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Competing, Winning and Having a Ball

A 70-something O.C. team has won 18 tourneys in a row. 'There is something beyond the couch,' one player says.

January 02, 2006|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

Frank Larkin prepares his legs for the rigors of basketball by bouncing on a trampoline for 40 minutes a day. When you're 71, it takes a little longer to get your legs ready to play.

"When you go for a rebound, you feel like you're floating," he said. "The trampoline has really made a difference in my flexibility and mobility, and it exercises all my internal organs."

Larkin plays guard for a San Juan Capistrano-based team of players around 70, one of 125 senior basketball teams in the United States.

They call themselves USA 70, and the team has won 18 consecutive tournaments over the last two years in places such as Australia, Finland and Costa Rica. Their success led to a profile last month on local television before a Laker game, recognition by the San Juan Capistrano City Council, a letter of congratulations from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and an invitation to play in Cuba.

San Juan Capistrano Councilman Wyatt T. Hart, 69, a golfer, said he is living vicariously through the basketball players. "A lot of people use age as a reason not to do something," he said. "These guys are ignoring that reasoning."

Bill Bergman, a Leisure World-Laguna Woods resident, is the team's tallest player at 6 feet 5 inches.

"I don't want to tell folks how good I've got it," he said. "They're all suffering from the aches and pains that come with old age, but I don't feel all that."

In Bergman's first crack at basketball, he played varsity at Brea Olinda High School in Brea. Later, he played junior varsity at what was known as Chapman College.

"It's better this time than it was last time," he said.

There wasn't a last time for Bob Messersmith, the team's player / coach who was a baseball player in high school, a track star in college and a U.S. record holder in ultra-marathons in his 60s.

He didn't start playing basketball until he turned 62. Now, he is dribbling past former Olympians from other countries as the team plays senior tournaments around the world.

"I don't have the best fundamentals," Messersmith said. "But because of my track background, I don't get tired playing basketball. I'm great in the fourth quarter when everybody else is tired."

Messersmith co-founded the team with Bergman and Ernie Miller five years ago, which was before a 70-and-over division existed in the U.S. Senior Olympics. Basketball has grown enough among seniors that there is a 75-and-over division, and Messersmith is preparing a team for competition in 2008, when most of his players will be eligible.

"The message to older people is that there is something beyond the couch," said Messersmith, who owns a searchlight company that shines its lights at Hollywood premieres and award shows. "There's always a bigger hill to climb."

The road trips come at a substantial cost to the nine players, a mix of lawyers, actors, retired engineers and retired military officers. Each player pays his own expenses, and this summer's Europe trip will run at least $3,000 each.

Miller, the team's statistician and point guard who lives in San Clemente, estimated that the team has won 60 games during its two-year streak.

The run began two years ago at the U.S. Senior Olympics in Baton Rouge, La., in the 65-and-over division. Later that year, they captured the 32-team World Senior Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, beating the host country in the finals before 5,000 fans and wearing their red, white and blue replica uniforms that the U.S. Dream Team of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird wore in the 1992 Olympics.

The streak includes a 55-and-over title in Costa Rica. Most U.S. tournaments are three-on-three, half-court events. The international contests are typically full court, five-on-five games, which the team prefers because it involves more running.

"We usually are in better shape than most teams," said Miller. "How well you play in the seniors has a lot to do with how you've aged, and we've all aged pretty well."

While playing in Costa Rica, the team was given an invitation to the 2006 Central America championships in Cuba.

The team's schedule will include visits to Germany, Russia and, if the State Department gives clearance, Cuba.

USA 70 formed as a group of seniors challenging themselves and other local teams on the basketball court. Today, they see themselves as goodwill ambassadors for the U.S.

"We go to these places where we don't care for the country's politics," Messersmith said. "But on the basketball court, these are all good people.

"We hope we are able to contribute to society by ... getting rid of animosities and finding common ground among people. If I wanted to just win tournaments, I could do that all day long around here."

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