Kevin Vanderschans was like a child on Halloween who had been forced to remain inside while his friends went trick-or-treating. His right knee injured, he had watched uneasily for 32 minutes as his basketball team played on a recent Thursday night. Now, with eight minutes remaining and the score tied, Vanderschans decided to play. As he waited to enter the game, he paced the floor, occasionally glancing at the injured knee.
Vanderschans, 27, of Mar Vista, had played competitive basketball most of his life, including a year on the UCLA junior varsity. But this was different. This was a recreational league for men shorter than six feet, and Vanderschans, at 5 feet, 11 3/4 inches, was one of the tallest men in the league. He was the team's star.
'Biggest Guy Out There'
"It's kind of nice," he said before the game, "when you're the biggest guy out there."
By the time Vanderschans got in the game at Mar Vista Recreation Center, his team was trailing by two points.
By any measure, basketball is an enormously popular participatory sport. At playgrounds and indoor gyms throughout the Los Angeles area, players gather day and night for impromptu or "pickup" games. For those who like structure, the city, through its Municipal Sports Office, organizes dozens of leagues, while recreation centers, surrounding communities, private companies, YMCAs, and private gyms offer numerous others.
But basketball is a tall person's game--the closer a player is to the 10-foot-high rim, the greater his advantage--and the vast majority of leagues have no height limit, virtually guaranteeing that tall players will dominate. Most leagues that restrict height do not allow players over six feet tall; others draw the line at 6 feet, 1 inch or 6 feet, 2 inches.
"People who are over six feet have a big advantage in basketball," explains Diane Gill, who runs a league at Westchester Recreation Center. "It (a league restricting height) gives these guys under six feet a chance to be a star, an individual."
The leagues appear to be popular. At Mar Vista, for example, four teams are already on the waiting list for next season, which will not begin until February.
And so the team members come every Thursday night to the dimly lit gym at Mar Vista Park. They come with names that tend toward both the silly and macabre--names like Gnarly Dudes, Over the Hill Gang, Night Stalkers and Jimmy Hoffa. As uniforms, members of one team wear mismatched white T-shirts with hand-scrawled numbers; on another, players wear matching red mesh jerseys.
"I've played basketball all my life, and I love it, but I'm too small," says David Frosh of Buena Park, in his fourth season in an under-six-foot league. "It's a lot of fun to get a chance against guys my own size," adds Frosh, 27, who plays on the Night Stalkers and, like many team members, works at Savin, a manufacturer of photocopying machines. Some recreation directors like the limited leagues because they tend to attract neighborhood residents. "When we had an open league we were getting huge guys, 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-6, from all over the city," says Steve Vollmer, recreation director at Mar Vista Park. "Neighborhood residents were always asking me, 'When can the little guys play?' "
Popular Conditioning Activity
In most adult leagues, players form their own teams (typically 10 players) and pay a fee, usually between $150 and $250, that covers staff costs, referees and trophies. A few organizers will attempt to place individual players on a team.
As a conditioning activity, basketball ranks high because it requires endurance, coordination and strength. "There is a tremendous physical value to being involved in basketball, whether it's competitive or not," says Robert Wiswell, chairman of the physical education department at USC. "Basketball is a combination of activities that would lead to benefits in both strength and endurance." To maintain good physical condition, basketball players must work out at least three times a week for half an hour, Wiswell says.
Though a few men from the Mar Vista league play daily, most of those interviewed say they play two or three times a week, sometimes in combination with other exercise. Pete Davis, a high school English teacher, drives from his home in Pasadena to play with friends on a team called Jimmy Hoffa. "It's worth the drive," says Davis, 30, who is 5 feet, 11 inches tall. To supplement basketball, Davis runs and does calisthenics three times a week.
But like all sports that involve contact and strenuous activity, basketball entails the risk of injury. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, 1.2 million basketball-related injuries, more than half of them strains or sprains, required medical treatment in 1980, the last year for which comprehensive statistics are available.
Local recreation directors, though, say injuries are rare; like all avid basketball players, they discount the minor sprains, strains, bruises and blisters that are common to the sport.
USC's Wiswell--who still plays basketball regularly at the age of 40--recommends that players stretch before and after games to reduce the risk of injury, especially as they grow older. He also warns that injuries occur more frequently when players are tired.