Nome McCaffrey, 57, left, moves with the ball during a pick-up basketball game at the Marysville YMCA in Marysville, Washington, on Monday, March 13, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Nome McCaffrey, 57, left, moves with the ball during a pick-up basketball game at the Marysville YMCA in Marysville, Washington, on Monday, March 13, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Team players: Pick-up basketball tradition bonds players off the court

Same group of players gathers twice weekly at Marysville YMCA to show age is no obstacle

These are the sights, sounds and smells that arrive every March to the sporting world.

The repetitive thump of rubber ball bouncing off wooden floor echoing throughout the gymnasium. The distinctive squeaking noise of sneaker soles sliding across the playing surface. Players calling for the ball as they race up and down the court.

But this isn’t the NCAA basketball tournaments. No, this is a different type of March — or more accurately, year-round — Madness.

Every Monday and Wednesday, from 10-11:30 a.m., a group gathers at the Marysville Family YMCA gym to run some pick-up ball. But this is no ordinary collection of hoopsters. These are players who are proving that age is no obstacle, and they’re demonstrating the power sports have to build a community.

Steve Powell, 66, left, and Mac Sheridan, 70, fight for the ball during a pick-up basketball game at the Marysville YMCA in Marysville, Washington, on Monday, March 13, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Steve Powell, 66, left, and Mac Sheridan, 70, fight for the ball during a pick-up basketball game at the Marysville YMCA in Marysville, Washington, on Monday, March 13, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

For years, this group of mostly Everett and Marysville residents who are now in their 60s and 70s have met regularly to play basketball. There are a few more knee and ankle braces than one might find in a typical open gym, and maybe the players can be a little slow getting back on defense. But there are still one-handed bounce passes whipped across the court, still players knocking down runners after coming off screens, and still all-net shots from distance. The only thing missing from what one finds at the NCAA tournament is the dunks.

“People love basketball, they love the exercise,” said Richard Smith, a 74-year-old Everett resident and retired former Snohomish County Executive’s office employee, who’s been a part of the group since 1975. “It’s better than just jogging, basketball is fun.”

It turns out basketball is also a great way to create a community.

This group originated decades ago at the old YMCA in downtown Everett. That facility had two courts, which eventually evolved into a more competitive court for the younger crowd downstairs, while the older players headed upstairs for a more recreational game. Those upstairs games had their regulars, with a rotating cast of characters over the years, but perhaps fell short of what one would describe as a true community.

Richard Smith, 74, poses for a photo after a pick-up basketball game at the Marysville YMCA in Marysville, Washington, on Monday, March 13, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Richard Smith, 74, poses for a photo after a pick-up basketball game at the Marysville YMCA in Marysville, Washington, on Monday, March 13, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. When things opened back up the group, which now consists almost exclusively of 60-and-over players who run the full gamut of basketball backgrounds, transitioned to the Marysville Family YMCA, where it’s a little less crowded — and the games remain a little less on the competitive side and a little more on the recreational one.

“We’re not ultra-competitive, people aren’t going out of their way to jump and rebound and block out,” said Sal Fonceca, a 74-year-old Marysville resident and retired accountant who’s been playing with the group since 1991. “It just makes it fun. When you get to this age, just to still be playing is fun.”

And it’s in Marysville where a pick-up game turned into something more.

First came the occasional invites to holiday parties. Then came a going-away party for group member James Morse before he moved to Michigan. Finally there was a wake for former group member Alf Forde, who unfortunately passed away on Jan. 4.

John White, 66, shoots the ball during a pick-up basketball game at the Marysville YMCA in Marysville, Washington, on Monday, March 13, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

John White, 66, shoots the ball during a pick-up basketball game at the Marysville YMCA in Marysville, Washington, on Monday, March 13, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

It was these functions that inspired the group to get together more regularly off the court.

“After (Forde’s) wake, guys said, ‘Hey that was a lot of fun getting together,’” Fonceca said. “Let’s make it maybe a quarterly-basis thing where we meet outside the gym to keep our friendship going.”

So now the group gets together regularly on a social basis. There’s been discussion of doing volunteer projects together. It’s become more than just basketball.

And that’s one of the wonders of sports, the way they bring people together. From a personal standpoint, many of my best friendships were forged through a mutual love of sports. In the bigger picture, you can see it in the way cities rally around their professional and college teams, as demonstrated by the size of the crowds at parades when a team wins a championship. And how many times have you acknowledged a complete stranger just because of the sports gear they happened to be wearing?

Sal Fonceca, 74, poses for a photo after one of their regular pick-up game of basketball at the Marysville YMCA in Marysville, Washington on Monday, March 13, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Sal Fonceca, 74, poses for a photo after one of their regular pick-up game of basketball at the Marysville YMCA in Marysville, Washington on Monday, March 13, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

As for the Marysville Family YMCA group? They’re always looking for additional players to join their Monday and Wednesday games — some new old blood, so to speak.

And if you’re of a certain vintage, I suggest you give it a try. It could be a wonderful way for sports to expand your community, too.

Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.

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