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KATHY SMITH

Basketball Team Taps Fountain of Youth

April 26, 1999|KATHY SMITH

Last month, when I was in San Diego attending a function for the Women's Sports Foundation, I found myself watching a particular group of women. In fact, I couldn't take my eyes off of them. Energetic, outgoing, gregarious and thoroughly alive, they seemed as cheerful as anyone could be. And since those aren't adjectives we generally attach to people in their age group--"the elderly"--I decided to introduce myself and try to glean their secret.

As it turns out, these ladies belonged to the Shooting Stars, one of the teams in the San Diego Senior Women's Basketball Assn. When I commented that I didn't know there was such a thing as seniors basketball, one woman told me that it's the fastest-growing sport for women in the Senior Olympics, which will be held in October in Orlando, Fla.

Playing half-court games that are 20 minutes long, the three-woman teams are organized into five age categories beginning at 50 and going all the way up to 70-plus. The players come from all walks of life--they are doctors, lawyers, teachers, dentists, nurses, engineers, business owners, retired military, homemakers and so on.

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By league standards, 57-year-old Audrey Kallas is considered quite young (the oldest player is 83). She had not played basketball in 35 years--since graduating from high school in 1959--when she read an article about the league and knew immediately that she wanted to get back out on the court. After she did, she was surprised by how much fun she was having, as well as how competitive the teams were. At the time of our meeting, the teams had just returned to San Diego from a tournament in Phoenix, where they'd won first place in every age category.

"As players, we're good and we're dedicated," she said. "No sitting on the bench when the coach calls us. This is not a joke to us." I took her comment as a reference to Dennis Rodman, then a Los Angeles Laker, who'd refused his coach's orders to go back into a few games.

Audrey says that the players are frequently asked to make personal appearances at schools. "When we show kids our stuff, they're amazed," she said. "We end up autographing everything they own. I can't imagine what their parents think when they come home autographed from head to toe by a group of senior women basketball players."

How fantastic to hear that they're treated like the heroes they are. I can't imagine better role models for our young people, both girls and boys, than these sweating grandmothers. They impart so many wonderful messages, especially to older people who feel that the parade has already passed them by. These women are living proof that trying something new can pay off in unexpected ways. It's never too late to begin playing.

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To my way of thinking, the players' most powerful message is made by their mere presence. The sense of vibrancy and strength they give off is unmistakable. They're happy, and it shows. "Senior powerhouses" is what Dr. Kenneth Cooper, author of "Regaining the Power of Youth," calls women like these--"one of the new breed of older people who are steadily 'pushing the envelope' on what it means to retain the power of youth well into old age."

Obviously, a senior doesn't have to start playing basketball to retain or rediscover the power of youth. But she does have to get involved in a fitness program built on weight training, flexibility and aerobics if she wants to improve her balance, maintain independence and participate in life to the fullest.

What clearer validation of the value of fitness could there be than the smiles on the faces and the gleam in the eyes of these basketball-playing women? To see them execute a give-and-go that leads to a lay-up basket, and then give each other high fives, says more eloquently than mere words that fitness not only adds years to your life, it adds life to your years.

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Copyright 1999 by Kathy Smith

Kathy Smith's fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her book "Getting Better All the Time." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.

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