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Back in the game

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Times Staff Writer

The year was 1959 and Audrey Kallas-Pastore was in her last season of high school basketball. The 5-foot, 10-inch forward helped lead tiny Baldwyn High School to the Mississippi state tournament for the first time in the school’s history.

Alas, her team was knocked out in the third round by a tough rival. Defeated, it was time to bid her teammates and the game farewell.

“When we lost that game, I thought, ‘This is the end of something in my life that I won’t ever do again,’ ” said Kallas-Pastore, who still has newspaper clippings of her basketball exploits. “Like everyone else of that era, I just moved on.”

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For 36 years, moving on meant marriage, career and few sports activities. But in 1995, motivated by a newspaper article about older women and basketball, she joined the San Diego Senior Women’s Basketball Assn. at her local YMCA. In a few years the league has grown from just a handful of players to more than 100 who compete year-round on nearly a dozen teams. “We feel like we’re in high school out there,” said Kallas-Pastore, 62, whose team, the Shooting Stars, recently won an over-50 national championship in Utah. “It puts you back in time.”

The retired marketing executive from San Diego is among tens of thousands of Americans over 50 who are returning to organized team sports. The trend is being driven by more than nostalgia, although that’s certainly a significant part of it.

A cultural emphasis on the benefits of exercise, improving medical techniques and technology, and a strong desire for a sense of community are helping to create and sustain a vigorous team-sports network for older Americans. Baseball, softball, basketball and volleyball are favorites, particularly in Southern California, but sports from rowing to ice hockey also are represented. To participate, graying athletes often must overcome age, injury and even societal expectations for a chance to play a game that has produced some of the fondest memories of their lives.

“They are continuing to rewrite the old manual for life that essentially said team sports end at high school for the vast majority of us,” said Mark F. Frazier, a psychologist in Arlington Heights, Ill., who tracks aging and sports. “First, it was the over-30s, then it was the over-40s. Now, it’s the over-50s and 60s who are saying, ‘We still want to play,’ and they will.”

With nearly 21 million baby boomers expected to reach age 50 in the next five years, the over-50 leagues are poised to expand by leaps and bounds. Most leagues contacted for this story reported heightened interest and only expect more to follow.

“It’s just gone bananas,” said Ken Jaffe, 51, a player-coach on the Hollywood Stars, a local over-48 baseball team in the Men’s Senior Baseball League that boasts more than 16,000 players nationwide. “I remember when we were on over-30 teams and we thought that was old. There’s just a ton of guys out there who don’t ever want to stop playing with the hard ball.”

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The leagues make it easier for their graying athletes to stay in the game. They realize that though an older person’s enthusiasm may not have been diminished by time, their physical capabilities most certainly have. As a result, rules are often modified to enhance enjoyment and reduce the risk of injury.

For example, in Jaffe’s baseball league, one of several large fast-pitch baseball leagues in the nation, a “courtesy runner” can be requested once a player reaches first base. And collisions between baserunners and fielders are strictly forbidden. Likewise, in over-50 ice hockey leagues, body checking and slap shots are banned as well.

But with bones more brittle and tendons and ligaments less flexible, injury is almost unavoidable. Broken noses, arms and legs, and torn-up knees and shoulders aren’t uncommon. Since returning to the gymnasium, Kallas-Pastore has fractured her elbow, hyper-extended her finger and ripped up her knee.

For some, the injuries can lead to an earlier-than-planned retirement from action.

“Because of the constant pounding on hardwood floors, we had one guy on our team that had to have a hip replacement,” said Bill Florentine of Incline Village, Nev., a 62-year-old player-coach on a volleyball team. “He can’t play indoors anymore.”

Physicians recommend that people over 50 who want to play competitive and strenuous sports get a complete physical. To reduce the likelihood and severity of injury, prospective athletes are urged to begin a conditioning and stretching program at least a month before playing.

The doggedness to participate in the face of such pain sometimes triggers unsolicited, usually unwelcome, advice. “When I was having my knee redone, the anesthesiologist said, ‘What are you doing? You’re too old for this,’ ” recalled Kallas-Pastore. “Well, life is for living. You just go to the doctor, get better, and head back out on the court.”

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And even those who don’t suffer serious injuries must cope with a body that simply doesn’t bounce back as it once did. “Every year, I hurt more and for longer from doing less and less,” said Jaffe, a math teacher and baseball coach at Morningside High School in Inglewood.

Despite the physical struggles, aging team-sports enthusiasts say the new friendships generated and the old ones deepened by the experience more than compensate. Indeed, many of the team players could have chosen to get their physical exercise in individual sports such as running and tennis, or by working out at a health club. Instead, they’ve deliberately sought out team sports to make a human connection.

“It’s like a family,” said Kallas-Pastore. “This is our sisterhood. Many of us go on vacation together, go to the theater. It’s like a party all the time.”

Other athletes relish the performance boost supplied by the group dynamic.

“It’s great to have someone there encouraging you,” said Steve Hathaway, who rows competitively in two-person and four-person boats. “We are constantly egging each other on to go to a higher level. You just don’t want to let your teammates down.”

League play can even hold together teammates who have long since scattered to far-off places. Although they don’t play in weekly games as most leagues do, the Quiksilver Legends USA have competed all around the globe over the last decade. The team’s roots are in Southern California, and many of its players still reside here, but many live as far away as Nevada, Colorado and Hawaii. Their efforts to stay together through relocations and job changes paid off in October, when the squad defeated the Russian national team to capture a gold medal at the World Masters Games in Melbourne, Australia.

“Every year we contemplate whether we’ll keep doing it or not,” said Florentine, who used to live in Los Angeles, but has retired to Nevada. “But we just enjoy each other’s company. As long as we can do it, I figure we probably will.”

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The sense of devotion to the group, even among teams that don’t win world championships, shouldn’t be surprising. “Teams provide someone in their 50s and 60s something that is very difficult to find anywhere else, and that is camaraderie.” This is particularly true for men who often prefer individual achievement and activity over group ones, according to Frazier.

For women, team sports deliver a socially acceptable way to express aggression -- a behavior still discouraged in women, especially older ones. Whether it’s stealing the basketball from an opponent or scoring a soccer goal, the activity provides an adrenaline rush for a generation who graduated before Title IX.

“For many of these women, when they grew up, if you did anything more than reading it was considered dangerous,” said Irene Deitch, a psychology professor at the College of Staten Island-CUNY. “The intensive competition is a healthy distraction. They work out tension, they don’t have to think about a fight with a spouse or the kids. They get a chance to be who they are.”

For some older women, the opportunity to play team sports wasn’t widely available when they were in school. These women never benefited from Title IX, a sweeping, federal educational reform passed in 1972 that requires equal distribution of athletic aid and resources among men and women in high schools and colleges. Before Title IX, about one in 27 high school and college women played for a school team. Today, the ratio is one in 2.5.

To account for a lack of experience, many leagues have several skill divisions, usually ranging from beginner to advanced. Some teams, such as those in Kallas-Pastore’s basketball league in which about a third of the players had never played, put on seasonal clinics that focus on fundamentals. The clinics not only nurture and sharpen basic skills but also help reduce injuries by teaching inexperienced players where they should -- and more importantly, where they shouldn’t -- be on the court.

“We’ve got former homemakers out here who had never played a game of basketball in their whole lives,” Kallas-Pastore said. “They get the hang of it soon enough and make good friends along the way. I’ve seen it change their whole lives.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Sports injuries

Baby boomers -- those born between 1946 and 1964 -- had more than 1 million injuries related to sports activities that required medical treatment in 1998, the latest year for which figures were available. Many of these injuries resulted from participation in popular teams sports, including basketball, volleyball and flag football. The most common injuries for this age group, in order, were:

*Contusions and bruises

*Muscle strains (hamstring or lower back)

*Shoulder (dislocation, separation or rotator cuff problems)

*Knee (meniscus tear or torn anterior cruciate ligament)

*Ankle sprains

Sources: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine and Dr. Robert Arciero of University of Connecticut Health Center

*

Calories burned in an hour

The following are the average calories burned in one hour of activity. The figures are approximate; the first is for a 135-pound woman and the second for a 175-pound man. The more you weigh, the more calories you burn.

Basketball ...490-870

Rowing...535-695

Hockey...495-640

Volleyball (beach)...490-635

Baseball/softball...305-395

Volleyball (gym)...265-345

Sources: American Heart Assn. and University of Southern Maine

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