You might not be able to see it, but there is a time portal of sorts operating at Dalhousie University’s Studley gym in Halifax on Sundays from September to April.
That’s when the gym hosts a men’s basketball league that sees teams of players aged north of 45 playing a sport that keeps them young at heart.
The Grand Masters Basketball League sees players of all levels sweating an hour each week trying to rekindle hardwood dreams.
Russ Boyle and Louis Dixon are Sunday regulars as referees and have patrolled the court and kept the peace since the league started about 30 years ago.
“We’ve been at this (refereeing) so long, we put the ‘D’ in dirt,” jokes Dixon, who has known Boyle since their own playing days as youths.
‘We all have to go to work tomorrow’
While the level of play might not be as fast and furious as some leagues, the calibre of basketball is high, says Boyle, who has refereed hoops in metro for about 40 years.
Dixon regularly delivers a caution to players at the start of each game in a bid to keep both egos and testosterone in check.
“Remember, we all have to go to work tomorrow.”
Dixon and Boyle said they get pleasure from their Sunday night refereeing routine where one referee is assigned per game.
“I enjoy it, when I started there many of the guys I reffed were the guys I played against as a player,” said Dixon.
“It’s a well-run league and refereeing it has evolved into a very pleasurable experience,” said Boyle, who makes sure more senior players — sometimes decades older than league rookies — get a fairer shake when it comes to blowing a whistle.
Lots of alumni and dedicated regulars
It’s a court that has hosted lawyers, doctors, a brain surgeon, a former Olympian, a CBC radio personality and a premier (Darrell Dexter).
Scott Thornton, current league president, joined up as a 37-year-old back in 2001 when it was a 35-and-over league.
Thornton, who played varsity basketball for MacMaster in Hamilton, Ont. in the 1980s, moved to Nova Scotia in 1989 and played in intermediate leagues before making a switch to Sunday night hoops.
“At the end of the day the guys are happy to have a competitive run, score some points, play good defence and enjoy the camaraderie,” said Thornton.
There are several regulars, like 78-year-old Darryl Clark of Bedford, who has been with the league since it was formed.
When Clark, who started playing basketball as a child, was no longer able to drive to the hoop, he developed a two-hand set shot, which he regularly launched soon after he crossed halfcourt.
A rotator cuff injury to his left shoulder a few years ago has forced him to abandon the set shot and experiment with shooting with his left hand. However, he can still play defence, his favourite part of the game.
The Andrew Cobb-designed Studley gym opened in 1932 and while most of the players holding court Sunday nights today were not born then, some arrived not long after the facility first opened its doors.
With bleachers that can sit about 200, seating is not at a premium, but occasionally includes spouses, children and grandchildren among the players lacing their sneakers.
Age creeping up
The league started for those aged 35 and over but the age requirement has increased over time. In 2000 the minimum entrance age was raised to 40, and upped to 45 in 2010.
Thornton said the age change also came about because there were other leagues in the city starting up for players under age 45.
The league increased from 14 to 16 teams this past season. With nine players per team, that’s 144 players. When it started there were four teams of nine.
A focus on fun
Jim Walker, 67, a league mainstay since it was formed, started playing basketball 56 years ago at Milton Community Hall, just north of Liverpool.
“Everyone has a story and we all share them while warming up before or cooling down afterward,” said Walker.
He said that every five years the waiting list to get into the league gets long so organizers look to get more gym time and add two more teams.
“The league is different with an accent on fun. We have a scorekeeper who does not keep individual totals. We do not keep team win-loss records.”
With 16 teams, games start at 2 p.m., with the final tipoff at 9 p.m.
As noted on the team website, which is maintained by Walker, an electronic technologist by trade, the league is set up so no team is stronger than another.
It was Walker, a familiar Halifax gym rat, and former Olympian John Cassidy, who now lives in Ottawa, that drove the birth of the league with a Masters tournament back in 1985. A spring Masters league was started in 1987 and a fall-winter league with four teams started the same year.
Cassidy and Walker had been playing on a competitive men’s team called Lighthouse Lumber and alternately Dartmouth Building Supplies. Walker said the team was getting older and it was time to look for some basketball fun elsewhere.
After a few years in poor gyms, the league chose to settle at Studley, known for a kinder and gentler hardwood for aging backs and knees.
Walker said to cut the cost per game the league cut out foul shots (team fouled gets points for the number of shots normally taken). As well, teams play four quarters of 11 minutes straight time, with the last two minutes of the fourth quarter as stop time. This kept game length to an hour and cut down on expensive gym time.
“Best of all though is our procedure for a tied game; no overtime, a loud announcement of a ‘perfect game.’ Everything has evened out and no one goes home a loser.”
Players have been known to linger after their own early games in the hopes of more basketball by being picked up by other teams who might be short a player.
Studley on Sundays from September to April hosts a growing roster of grey-haired men pushing a leather basketball up and down the floor while sipping a fountain of youth and tapping an invisible portal to make magic happen.
Anyone on the floor can tell you all about it.