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There are lots of basketball players who don’t know when to quit. I’m not talking about pros who hang on too long. I’m thinking about weekend athletes who never want to surrender to lawn care and naps. They are legion.
But every once in a while, a story about players who limp and no longer leap opens into something more intriguing than a tale of guys just hanging in there.
Twenty-five years ago, Pat Dowdall, who has been playing basketball since he was a kid, decided he’d better figure out a way to keep playing. He was 44.
Gathering The Over The Hill Gang
At a junior high gym in Wellesley, Massachusetts, on a recent Sunday morning, Pat Dowdall recalled the day his Over The Hill Basketball League was born.
"We were all about 40 or so, and we thought we were over the hill," Pat says. "Twenty-five years later, I’ve discovered that being 40 is not over the hill."
It’s no surprise that since Dowdall started the Over The Hill Basketball League, the cast of players has constantly changed. How could it be otherwise? Knees break down. Players change jobs and move away. But some of them never forget what they loved about those sessions in the junior high gym, long after their best days as athletes had passed.
One of those players is Dr. Charlie Brown — yeah, I know.
He’s bound to raise an eyebrow — or at least elicit a "good grief" — from anybody who thinks he’s heard all the over-the-hill basketball kind of stories. He began an orthopedic clinic in Abu Dhabi years ago, and then he worked out a schedule that allowed him to return to Wellesley for five or six days at a time to see his family — and to keep playing basketball. He arranged his international flights to maximize his time on the court.
"You know, it was one of these things here, when you walked into the gym on Sunday to play here, everybody kind of checked their ego at the door," Dr. Brown says. "It didn’t matter if you were a lawyer, doctor — you’re on the court. You blew the pass. You missed the shot. It wasn’t about your status in life, and, for me, that was a big part of why I liked playing here. All of that stuff went out the window for two hours. You could live your childhood dreams and play."
The occasion that brought Pat Dowdall and Charlie Brown and about 60 other Over The Hill league veterans together was a reunion. As happens at reunions, guys began recalling people they’d lost track of over the years. Dr. Brown remembered a fellow named Barry Spiro.
"He had a distinctive dribble and he had a bandana he used to wear," Dr. Brown says. "I think it was a blue bandana, and I somehow would get matched up with him, and we would guard each other. So I very well remember. He had a good jump shot, good game, all-around player."
As it turns out, Barry Spiro is another former player who lifts this story out of the realm of the ordinary over the hill. Pat Dowdall had Barry on his list, when he was trying to contact former players for the reunion. They’d been good friends. But Dowdall had no current contact information for Spiro, and when he started asking around, he was discouraged by what he heard.
"In fact, a couple of people told me they thought he was dead," Pat says.
'I've Been Disabled For 20 Years'
At a luncheon following the shoot-around. Barry Spiro demonstrated that he was not, in fact, dead. But he wasn’t surprised that some of his former teammates had thought he was.
"I’ve been disabled for 20 years," Barry says. "I have MS, multiple sclerosis. I actually had an episode on the court."
On that day a couple of decades ago, Barry Spiro suddenly became aware that one of his eyes wasn’t working properly. He took himself out of the game, sat down beside the court and wondered if maybe he was having a stroke.
"I remember that, obviously, vividly," he says. "And I got up and played, and I guess the next morning — that was a Sunday — the next morning, I had lost total vision in that one eye. And then I guess over the next year, I had 10 attacks to the other eye."
"It wasn’t about your status in life, and, for me, that was a big part of why I liked playing here. All of that stuff went out the window for two hours."Dr. Charlie Brown
When he tried to explain to Pat Dowdall why he would no longer be playing with the Over The Hill gang, Pat wouldn’t hear of it.
“Keep coming,” he told Barry.
And Barry did, for a time, though all he could do was run the floor. He told his teammates to ignore him. He couldn’t see well enough to catch a pass, let alone shoot. He told me he could still smell the ball. He liked that.
But within 10 months, Barry was completely blind. He lost his career as a practicing dentist, though he continued to manage the business. And he lost basketball. And he didn’t want to be reminded of what it had meant to him.
"I probably put up a wall," Barry says. "I probably, defensively, wouldn’t watch television, listen to basketball games. I have four children. They all play basketball. I couldn’t go to their games. I put myself into a shell and I don’t think I dealt with it."
The shell worked when Barry was awake. He didn’t think about basketball. Eventually he became busy with volunteer work and the various commissions and groups he’d joined to help disabled citizens. The point is, Barry Spiro was no hermit, which is why Pat Dowdall was able to find him on Facebook. And when Pat called him, 20 years after Barry had last run up and down the court, he acknowledged that the shell was useless against his dreams.
"My first words to Pat — you remember my first words?" Barry asks Pat.
"You said that I was in your dream a few days ago. It was a dream about playing basketball. And I was in it," Pat says.
"Right, exactly," Barry says. "I told you, 20 percent of my dreams are basketball. Usually there's not a player. Once in a while there’s a player, but usually it’s just me, making my baskets."
Barry told me that in his dreams, he seldom misses. And when he does miss, he gets the rebound, shoots again and makes that one.
Maybe it was Pat Dowdall’s presence in one of his basketball dreams that led Barry Spiro to say, "Yeah, I’ll come to that reunion." Or maybe it was curiosity, the need to see if the connections he’d made on the court would endure not only age and absence, but blindness and disability. As soon as he entered the hall where the luncheon was to be held, Barry Spiro got his answer. He was remembered, and greeted, and hugged.
"They’re brothers," Barry says. "I’m very, very close, even if — the thing about male friendship, you could not see a friend for 20 years, and they could still be your best friend. And I have people like that. And everybody in this room, there’s 65 of them. Thirty of them I consider my friends. Probably there’s 20 more that are as well, but 30 of them, I could tell you their names and some biography of them."
As the players and former players were finishing their lunches, Pat Dowdall stood up before them and held up his hands. He welcomed them, and then he told the story about how he’d gone looking for the guy who’d worn the blue bandana and then disappeared from the Over The Hill gang once he could no longer see well enough to run the floor.
"I’m here to affirm today that Barry's not dead," he said, and Barry laughed with everybody else. And then Pat told the gathering that Barry would favor them with a few tunes. Meanwhile, somebody had placed Barry’s guitar in his hands.
"This next one is a sing along that you all have to sing," Barry tells the group, "'cause when you go to bed tonight, if you haven’t sung, you’re gonna say, 'Why didn’t I sing?'"
Some of the men who would sing along will be back in the gym, playing basketball this week. Some of them won’t have anything more to do with the game, beyond wearing the handsome commemorative shirts they got at the reunion. And some of them — Pat Dowdall and some of the others — will call Barry Spiro, the guy some of them thought might be dead. They’ll call him from time to time, maybe visit with him, too, just to see how he’s doing, which is, I suppose, one thing reunions are for.
This segment aired on April 22, 2017.
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