Local seniors find healing and camaraderie on courts
By Steve Breazeale
The basketball courts inside the San Juan Capistrano Community Center have transformed over the years into a mecca for senior players.
On certain days, like on January 14, upward of 30 men, ranging in ages 50 to 80, reserve the courts to play pick-up basketball. There are casual players, former high school standouts and even ex-college players out on the courts on a regular basis.
And on January 18, at 12:30 p.m., almost all of them will come together in four-man teams to compete in the Capo Classic Senior Invitational Tournament.
40 or so players are slated to turn out for the one-day event and compete in one of the tournament’s two brackets. The Junior Division, dubbed “The Kids,” will consist of four teams filled with players in their 60s. The Senior Division, nicknamed “The Pros,” will feature players ages 70 and up.
To say that the men making up the group have battle scars and impressive life stories to tell would be an understatement. Cancer survivors, owners of pacemakers and even those currently battling serious illnesses are dotted throughout the group that returns to the gym week after week.
San Clemente resident Ernie Miller, 77, is one such player.
Miller, a throat cancer survivor, grew up in basketball-crazed Indiana and played for his small farm-town’s high school basketball team. The game has been a constant presence in his life.
Like many of the other players, Miller touched on the fact that basketball also played a large role in his road to recovery after undergoing chemotherapy treatment. Not only do the weekly pick-up games provide the men with constant physical activity, they act as an affirmation of a healthy lifestyle, all while playing a game they are passionate about.
“I don’t think there’s a better way to stay healthy. You can tell that the guys are just happier when they’re out there playing with us,” Miller, the initial founder of the group and tournament commissioner, said.
Capistrano Beach resident Daniel Johnson, 71, was brand new to the game of basketball when he decided to join the group of senior men playing in San Juan five years ago. He admits it took months to get the hang of the game he knew little about, but he soon fell in love with it, especially when he got to play defense.
Johnson, or “Speed” (a nickname that has stuck with him since grade school), played basketball three times a week with the San Juan group until he was diagnosed with Stage III pancreatic cancer several months ago.
Because he was so fit and active (he exercised four to five hours a day) the doctors elected to go with a more aggressive form of chemotherapy last August, which caused him to lose 40 pounds. He has since completed treatment, regained 50 pounds, and will have surgery in February.
All of this hasn’t stopped Speed from getting back out on the hardwood.
He can no longer take part in full-contact five-on-five but he loves to show up, chat with his buddies and shoot around. He walks two to three miles every morning and follows that up with a one-hour stretching regimen, after which he’ll make his way out to the courts.
“I was probably the poorest player out there but it doesn’t make any difference. You’re out there and you’re getting the physical exercise and the competition and the camaraderie,” Johnson said. “There are so many positives about it. You feel so good afterwards.”
Johnson will be at the tournament on January 18 and is looking forward to being back on the court by June, which is one of the many goals Speed has set for himself in the past year.
It’s been four years since the last Capo Classic took place and Miller, along with tournament ambassador Bob Messersmith, have seen a rising interest among seniors to participate in more tournaments in the near future.
Players have come and gone and another tournament may be on the horizon but you can bet that this group of players will be back on the court next week. There won’t be any crowds or a scorer’s table or referees, like there will be on January 18. Instead, there will be the same tight-knit group of basketball players, getting in their weekly dose of hoops.