Don’t tell Mary Burke-Bass that she doesn’t look like a basketball player.
While she and the rest of her Clinton Longshots teammates play in the 65-70 age division, the team of senior citizens have been playing basketball together since 1998 and have since traveled across the United States to compete. They recently won the gold medal in the West Virginia State Games.
Burke-Bass went to her 50-year high school reunion earlier this summer and when she told her classmates that she still hit the courts on a weekly basis, she was used to the reaction she received.
“They couldn’t believe that I was still playing basketball,” she recalled. “We get that all the time. They say, ‘At your age? You’re liable to fall and get hurt.’ I tell them that I can fall and get hurt walking down the street. You don’t think about any of that when you’re playing. You think about you’re teammates and you think about winning.”
When the women that would become the Longshots began playing basketball about 15 years ago, most never thought that the game would eventually take them as far away as Houston, Texas to compete.
Now, however, the team is a force to be reckoned with. Playing against teams from West Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee in Charlestown earlier in the summer, the Longshots rolled over the competition to bring home the gold.
Head coach Fred Holland has been with the team from the beginning. When his then-6-year old son wanted to play basketball, he volunteered to coach a little league team. Holland enjoyed the experience and continued to coach.
Twenty years later, a group of local women had picked up basketball not necessarily for the competition but more as a way to meet friends and let off steam.
“It’s a good way to get exercise,” said current team captain Alice Matthis. “It’s a good way to get out with people you enjoy being with. We’ve always enjoyed it.”
At the same time that the group of women began to play, Holland happened to be coaching some of the ladies’ grandchildren’s recreation basketball teams. Holland agreed to coach the ladies’ team as well and, soon after that, the Longshots were born and began to enter into tournaments around North Carolina.
The Longshots continued to play together and four years ago made it all the way to the Senior National Games in Louisville, Ky. Last year they traveled to Nationals again, this time in Houston, Texas.
Now, with their win in West Virginia, they have qualified for the 2013 National Games in Cleveland, Ohio.
The Longshots could prove most doubters wrong by just getting out on the court to play basketball. By dominating their competition and consistently finishing at the top, they are surpassing expectations and setting the bar even higher.
When Burke-Bass compares the senior game to the college basketball games she watches on television, she’s quick to point out that, while the level of play may be different, the competitive spirit is unchanged.
“Our game is a lot different. They’re a lot stronger and younger than we are. But as far as wanting to win, there’s no difference.”
And when the Longshots speak of their success, they always give their head coach most of the credit.
“(Holland) is a really great coach,” said Matthis. “He’s stuck with us the whole time.”
“He knows what he’s doing; he’s stern, and he makes us listen to him,” added Burke-Bass. “We always do it for Freddy.”
Holland is quick to play down any praise he receives from his team. “It’s just fun, that’s all,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been (coaching) for 30 years if I didn’t enjoy doing it.”
Now the ladies will look ahead to the October North Carolina State Games and, next year, the Nationals. Their coach likes their chances.
“Basketball is a type-A personality thing,” says Holland. “(The players) are go-getters. They’re not just going to sit around, I can tell you that.”
No matter the outcome next year, though, the Longshots have already both exceeded other people’s expectations and met their own because, for them, basketball is just as much about the comradery as it is about winning.
“You go out and play hard with the intentions of hopefully being the winner when you come out,” says Burke-Bass, “but then when the game is over you go over and give your opponents a hug. They become your friends.
“I play basketball because of the exercise, because I’m not ready to grow old, and because it’s so much fun for us. It’s a wonderful avenue for making friends. My teammates make great friends. We’ll always stick together.”