|A couple Sundays ago, I went on down to Chinatown – no, not to get my dollar dumplings, a 50 cent massage, or to play in a New York Rockit tournament that Denny Lee was organizing (after all, it’s been real cold if you haven’t noticed outside), but rather to watch a group of men run in their regular Sunday morning pick-ups that they’ve been doing since 1969.|
Okay, first, get back in your chair, cause I know you just fell out of it.
No, ’69 is not a typo. 1969. Nixon was the president. Led Zeppelin released their first album. Apollo 9 returned safely from the moon. John Lennon married Yoko Ono. The Vietnam War was just reaching its midway point. The Brady Bunch came out. UCLA wins the NCAA title.
At 72, Louie still got game.
That last point may not raise any eyebrows. I mean, before the modern era, did any team outside of the Bruins ever win the title? This may be far-fetched, but I believe John Wooden has the word “winner” tattooed on his chest in Chinese.
And speaking of Chinese, let me explain to you how I came across this group of Chinese ballers who are in their 60’s and 70’s and why I just had to go see them for myself.
I was out one night at another New York City birthday party at some nondescript place in the Meatpacking District. Maybe it was the West Village? Or the Lower East Side. All the places seem the same after awhile.
It matters none.
I was engaged in conversation with a friend named Chris and somehow we started talking about ball (when there are no females around that’s what guys do). The subject of his dad still playing every single Sunday with his friends, some of whom were in their 70’s, came up and before I knew it, I found myself at a Jewish community center on East Broadway a couple Sundays later with notebook in hand and camera in tow, having to witness this all for myself.
He's just hustlin'.
Personally, it was something that stayed with me so much so because I often wondered at what age I might “retire” from this game. Pro players usually are done by the time they hit their mid-30’s. Maybe late 30’s if you’re a center. On the amateur level, I’ve seen men in their 40’s hold regular court, and heard of the occasional 50 year old still hoopin’ in the Senior’s bracket at tournaments like the Chinese Nationals (this year being held in Mesa, Arizona.)
More often than not, however, guys like me, men who are in their early 30’s who are maybe getting married, getting locked down into their corporate professions and finding less and less time for ball, just sort of have their game fade into oblivion and stop playing due to time demands on them from their a) boss, b) wife, c) children, or d) golf.
All fine and good and very valid reasons to give up a sport that would never pay you or provide you with more than anything other than a couple hours of exercise and unneeded opportunities to break a bone, twist an ankle, or shred a knee ligament – just not things men in their 30s on their way to 40 need.
When would I hit my wall?
After spending a morning and a meal with “Lao Ma” – the name of this gang that translates into “Old Horse” – I’ve decided.
As soon as I entered the gym, it looked like these men had been playing for hours already. They were in the midst of a hotly contested contest when Chris began pointing out to me who was who on the court.
There was his dad, David, wearing two knee braces, who didn’t seem afraid to shoot at all.
There were many men who didn’t seem afraid to shoot in fact. And there were many men who had big knee braces, or pads, on as well.
Fearlessly driving through the lane.
Then, there was one man who seldom shot and wore no big braces or pads, but seemed to command all the attention named Louie.
Louie, it turns out, was the oldest in this bunch at 72, but he was still one of the best (and one of the youngest looking.) He ran point and though fastbreaking occurred rarely, if at all, I could just tell with his passing and court vision that he was someone with some serious skill.
Considering that Louis Loo played for the Taiwanese national team and participated in the Olympics in 1960 in Rome and 1964 in Tokyo, it was guesswork on my part that was on the mark.
During a break between games on the sideline, Louie regaled me with memories of his youth and how this Lao Ma group came about.
“After playing for the Taiwan national team in two Olympics – we never did qualify for the medal round in either Olympics – I moved to the US to study at Farleigh Dickinson for my MBA. After that, the Vanderbilt coach, who coached our Taiwan team in Rome, asked me to be an assistant coach on his staff. I moved down to Tennessee for the job and two weeks later, I was on my way out. There was no Chinese food there! I moved here to New York. It was 1969.”
Soon after settling into the Big Apple, Loo, who naturally gravitated towards Chinatown in Manhattan to get his fix of food, found the United Jewish Council Center on East Broadway and Clinton and, along with a group of friends, formed what would become the start of Lao Ma – a hodge podge of Chinese immigrant gym rats who had moved here to pursue the American Dream: school, work, and pick-up basketball.
The ole' arm bar D.
Most of them were by way of either Taiwan, some from China, and most were in their 20’s at the time. Loo, his brother Steve, and Raymond Young (the originals) started inviting friends who in turn invited friends and now, nearly 40 years later, the group still plays without fail each and every Sunday morning.
Some come from as far away as Dixfield, Long Island, others New Jersey. But they all come for one thing – the camaraderie.
Basketball may be a sport that is most pure and the most exciting with men in their 20s, but to this band of brothers – men who are older than many of the Dream League players’ grandfathers - age, indeed, is nothing but a number.
To come out tirelessly each week for a couple hours of ball for close to 40 years to some may be insane, but to Louie, Steve, guys like Yu Choa, Charlie Yi, and Francis Lee, it’s just a part of their weekly routine.
There is, of course, family, work (though most are retired now), and then ball.
Lao Ma is their home away from home and to hear them tell it, you’d think it was actually their only home.
Great pass, dog!
Started in a dingy basement gym in the late 60’s, Lao Ma has grown into a veteran team who enters various tournaments around the world and from the looks their games today, one might guess they don’t fare too shabbily in them. (I’d turn out to be right.)
Tight passes, jump shots that go in about 35% of the time (not too bad), and an offering of defense that is plenty better than several Dream League teams provide, and we see how 40 years of ballin’ has paid off for these men.
They run their games to 9, losers sit, while another team comes on. There are close to twenty heads in the gym with some younger guys joining the fray later in the morning (of course the young guys arrive last.) Two young guys, probably in their early 20’s pick up the pace of the game, but it’s apparent they have less skill than the men two, three, close to four times their age do.
One middle aged man, Michael Dong – a man in his late 30's who hails from Nanjing and works for the Chinese Consulate in New York is closer to the elders than any of the other younger men and is very comfortable hanging out, talking, and joking with these father figures.
The generation gap means nothing to him. To Lao Ma, he is one of them. It’s a band of brothers, and sometimes there is a son.
Dong plays each week with Lao Ma, but as it is for anyone under the age of 45, he isn’t allowed to play or travel with the team in the numerous tournaments they play in worldwide. It's ageism at its finest.
In between games.
Lao Ma participates in at least two tournaments a year – one that is every Thanksgiving weekend and one held during the summer.
This year’s Thanksgiving tournament, the 25th annual Chinese International
Tournament that sees teams from all over the States – as well as some teams from China - will be held in San Diego and as they have been since the 80’s, Lao Ma will take their team out there to play the best of the best.
The tournament, sponsored by the Chinese Athletic Association of America, sees over 90 some teams in various divisions – the youngest bracket being 45 and the oldest 70.
When the tournament first started, there were only 20 teams across the multiple divisions.
Apparently, even as the years pass, people age, and the body stops responding the way we like, interest for the sport keeps growing. The guys swear to me that one team has a man who is 93 who is still playing.
Threadin' the needle.
I don’t know what to say. I just try to imagine myself in that man’s shoes. It’s mind boggling.
Lao Ma, a self-sponsored team who has everything from uniforms to team jackets (which some wear to dim sum afterwards) to hats, usually fares pretty well at the Thanksgiving tournament and when asked the secret to their success and who coaches them, Louie offers, “We’re self-coached!”
Lee, the team’s attorney by day and center by night, cracks, “We just call play number one. Give the ball to Louie and clear out.”
The tournament during the summer Lao Ma plays in takes place in China and every year they get together the funds to travel overseas to participate in it, squaring off against the Chinese teams who come to the US for the Thanksgiving weekend tournament.
While the Chinese teams, who have rosters littered with 80 year olds, always gives Lao Ma fits, Louie and men return each time without fail.
For some, it is a chance to go visit the motherland.
For others, it’s just a way to recreate with his friends. After all, when you’re at the age when you’ve already retired, when your grandchildren are having children, and when you have all the time and money in the world to do these kinds of things, it’s all about spending time doing the things you love to do.
This thought is what Chris’ dad, David, says to me without directly saying it.
Like father, like son. Chris and dad David. Dad plays, Chris doesn't.
“In 1949, I was left behind in China after my parents got out and went to Taiwan. It wasn’t until 1962 when I finished high school was I part of the last group that the Red Guard let out. I rejoined my family in Taiwan then before eventually making my way here.”
Wow. Now, 40 years later, after having brought up his own family in New Jersey, he’s easing into the retirement life and carrying on a tradition with a group of people that has essentially become like his family.
For a long time, in his youth, due to extenuating circumstances, he’d been separated from his family and abandoned. Today, after having found this new family, there was no way he’d ever let them get away from him again.
And that’s why each Sunday, without fail, he – along with all the other guys – keep showing up.
Many different things in life can teach you valuable lessons, but to all of us – to these men, to the players in the DL, and to myself – basketball is what we know and what we do. It’s the common thread that bonds us all – no matter what age we are.
And that’s why, when I’m 93, I’ll still be lacing them up.