At 43, Navy vet becomes freshman forward

Navy veteran Brian Rice is a 43-year-old freshman forward at Division III Geneva College. Courtesy of Geneva College Athletics

Brian Rice was a child of the '80s, a high school senior when Ronald Reagan was president, Ice-T was hot and people still didn't know if Michael Jordan would ever win an NBA championship.

When Rice graduated in June of 1987, he thought about playing college basketball. As a 6-foot-2 shooting guard, he'd averaged about 15 points and six rebounds a game at New Castle (Pa.) High, so he was sure he could probably play at a small school somewhere.

Yet Rice knew he wasn't ready for college.

"I knew I needed to get some more discipline," he says.

So Rice put college aside and joined the Navy. College and basketball could wait. He had time. What's four years to an 18-year-old?

Four years, however, turned into 24½, and by the time Chief Petty Officer Rice left the Navy on Jan. 31, 2012, he was a couple of laps past 40, an age when most hoopsters spend their days remembering their jump shots, not hoisting new ones.

Rice, however, knew he could still play.

And, after enrolling at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa., last February and then trying out for the team this fall, Rice not only earned a roster spot as a 43-year-old freshman, but has earned the respect of his coach and teammates.

"He has probably the body of a 25-year-old," says Geneva head coach Jeff Santarsiero who, like the rest of the team, calls Rice "Chief."

"His skill level is really, really good," says Santarsiero. "His ballhandling is great, his shot is good. He has great defensive hands and he's a good rebounder. He definitely has the skill to play."

Rice, who has a daughter older than all but one of his teammates, is savoring the chance to play college ball at Div. III Geneva after so many years of putting the idea on hold.

"I can't see where they've deteriorated that much," he says of the skills he had as an 18-year-old. "I've gotten a couple of steps slower, of course, but I make up for that with a little physical play, a little bump here or there to throw them off.

"You've got to use wisdom," he adds, laughing.

• • •

Yet it's not as if Rice is a basketball Rip Van Winkle.

Though Rice wasn't playing college ball, he never put the basketball aside through his almost quarter-century in the Navy, and he didn't nod off and fall out of shape.

While he was seeing the world -- 60 countries and six of the seven continents (missing only Antarctica) -- Rice also was playing on ships, in ports and on bases across the world.

"I've been playing pretty much non-stop since the time I got out of high school," he says.

While assigned shipboard, serving on everything from carriers to special patrol boats that transported SEALs -- "You name it, I've been on it," he says -- Rice would team with others to take on local squads where they were anchored. When he was based in Italy, he was on a team that traveled and competed across Europe.

In Spain, in his early years in the Navy, he played against a group of current and former NBA standouts that included Artis Gilmore, Tiny Archibald and Bob McAdoo, among others. He says the talent level among players in the Navy is also much higher than some might expect.

"You have D1-caliber players, no problem," he says. "It's just for whatever reasons -- their grades, their SAT scores, maybe they decided they just wanted to serve their country -- but you'll find a lot of D1-, D2-caliber players playing in the Navy."

During his more than two decades in uniform, Rice not only was continuing to play ball, but building a career and a life. He worked his way through the ranks to chief petty officer -- just two notches below the highest enlisted classification -- and was in charge of as many as 30 to 40 enlisted personnel. He's been married 22 years and has two children, and has long been involved in Christian ministry.

But sometimes, he'd think about going to college, and he'd wonder if he could play.

"The thing was, for me, I knew I was in shape," he says. "I knew I was often playing against guys half my age, and they would never believe me when I told them my age. …

"I just had an epiphany moment one day. I was shooting around with a young friend of mine, and I said, ‘You know what, when I get out, I'm going to play D3. I'm going to play college basketball, see if I can do it. And he was like, ‘Go for it.' "

So, as he recalls, "One thing led to another."

He found a course of study at Geneva that appealed to him -- he's majoring in community ministry -- and he consulted with a friend who was a high school coach in the area who also knew Santarsiero at Geneva.

Rice's coaching friend then recommended him to Santarsiero.

"Any time a high school coach recommends a player, I always take that recommendation," says Santarsiero. "Then he says, ‘Well, he's a little different. He's 43 years old. He's been in the Navy for 25 years.' "

Still, the coach was willing to take a look, though he had to wait until mid-October when Rice could officially join organized practices overseen by the coaching staff.

In the meantime, Rice played and did conditioning work with the Geneva players.

"Once I was able to hang with those guys and hold my own against them, I said, ‘I'm going for it,' " he says.

When Santarsiero finally was able to see what Rice can do, he was convinced Rice could play.

So far, Rice has played in 13 of 15 games, averaged 6.8 minutes, 2.3 points and 1.7 rebounds. Most of the time he’s been used as a forward, because of his ability to work under the boards, says Santarsiero. Rice has had the chance to play against a Div. I school in a 93-50 loss to Youngstown State, and he’s enjoyed showing 20somethings what a 43-year-old can do.

He says he rarely hears anything negative about the old guy on the court.

"The one thing I've learned about true basketball players, when they see someone that's doing everything they're doing, that they're just as physical as they are -- you know, bump as much as they do, go hard for the rebound as much as they do -- they're just kind of like, ‘Wow,' " he says. "I think it's just more of a 'wow' moment than ‘What is this guy doing out here?' "

Rice says the first thought from opponents might be, "Where's the 43-year-old guy?" But then they soon know that "he's not just some guy who should be playing at the Y."

Against Youngstown, Rice played 15 minutes and had six points, three rebounds and a steal.

"It was a lot of love and appreciation afterwards," says Rice of meeting the Youngstown players after the game. "A lot of hugs during the handshakes."

• • •

Geneva College, a small Christian school founded in 1848, is far from the mainstream of college hoops.

It does claim to be the birthplace of the college game, having organized the first intramural match in 1892 under the guidance of a protégé of Dr. James Naismith, the sport's inventor. But today the Golden Tornadoes get little national attention.

This season, the men’s basketball team is 1-14. Yet Rice’s story has brought some smiles to the campus.

"I think it's a great story," says Santarsiero. "The fact he served in the military and served his country for 25 years, I think that's great. It's where the heart of this country is right now."

Plus, says Santarsiero, the Chief provides leadership and is a positive role model and calming influence.

"He's a great man of character," he says. "He is who he says he is. I think in today's society, that's an overlooked attribute."

Also, says the coach, despite the age gap, Rice fits in perfectly.

"He's like that good uncle you always had at Thanksgiving and Christmas," he says.

Though Rice has meshed with his teammates -- he says he loves being around younger people as part of his passion for community ministry -- he does admit there can sometimes be a culture gap.

"Every now and then they'll put on some old-school music I can identify with, when it comes to rap or something like that," he says. "But I'll tell them. … I heard one of their rap songs (from today) and I'm like, ‘Man, I think I'm going to go in the studio and make me a rap song because this guy said maybe like two or three words and just kept repeating it over and over again. If he can make a record, I can make a record,' " he adds, laughing. "So we kind of clown about it."

Though Rice is 43, he's a freshman. That means, theoretically, he could play another three seasons and become a 47-year-old senior. But he's taking it one year at a time.

He's just trying to take care of his body (he ices his knees after every practice), keep up with the youngsters, use his on-court "wisdom," stay on top of his schoolwork and preserve time for his family.

"We'll just see how it plays out," he says.

But as far as playing ball at 43, it's nothing special around his house. His two kids have seen him with a basketball since they were toddlers.

"This is like second nature to them," he says. "‘Yeah, my dad's playing ball. What's the big deal?' "