal to me. So I was reading this article about how you should find something you really like to do, and the only thing I could think of that I like to do is basketball, but of course nobody else my age played. And there wasn’t any way to do it.”

McPherson had played basketball as a high school student in 1962. At that time, basketball was the only sport that they offered for women in Iowa. According to McPherson, it was a small school phenomenon. “Big schools still thought that [sports were] going to ruin [a girl’s] reproductive system, if they were physical. Of course the people in Iowa, whose kids grew up working on the farm – the girls were out there swinging bales of hay and chasing cows, and reproducing at a phenomenal rate.  They knew that that was not true, so that’s why it caught on in Iowa.” Only a few colleges offered women’s basketball, so at the end of high school McPherson stopped playing.  However, companies like Look magazine used to sponsor women’s teams as a way to lure female workers, and McPherson’s sister was one of the Look basketball players.

Many of the ladies on McPherson’s team, the Grand Dames, had never played basketball because their parents wouldn’t let them, or they were from a big school that didn’t offer it. “They are just thrilled to death that they now have the opportunity.”

McPherson says the Granny’s have a wonderful time traveling to away games in Iowa, Minnesota,  Missouri, and Louisiana. “Of course car rides are amazing. You just haven’t lived until you’ve been in car with 5 other Grannys, because nobody can remember anything…we lose each other, and get lost. It’s better now cause we have a GPS.”

Granny Basketball teams play by rules based on basketball of the 1920’s:

  • No running or jumping, but hurrying is allowed
  • No bare flesh may be shown.  The Granny’s wear bloomers, long sleeved blouses and stockings. If flesh is bare the player receives a technical foul.
  • Women can join the league if they are 50 years old or over . The Great Dames have an age range from 50 to 86 years old.
  • You receive 3 points if you shoot underhanded (a granny shot). The name for the league was inspired by the shot, and not the fact that the Granny’s are grandmothers, because some of them are not.

McPherson also provided some tips for starting a sports league:

  • Find a time you can host practices and gym where you can do it. According McPherson, the YMCA has been an ally to the Granny teams.
  • Start recruiting people you know via your place of worship, work, word of mouth, or maybe even people from high school. Look up old friends, McPherson said she contacted people she hadn’t heard from in 50 years to see if they wanted to play basketball.
  • Don’t be afraid of rejection. Be daring. McPherson approached potential players that she described as “tall ladies with gray hair” at her local Walmart .
  • Most importantly have fun. “We see ourselves as still about 16 years old. When you get out on the court you forget that you’re old.”

In the nine years since founding Granny Basketball, McPherson said she has benefited from the physical activity and sense of community the league provides. “The thing about Granny Basketball that’s so great is that theres a lot of face-to-face camaraderie. Lots of times if you go for a walk or some other kind of exercise, it’s a solitary activity. This way you get to be with people and form relationships. It’s great exercise too, especially for older ladies. Lots of our ladies say ‘Gee, before I started playing I couldn’t even raise my arm up over my head.’ The trick is to keep moving. You know, you get limbered up, and have a lot of fun.”

And here is a list of other senior sports organizations to check out:

Ping Pong is available for streaming for free on the POV website until September 14, 2013. Watch now before it’s too late!

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Erin McIntyre
Erin McIntyre
Erin McIntyre is a POV Digital 2013 intern. She is a graduate student studying Media and Documentary at The New School. Prior to POV, she volunteered as a filmmaker for the United Nations Working Group on Girls, producing a short documentary on trafficking. In addition she works as a producer at The New School radio station WNSR where she collaborated on a radio documentary profiling the life of John Cage. She holds a bachelor's degree in Communication from Portland State University. Her favorite documentaries include: The Fog of War, Bill Cunningham: New York, Man on Wire, New York Doll and My Best Fiend