Steve Dabrow trudged into the JCC Kaiserman gym on a recent Tuesday night, sat down heavily and let out a groan as he prepared for his upcoming basketball game.
When the 56-year-old Washington Square resident was asked why he continued to play a sport most people his age have quit years earlier, he laughed.
“I’ve got major issues. That’s why I keep playing.”
A few minutes later, Dabrow forgot about his age, serving as his team’s point guard for all 40 minutes of a hard-fought game that wasn’t decided until the final buzzer.
Dabrow was one of more than 40 men ranging in age from their mid-40s to early 60s who popped Advil in advance, strapped on knee and ankle braces, rubbed on the Bengay and tried to turn back time to perform like they did when Presidents Carter and Reagan were in office.
For more than 20 years, the JCC has offered a variety of adult basketball leagues. Leagues for 18-and-up and 35-and-up players have fallen by the wayside — and a 60-and-up league started a year ago was aborted after a single season.
But the 50-and-up league perseveres, even if the number of teams dwindles and the age restrictions are fudged a bit to fill the rosters.
That said, the league has changed.
A decade ago, a majority of the players were Jewish JCC members. Today, the league is largely not Jewish, with Jewish JCC members in short supply. That follows the trend of the weekend pickup games at JCC. Where as many as 40 mostly Jewish members once waited their turn to play pickup games the moment the building opened, today it may take 30 minutes before 10 older guys — few of them Jewish — straggle in to play. For whatever reason, a whole generation of Jewish basketball players (those now in their late 30s and 40s) doesn’t play at the JCC.
League organizer Greg Casey, 56, played in the leagues for years before turning to refereeing. He said some people have quit because of advancing age and injuries, but there’s also a perception the league became less enjoyable and more physical, while the camaraderie diminished.
“It was a cohesive unit among the guys and a loyal group,” he said.
Still, the games go on — and there are even a few fans who aren’t the spouses or children of the players.
“It’s fun to see these guys still getting up and down the court,” said Tyrone Cook, a gym regular, who stirs the pot with friendly trash talk to some of the players.
Let’s take a look at four of the old-school Jewish guys still playing.
Never one to lack confidence, Sherman is adapt at trash talk, claiming at various times to be the leading scorer in JCC history and also the player who’s won the most championships.
The thing is, he may be right. He’s also on the reigning champions, an undefeated team in the last league.
Sherman, 53, of Penn Valley, who is the senior partner of Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company’s 1847Financial agency, explained why he still plays.
“I love competition — period,” he said. “I can’t get this kind of competition any other place.”
That competitive zest was evident the other night, when an aggressive defender felt the wrath of a few well-timed Sherman shoves the refs missed.
Sherman did note that age has forced him to change his game.
“You become a smarter player when you become older. Everyone in this league is going backward together,” he said, adding that he’s managed to stay mostly healthy. “I’ve been very fortunate with minor injuries over the years that haven’t kept me from the game that long.”
A college player at Gettysburg College, Sherman has passed along his basketball genes to his sons, one of whom plays at Dickinson College, the other at Haverford College. He misses some league games to see his sons in action and was rewarded the other day when one son hit a game-winning buzzer beater.
One of the longest-tenured players at the JCC is also one of the biggest. With wide shoulders to complement a 6-foot-5-inch frame, Edelstein makes his mark as a rebounder and defender.
The 60-year-old Radnor resident, who owns March Inc., a waste equipment sales company, may be one of the older players, but has no intentions of stopping.
“I enjoy the camaraderie of being on a team, and I don’t really enjoy working out alone,” Edelstein said, adding that he believes he’s won more championships than Sherman. His longtime rival did get the last laugh that night when their teams met, with Sherman’s team pulling out a victory.
Like Sherman, he’s remained healthy over the years, although a pinkie broken in a pickup game earlier this year required surgery, forcing him to quit one league and miss another. And he now does his best to conserve energy during a game.
“I try to be smart about running up and down the court,” he said.
So, when will it be time to quit for good?
“When I think people don’t want to play with me,” said Edelstein, who also still enjoys playing pickup games with his adult son. “I still enjoy it and still fill a role.”
Although he’s one of the shortest guys in the league, Dabrow is certainly its “Energizer Bunny,” as he rarely seems to get tired despite running around more than nearly all players.
He does claim to have gotten slow, which drew a rebuke from yet another longtime player, Greg Goodman, who was standing nearby.
“He’s slowed down from 75 to 30 miles per hour,” Goodman said. “The good news is that everyone else has slowed to 15.”
Dabrow, the owner and CEO of Chelten House, a family-owned manufacturer of sauces, condiments and salad dressings, credits the extensive use of a flywheel and occasional runs for his conditioning. But he lives for basketball.
“It’s the most-fun sweat you can possibly get,” he said.
A Wisconsin native, the 62-year-old Gilbert has played basketball at the JCC since the early 1990s when a friend recruited him to play. His “career” dates to roughly the time Beatle-mania was sweeping America.
“I’ve been playing competitive basketball since I was about 10 years old. Although I did not play in college, I played high school basketball and I’ve played in literally thousands of games in various leagues, including the JCC, since then. I love the game. I love the competition. I love the exercise. And I love the camaraderie.”
Like the others, the Penn Valley resident — a one-time general counsel for a health care company who now works with startups and is a private investor — has been fortunate in terms of injury.
“I’ve had some bumps and bruises and maybe a sprained ankle or two over the years. But I’ve never missed a game because of injury,” he said.
Still, Gilbert has changed his game in deference to Father Time.
“I started developing an outside shot when I was in my 20s, which was a good thing, because as I’ve gotten older, the quickness has diminished and my ability to drive to the hoop has faded, but my outside shot has pretty much stayed with me,” he said.
As long as he can move well enough to remain in the flow of the game, Gilbert plans to keep on playing.
“When I can no longer hit the open jumper and can’t keep up with the guys I’m playing with, then I’ll know it’s time to hang up my sneaks — although I can’t imagine a time that I won’t at least play in the backyard with my kids and grandkids,” he said.
And Gilbert is helping the next generation of basketball players, serving as a volunteer coach at John Bartram High School in Southwest Philadelphia.
Head to Head
Like Sherman and Edelstein, Dabrow and Gilbert squared off against each other recently, with Dabrow’s team pulling out a 61-58 win that went down to the final seconds. As might be expected, both players figured into the game’s ending.
Thanks to a couple three-point shots, Dabrow helped his team build a 16-point lead a couple minutes before the end of the first half, but it was all downhill from there.
The team’s defense got sloppy and let the opposition back into the game in the second half. Dabrow and company managed to regain a three-point lead in the final minutes and had the ball with nine seconds left. An inbounds play designed to get the ball down the court to a teammate failed when Dabrow’s pass went long, giving the opposition a chance to tie.
On the final play, Gilbert was able to break free behind the three-point line, but his off-balance shot hit the rim and bounced away. One final shot by a teammate fell short, ending the game.
On this day, Dabrow walked away bruised but victorious, but he, Gilbert, Edelstein and Sherman all could be considered winners as they got their sweat and left uninjured — and ready for the next game.
Editor’s note: The author of this article has been known to set a vicious pick or two and be a general nuisance on the court in the above league.
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