Who's got next? 'Granny's Got Game'

Angela Gorsica Alford, background, with the stars of "Granny's Got Game," from left,: Wanda Womack, Liz Byrd, Jo Ledford, Shirley Pearce, Mary Turner, Sarah Wiggins and Judy Barton. Jameka Autry

"Maybe the Fountain of Youth isn't a fountain at all. Maybe it's a way of looking at things. A way of thinking."
-- Lead character Charles Whitley from the episode "Kick the Can," of the TV series "The Twilight Zone"

Forty years separated the high school graduations of two girls, each with a competitive spirit and a mind for mechanics.

Judy Barton left her little hometown, where she used to walk home from school for lunch, in 1953 for the Big Apple and a job at Western Electric. Back then, the average kid from Ridgefield Park, N.J., went straight into the workforce rather than to college. Playing basketball? Maybe on weekends in church leagues.

Angela Gorsica Alford left her hometown of Waynesboro, Va., in 1993 for Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., on an athletic scholarship. She traveled the country playing basketball, competed in some international tournaments, got her degree in electrical engineering, and began a career in cell-phone design.

Their paths crossed a couple years ago when Alford was looking for a story to tell. Barton, while she didn't quite realize it, had a story that really needed to be told.

The result is a documentary called "Granny's Got Game" that Alford hopes to release later this year. It's currently in post-production, and chronicles the Fabulous 70s, a senior women's basketball team based in Raleigh, N.C., on which Barton and six others play.

"There are really three storylines," Alford said. "We talk about what it was like to play in the 1950s when they were young -- pre-Title IX, six-on-six, what their experiences were growing up.

"One of them, her father threw a fit when she was going to try out for a team, because she wore shorts and he didn't think that was proper. Things my generation never thought about as an obstacle.

"Then there's the story of them being together as friends on a team of older women playing in the Senior Games for almost 20 years. And all of that is hung upon me following them for an entire season and what that was like."

Alford describes herself as a "techno-geek" who discovered, through going behind the camera, that she was also a storyteller.

"It's me being able to see myself in these women," Alford said. "And wanting to tell their story the way I would want mine to be told in 30 years. I'm trying to honor them in that way. And their stories are fantastic; they almost tell themselves."

"You're afraid to look silly. You're afraid to make a mistake. You decided that you were an old man, and that has made you old."
-- Charles Whitley in "Kick the Can"

The "Twilight Zone" episode referenced was written by George Clayton Johnson, and its sentiment is just as contemporary now as when it debuted 50 years ago.

Charles Whitley is in a "home for the aged," feeling the life draining out of him. He opts to fight that with a childhood game and tries to convince his fellow residents to join him in playing it once more, even if they are old, achy and tired. Maybe, he pleads with them, there is still magic in kick the can.

The episode first aired in 1962. Back then, Barton was working full-time and finishing up night school to get a college degree. She married a man who had three children, and then they had two more. She stepped away from outside work to raise the large family that traveled nationwide and overseas for her husband's job.

They settled in North Carolina, and 19 years ago, Barton and five other women formed a senior basketball team. She had not played on a formalized team at her high school -- girls there played basketball in gym class but not against other schools -- but she was a natural athlete.

"When I was little, they had a fantastic Fourth of July party in my hometown from 7 in the morning until the fireworks at night," Barton said. "It had gone on for like a hundred years. In the afternoon, there was a big athletic contest at the park, and every kid went down there and competed.

"My big sport was softball throw. I wasn't fast, but I could always throw. I was looking in a drawer the other day, and found a medal I had won in '43 for the softball throw."

Barton laughed at coming across a sweet but unexpected remnant of the past.

"I didn't even know I had it," she said. "A little gold medal."

Another girl from Ridgefield Park who was a few years older, Amelia Wershoven, was also a very good thrower. Wershoven won gold in javelin at the 1951 Pan Am Games and competed in the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

"When she got out of high school, she went to work for a company that sponsored athletic teams," Barton said. "But for the most part, we just did not have a lot of choices available to us. I was happy to have the [Catholic Youth Organization] league, because that gave us something to do after high school."

When Barton started at senior basketball, she was the "odd" one with the New York accent. The other five original team members were all from North Carolina, and unlike Barton, they had played organized basketball in high school against other teams in their counties.

"I've lived in Youngsville all my life," said Barton's teammate Mary Turner, of the small town some 20 miles north of Raleigh. "We raised tobacco, corn and cotton. With tobacco, you had to hand-set it out and chop it. We had to do it all the hard way. But we didn't know it was hard then because that's just the way we were raised."

Turner played six-on-six basketball for Youngsville High, where she graduated in 1955.

"I was a forward; I was taller than the rest of them," she said. "We could just stand under the goal; one night I had 53 points and my average was like 37 a game. Of course now, you can't stand there but three seconds."

After graduation, Turner worked in Raleigh as an accountant for the state government. She retired after 30 years, but was still just 49 then. So she went to work at a sock factory in Youngsville. Around when she turned 55, her boss there announced he'd signed up Turner and his wife to play senior basketball.

"We were like, 'You did what?'" Turner said, chuckling. "We hadn't played in 37 years."

"We can't run fast or far, but we can move."
-- Charles Whitley in "Kick the Can"

When Alford began to really sprout up -- she eventually topped out around 6 feet, 6 inches -- she didn't have to go far to see where being a really tall woman was quite admired.

"My parents were great; they would take me to Virginia and James Madison University games," Alford said of those two programs in her home state. "Hearing the crowds and the pep band and following [Virginia] going to the Final Four -- it was a great exposure to women's basketball at its peak."

At Vanderbilt, Alford played in four NCAA tournaments and helped the Commodores win the 1995 SEC tournament title. She also played for USA Basketball.

"We had wonderful opportunities," Alford said. "Especially when I think about the women in my film and contrasting it. I had great coaches, the program had the best of everything, we were traveling the country.

"And me being around these tall, successful post players -- especially after being the tallest girl in my county for so long -- that was a great experience for me. And I met my husband, Anthony, at Vanderbilt, too."

They have two children, son Abe and daughter Agnes. Alford had a chance to play at some WNBA training camps when she graduated in 1997, which was the debut year of the league. But she instead started her engineering career. She played in some recreational leagues, but for the most part her competitive basketball days drew to a close.

Well … sort of. When you're a 6-6 woman, those days never completely end.

"It's still a big part of my identity," Alford said. "When I go into the grocery store, I'm still 6-6 and people still want to talk to me about basketball, so I'm constantly reminded of my career. Having that success back then is nice, that I can still carry that with me. I wouldn't have done what I have in life if I hadn't had basketball to give me that boost."

After she stepped away from engineering to care for her children, Alford started her own video business in Raleigh.

"Baby's first year, milestone birthdays, that sort of thing," she said. "I did a couple of 50th wedding anniversaries for people I didn't even meet. But seeing their whole lives in photos, I was really drawn to their stories. And I wanted to learn how to get behind the camera and capture more."

That led to documentary film school at Duke in 2010. She needed a project, and got the idea to follow the Fabulous 70s." Alford knew one of the players because her kids went to preschool with that player's grandchildren.

"But I didn't know about how the Senior Games worked or the whole system," Alford said. "I followed them for a month to finish my homework assignment, but then I decided to stay with them a whole year and turn it into a feature film."

Alford has financed it all herself and through donations to her website. So far, she has done everything on it technically, save compose the score that will accompany the finished film.

"I did the editing, directing, producing -- wearing all the different hats," Alford said. "The women got to know me and were very comfortable with me hanging out with them."

In senior basketball, women's and men's, they play three-on-three half court. Unlike the old six-on-six game for girls -- where three players were on offense and three on defense -- all three play both.

"We practice every week," Barton said. "We play in the local games, state games and nationals, if we qualify. And in between that, we play in tournaments. We've traveled all over the United States."

Barton and Turner watch today's women's college players and marvel at their athleticism and speed. But they also are impressed with how the younger Senior Games players -- those spry 50-somethings -- can play.

"The whole philosophy has changed; it's much more physical," Barton said. "We moved this year up to 75-and-above. We look even at the age-65 teams, and they had a different experience with playing basketball. And a lot of the 55s actually played college ball. There's a big difference."

"Wake up! Wake up! Oh, this is your last chance! I can't play kick the can alone!"
-- Charles Whitley in "Kick the Can"

How does Whitley convince those who seem to passively be waiting to "kick the bucket" -- admittedly, an indelicate term -- that they can still play "kick the can"? Well, yes, it was a TV show. But when one elderly woman says, wistfully, "I think if I could only run again, growing old wouldn't be so bad," she and the others suddenly realize that just trying is enough.

That part could happen in real life, which Alford's film is about. It does include a health scare for one of the players on a trip. That was where Alford had to ask herself those questions that some documentarians face: Do I keep filming? Or do I now step away because I'm needed to do something besides run the camera?

"There was one of their husbands along then, but the women basically take care of each other," Alford said. "But when this player became ill, they had a game to play. So I became the caretaker; I'm the one riding in the ambulance with her, talking with doctors, and calling her daughter, giving her updates.

"That wasn't a role I was anticipating, but it was the right thing to do. The dilemma was how much of this do I include in the film, because this is a part of the story. I ended up getting her permission, so I think it worked out."

Turner joked that they wanted to get Alford a gray wig so she could play along with them. Barton and Turner acknowledge it's hard to lure new players to the team for obvious reasons.

"We don't have many people to choose from at this age," Barton said. "They all say, 'I can't do that.' I say, 'Of course you can.'"

Not long ago, they heard of one woman who had played past high school -- a potential recruit! -- and contacted her.

"We asked her to come out to play," Barton said, "and she said, 'I haven't played in 50 years!' I said, 'Join the crowd. I had a 38-year break.' Her husband didn't want her to do it, said she was too old. She said, 'If I sign up to play basketball, I'd probably have to get a divorce.' Very few people who are willing at this age to start."

The players say that competing actually has helped them be healthier; four of the original six are still with the team. They understand that some older folks really can't play. But others are just afraid to try.

"They say, 'Oh, my knees hurt' or 'I've got arthritis,'" Turner said. "And we tell them, 'When you get out on the court, you forget your ailments.'

"I've broken four of my fingers and sprained my ankle and tore ligaments in my thumb. One guy at church said to me once, 'I guess you'll quit now?' And I said, 'I'd have to break all 10 fingers before I'd stop.'"

Of course, once a few of them healed, she'd be right back on court.

"I turn 75 in September. But you know, I don't feel old at all," Turner said. "It's so much fun, just being out there with the other girls."

Barton and Turner both use that term -- girls -- to describe the team. As Turner said, the clock in some ways does turn back when they're playing basketball.

Not literally, as it does for the fictional Charles Whitley and the other residents who really do revert to being children again when they sneak out of the rest home one night to play kick the can.

That's "Twilight Zone" fantasy, of course, but the reality for the Fabulous 70s is that your so-called golden years can be pretty darn wonderful, too. When Turner explains she has lived in Youngsville all her life, she could be saying that figuratively, as well. Maybe it really is a way of looking at things.

What do the players' families think?

"They laugh at us, but then again they think it's great, too," Barton said. "My grandkids came to a game, and they were so excited. But sometimes my kids shake their heads. My youngest daughter, who is now 40, sometimes says, 'Mother! You shouldn't be doing that!' And I'm like, 'OK. Whatever. Don't worry about it.'"

Barton said she has even inspired her husband, Jim, to compete as well.

"He said, 'I've been carrying your bag all these years to tournaments, it's time for me to do something, too,'" Barton said. "So he's become a competitive race walker."

Turner said her husband, E.G., is a homebody who loves working in his garden, and he doesn't mind her traveling around the country with her basketball team."

"He likes it until I hurt myself," Turner said. "When I hurt my ankle last year, he said, 'Mary, there comes a time …' and I said, 'I don't want to hear it.' I know what he was going to say: 'You need to quit.' But really, he doesn't fuss about it. He knows that's the thing I do to exercise and stay healthy.

"It's a whole lot better than sitting around complaining. If you sit down too long, you get right stiff. But if you keep going, you feel so much better."

Not long ago, Alford showed the players a rough cut of her film. They've been pleasantly surprised by this attention. After all, they're just playing ball.

"The opening says, 'This group of amazing women …'" Barton said, chuckling. "And we're all looking around saying, 'Who are they talking about? Us?'

"We don't think it's amazing; it's just something we've been doing for a long time. But all sorts of people have had the response, 'Wow, that's terrific.'"