Thursday, August 17, 2006

by: Rick Noland Medina Gazette

I am a hoops junkie. I'll watch any kind of basketball game, anytime. I'll play in any game, anytime.

Over the years, I've had hundreds — maybe even thousands — of great experiences playing and watching the best sport in the world. I recently added three I'd like to share.

The first occurred Friday night, when a bunch of us old geezers won the 26-and-over championship at Pinnacle Sports Complex in our first year in the league.

I bring this up not to brag, but because I've played in a lot of leagues over the years and this one ranked right near the top due to its diversity in age, race, style of play and team makeup, not to mention its great officiating and sportsmanlike players.

Of course, that Salem Plumbing managed to come out on top with a nine-man roster that featured players 37, 38, 43, 45, 45 and 49 years of age made it even sweeter.

That none of us had a heart attack while laughing hysterically as we watched a videotape of the game — trust me, "slow-motion" replays were not needed — was icing on the cake.

Just how slow we were, are and will continue to be was driven home the next two days when I went to Ray Mellert Park to watch the fourth annual Hoop-n-Que 4-on-4 tournament.

I'm normally not a big fan of unnecessary showmanship — you don't get extra points for a no-look pass, dunk or between-the-legs dribble, after all — but this event was awesome on a number of fronts.

No. 1, it brought me back to the pickup games of my youth, when long jumpers were rare due to wobbly backboards, wind, bright sunlight and bent rims that were too low to begin with.

No. 2, the talent level was absolutely fabulous, the athleticism was phenomenal and the play was amazingly physical, yet clean.

Hoop-n-Que would have gotten raves based on those aspects alone, but what truly made it special was the vibrant atmosphere that existed at a park some people are afraid to visit.

The music was lively, the food was terrific, the play was spectacular and everyone was smiling. About 350 people were on hand each day, and that number should grow in 2007 now that Hoop-n-Que has finally gotten some long overdue publicity.

Organized by Medina natives Mantrell Price and Ramon Burnham, the event was as well-run as the 26-and-over league at Pinnacle and the men's 3-on-3 league at the Medina Community Recreation Center, which brings me to my third great basketball experience in recent days.

While loosening up for our 3-on-3 game Monday, I couldn't help but notice an extremely large gentleman. He was sitting down at the time, so I put him at about 6-foot-9, 6-10. Only when he stood up did I realize he was well over 7 feet tall.

His gait was undeniably that of a former pro athlete, but I did not recognize 7-2, five-time ABA All-Star, six-time NBA All-Star Artis Gilmore until I was told who he was.

Turns out he was in town because he is very good friends with a player on our team. It also turns out he was coming to Pinnacle the next afternoon to play pickup ball with a bunch of us who congregate there on a regular basis.

Gilmore will be 57 in September, so his legs aren't what they used to be. But he's still 7-2, he weighs about 325 pounds, his hands make the basketball look like a grapefruit and his long arms allow him to come within inches of the rim without jumping.

Needless to say, everyone in our group of chuckers was eager to play with and against a guy who scored 9,362 points in five ABA seasons (22.3 average) and 15,579 more in 12 NBA campaigns (17.1).

Now, I've played with and against NBA players and coaches before and the games have always fallen into one of two categories: Either the pro is so nice he holds back the entire time (Larry Nance, Austin Carr) or so unbelievably competitive (Barry Clemens, George Karl) no one else gets to touch the ball. Either way, the games usually aren't all that much fun once the initial thrill of playing with a pro is gone.

This was different. Gilmore proved to be a proud, competitive athlete who wanted to win and did not look down — figuratively, at least — at the unathletic hacks around him. Yet he was sane enough that he didn't suddenly explode in a burst of 100 percent effort and accidentally kill someone.

The games were competitive, yet friendly and fun. Gilmore, who put the ball over his head, muscled his way to the basket and scored whenever he really felt like it, even called a few fouls and debated a few called against him.

It all added up to yet another great basketball experience — my third in a span of just five days.

Hopefully, there are many more still to come.

Who's got next?

Noland may be reached at

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