Ball For Life: A Chicago basketball league you must see to believe

Bonded by a love of basketball, they have become a band of brothers, these seasoned men of all colors and all walks of life who range in age from early fifties through mid-eighties. They run up and down the court playing league games from March through May and, joined by players from around the country, they go back at it during a three-day weekend tournament in mid-August.

The tournament, known as the Windy City Shoot-Out, began in 1991 and it was followed by the formation of the Windy City Senior Basketball League in 1995. There are six teams in the league’s Hank Clark Memorial Division for players fifty and up and six in the Leroy Brown Memorial Division for players sixty and up. The summer tournament has brackets for fifty-plus, sixty-plus, sixty-five-plus, and seventy-plus, and divisions with varying numbers of teams in each.

And whatever picture you have in your head, maybe of frail men who can’t let go of the game crawling up and down the court committing various uncalled infractions and sloppily and futilely hoisting the basketball toward the rim, erase it. “This isn’t a rag-tag recreational league,” said Tony Brooks, a sixty-year-old retired Goldman Sachs vice president, who discovered the league in his early fifties. “This is the real thing.”

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Washington Park is the home court, but over the years, games also have been played at several other South Side parks and at other venues such as Chicago State University, the University of Chicago, and Malcolm X College. The shootout and the league are the brain children of Charlie Brown, a star on the storied all-black 1954 DuSable High School team who has become an Illinois sports icon. Acting as midwife was Mickey Rotman, a Chicago attorney who was a high school standout for Roosevelt High, a Public League rival of DuSable’s that featured an all-white cast of mostly Jewish players.

The other founding fathers are men of various religious faiths who played adult pickup games at Sacred Heart, a Catholic parish in the North Shore suburb of Winnetka. Another group of pioneers came from Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Glenview, not far from Winnetka. Brown has been the de facto commissioner since day one and until a few years ago he was a player-commissioner. “While the rest of us helped in small measures, Charlie was the guiding force,” said Chicago attorney Barry Holt, a former DePaul basketball player who was one of the founding fathers and stayed on the basketball court until 2014.

“We started with a team of guys and now we have a family, a huge family,” said Brown, who’ll celebrate his eighty-second birthday on February 24th. “I have gotten more out of basketball after fifty than I possibly could have imagined”—which says volumes because Brown is one of Chicago high school basketball’s all-time greats. In college he co-starred with the great Elgin Baylor on coach John Castellani’s Seattle team that finished second to Kentucky in the 1958 N.C.A.A. Tournament.

It’s not unusual for a player in the Windy City Senior Basketball League and Windy City Shoot-Out to have those kind of credentials on his resume.

“We started with a team of guys and now we have a family, a huge family.”
–Charlie Brown, founder of the Windy City Senior Basketball League

Two alumni of the National Basketball Association currently play in the league—Jeff Sanders, whose eight points helped Sports Factory defeat the Chi Town Cats in the 2017 championship game of the fifty-and-up division, and Andre Wakefield, of Central City, runner-up in the sixty-and-up division. Other former N.B.A. players also used to play in the league: Rickey Green, the Michigan All-American who had a fourteen-year N.B.A. career; the late Flynn Robinson, who helped the Los Angeles Lakers win the 1972 N.B.A. championship; Mickey Johnson; Harvey Catchings; and Sonny Parker (father of the Milwaukee Bucks Jabari Parker). Also on the lengthy Who’s Who list are Frank Kaminsky, Sr., a member of the Lewis University Hall of Fame whose son, Frank, Jr., was the National College Player of the Year in 2015 and is now in the N.B.A.; John Olson, a member of the Northern Illinois Hall of Fame; Ernie Jones, a six-foot-ten former Harlem Globetrotter; and innumerable other former college and professional players.

But many other long-time players in the league and summer tournament didn’t even play high school basketball, and some of these senior citizens have become stars. One of them is Bill Frey, a seventy-seven-year-old retired Smith Barney vice president. “I got cut the first week (of basketball tryouts) at Glenbrook and never got over the trauma, even though I earned seven letters in track and cross-country and got the Most Valuable Runner award my freshman, junior and senior years,” he remembered.

As an adult, Frey played in pickup games at the Union League Club and Our Lady of Perpetual Help and then became a charter member of the Windy City Senior Basketball League. In the inaugural championship playoff game, he starred in a losing cause when Lettuce Entertain You was defeated by Gray Power. “The league was totally unique and ahead of its time,” reminisced Frey, who now spends his winters in Naples, Florida, but returns to Glenview for the summer and is a team sponsor and player in the shootout. “Thanks to Charlie and Mickey we have captured almost twenty-five years of our youth that would have gotten away without their wonderful idea,” Frey said.

“What a great privilege it has been for me to participate. The friendships we have formed are life lasting. Fortunately, for me they weren’t predicated on the measure of my basketball skills but on the comradeship of playing for fun and keeping ourselves young and healthy.”

Dramatic Beginnings

Mickey Rotman (left) and Charlie Brown are credited with founding the league twenty-two years ago. (Photo by Maggie Rife Ponce)

The seeds of these beautiful friendships that have flowered over the years go back to a classic Chicago high school basketball game between Brown’s DuSable and Rotman’s Roosevelt in the semi-finals of the Christmas holiday tournament at the International Amphitheatre during the 1953-54 season. Brown scored thirty-four points, and DuSable won it on his shot in sudden death, extending a winning streak that would reach thirty-two games by the time the team reached the state championship game against Mount Vernon in Champaign. (Today there are four classes in Illinois’ state tournament, but from 1908 through 1972 there was only one.)

DuSable was “the first black team with a black coach to succeed at the highest levels of integrated sport in America,” Chicago-born Ira Berkow would later observe in his New York Times column.

The title game against Mount Vernon was played two-and-a-half months before the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown versus the Board of Education that paved the way for integration in America. Racial prejudice was still widespread during this time of social change. For some, the thought of an all-black team being crowned the Illinois champion was intolerable, and the game between DuSable and predominantly white Mount Vernon became one of the most controversial in the history of the state tournament.

DuSable watched its four-point lead disappear in the final minutes. Not coincidentally, its best players watched from the sidelines. Starters Brown, Paxton Lumpkin, and Karl Dennis had all fouled out.  Mount Vernon triumphed, 76-70. In a 2004 Chicago Sun-Times story, DuSable’s late coach, Jim Brown (no relation to Charlie), asserted that one of the referees “called key fouls and took the game away from us.”

Coach Brown pointed out that two charging calls against Lumpkin wiped out baskets, and Charlie Brown, who had just made three long shots, was called for traveling. “They say the officials cheated us but I never use that word,” Charlie told the Sun-Times’ Joe Goddard in 2002. “I say they made some mistakes; they made some errors.”

Ironically, Charlie Brown would go on to become one of the state’s most respected referees. Indicative of the esteem in which he was held, he officiated a state tournament semi-final game forty years after his team lost to Mount Vernon. He was on crew for a state championship game the following year. During his three decades as a high school referee, he tried to obtain a copy of that controversial 1954 title game film. He was never able to locate a full recording. The final three minutes of the game were always missing.

The Players 

Three pioneers of the league (left to right): Ernie Jones, a former Harlem Globetrotter; John Newlin, as close to seven-foot as you can get; and Jim Brett, a retired H.R. professional with a sweeping hook shot. (Photo by Maggie Rife Ponce)

Clergyman. Doctor. Dentist. Psychologist. Politician. Judge. Lawyer. Policeman. Fireman. Teacher. Stock broker. Corporate executive. Musician. Performing artist. Liquor store owner. Bus driver. City worker. Sportswriter. Sports agent. Salesman. Men from these and countless other callings have followed the bouncing ball into the Windy City Senior Basketball League and Shoot-Out melting pots. Most live throughout the city and suburbs, but there are some from downstate and some from Indiana, and the summer’s shootout has lured players from East Coast to West Coast and Canada to Florida. Races, religions, nationalities, political ideologies, and tax brackets are irrelevant.

• Ken Felix was a member of the Chicago Police Department for twenty-seven years, spending much of that time as a patrolman in Cabrini Green. The physical and mental toughness that enabled Felix to do his job in one of the most dangerous housing projects in the nation’s history, let alone the city’s, carried over to the basketball court. Although he stood at only six-foot-two, those traits served him well as he battled much taller men on the backboards and became recognized as one of the league’s most revered rebounders before Father Time pulled him down. “I stopped playing a couple years ago because I couldn’t jump anymore, and because of that I couldn’t do what I did best,” said the sixty-seven-year-old former patrolman. “I got to meet a lot of fascinating and interesting people and I got to play basketball against a lot of people who were in phenomenal shape. I never would have found that level of competition had it not been for the league.”

• Alan Barcus, of LaPorte, Indiana, who turned eighty-one in November, has played in the tournament and the league since opening day and for United States teams that earned gold medals in international senior tournaments in Helsinki, Finland, in 1998 and Hamburg, Germany, in 2006.

In real life, he conducted the Alan Barcus Trio at Chicago’s Playboy Club and was the musical director for the Chicago production of “Hair.” He has composed film scores for motion pictures and written songs and lyrics. Also in his body of work are nearly two thousand five hundred commercials. “Rattle, rattle, thunder clatter, boom, boom, boom; don’t worry call the Car-X man” is his handiwork. So is “You’re My Cubs,” official song of baseball’s 2016 world champions.

Barcus has stopped writing commercials, but he is still writing music and doing occasional concerts that are sentimental journeys through his eclectic musical career. And, after two hip replacements, he continues an organized basketball career that got off to a belated start when he started playing in-town team games after college. “I stopped playing in those when I was thirty-two,” he reminisced. “I never dreamed I’d be back doing this.”

The son of a minor league baseball player, Barcus played football and baseball in high school but not basketball. At Indiana State University, he took up track and cross-country and set school records in thirteen events. His unparalleled achievements earned him induction into the Sycamores’ Hall of Fame in 1999, the same year that basketball great Larry Bird was inducted.

• Another relatively late bloomer on the basketball court who now is one of the best players on the senior circuit is Toronto’s seventy-six-year-old Bobby Smagala, who has been making the shootout a stop on his tour “for at least twenty years” and has played for Chicago teams in many national tournaments.

Smagala was a gymnast and a diver in high school and college. After getting his degree, he became a teacher and one day in the gymnasium a fellow teacher noticed him dunking volleyballs. “Why don’t you play basketball?” his colleague asked, and Smagala answered, “I don’t know how.” The colleague suggested that the neophyte play on his team. Smagala started playing and has never stopped. “I usually play for two teams (in different age brackets) in the shootout,” Smagala said. “I drive close to nine hours on Friday to get to Chicago in time for my game that evening. I play on Saturday and Sunday and then get in the car and drive home, getting to Toronto around midnight or so. It’s great; there are all kinds of people playing and they all appreciate one another. I have so many friendships with guys I’ve played with and against.”

• Smagala’s commuting is confined to the annual tournament but during the three months of the regular season once a week seventy-five-year-old Ray Thompson drives all the way from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and back—a four-hundred-mile roundtrip—to serve as H.O.B.O. team captain and give himself a little playing time in the sixty-and-up division. “It’s my love for basketball and the camaraderie with the guys,” Thompson said. “That’s why I do it.”

• Age-wise, seniority in the league belongs to eighty-five-year-old charter member Jim Brett, a retired Borg-Warner, Inc. human resources employee from Palos Heights. “The best part of the whole thing is I’ve met some nice friends,” reflected the six-foot-three southpaw with a sweeping hook shot. “Some really nice guys who do significant things.”

• Two other notable elder statesmen are Dennis O’Brien, eighty-four, and Fred Rosen, eighty-one. A strong presence in the low post, O’Brien is an entrepreneur who since 1994 has been making business trips to China several times a year to look after his interests. After moving to Indianapolis from Burr Ridge in 2015, he stopped playing in the league, but he returns for the shootout and plays for Chicago teams in tournaments in Wisconsin and Florida.

Rosen, who inherited Sam’s Wines and Spirts from his father and ran the business until 2007, has been playing in the tournament and league since their inceptions. In high school, he played with Rotman at DuSable and then played football and basketball at Denver University.

From left: Community is strong in the Washington Park gym, from a standing-room-only group of supporters who enjoy each other as much as the competition, to children (possibly future league members), to an engaged and loyal crowd. (Photos by Maggie Rife Ponce)

Two artificial knees are souvenirs of Rosen’s football career, but he continues to excel at sinking antique, two-hand push shots from three-point land and making free throws the old-fashioned way—underhand. “Sam’s was the only liquor store in the country with a basketball hoop,” he reminisced. “If you beat me in three-point or free-throw shooting, you got a ten-percent discount.” Former Bulls star B.J. Armstrong was one of those who accepted Rosen’s three-point challenge and lost two of their three contests.

• Like Rosen, Dick Hughes was one of the originals, and although the former Chicago doctor now living in Middleton, Wisconsin, has made a name for himself as an excellent outside shooter during the past three decades, his claim to Windy City basketball immortality is saving three lives on the basketball court.

“Make that three with an asterisk,” corrected Chicagoan Perry Frangos. “Because of Doc Hughes, I was born again twice—after I collapsed in the corner during a game at the Senior Olympics in Tucson, Arizona, in May 1997 and again in a (Windy City Senior League) game at Dyett (a high school just outside Washington Park) in April 1999 when I collapsed going back on the court to start the second half. Once again Doc Hughes was there to administer C.P.R. and bring me back. What annoyed me more than anything is it happened when I was rolling. I had eleven points at the half.”

According to Hughes, “The old-fashioned term is cardiac arrest (but) the more accurate medical term is that Perry had cardiac arrhythmia. When that happens, you go into ventricular fibrillation; the heart goes too fast to pump blood to the brain and the body.

“In Perry’s case, either his heartbeat was slower than average or his heart muscle was stronger than average. He had enough blood flowing to keep him alive until the paramedics got him going. He had no damage to his brain and no damage to his heart.” Frangos retired from the league following the second episode but continued to play in pickup games at Brooks Park for several years.

Hughes’ third and last “save” came during a shootout game at Avalon Park. He came to the rescue when Gordon Pope, who was playing for an Indiana team, collapsed on the court. “In this case I had an external defibrillator in my bag that my daughter Courtney (Hughes-Come) had given to me and insisted that I bring to my games,” Hughes said. “We brought Gordy back to normal rhythm with three shots. He was awake and talking when they were taking him to the hospital, and he also had no damage to his brain or his heart. … Sadly, Gordy died of cancer in 2015. He was a great guy, very competitive on the court and a gentle giant and a very decent man off the court.

“Charlie often says, ‘We are a family,’ and I can vouch for that. Not only are there very diverse individuals from all walks of life, over time we’ve become a family. These are men I want to share time with both on the court and off the court.”

• The dentist in the league is Tom Ward, a Chicagoan in his mid-seventies. He and Lloyd Batts, the sixty-and-up superstar who led Central City to the title bout this year, belong to a mutual admiration society. Batts was selected Illinois High School Player of the Year in 1970 after he averaged thirty-five points per game as a Thornton Township High School senior. He went to the University of Cincinnati and led the Bearcats in scoring for three seasons, then played one year for the Virginia Squires of the American Basketball Association before going to Europe to continue his pro career for eight years

“We’ve developed a bond,” Watts said of Ward, another of those who didn’t play high school basketball. “He became my friend and then he became my dentist. When my team disbanded one year, I went to play on Dr. Ward’s team. These are the friendships in our league that go on and on whether you play with one another or against one another. We check on each other. We encourage each other. We support each other.”

• Then there are the non-athlete notables. One of the other stars in the runner-up Lettuce Entertain You cast in the league’s first title game was Dick Devine, who a few years later became the state’s attorney for Cook County. Another Windy City Senior League alumnus prominent in government is Jesse White, whose playing career ended after he was elected Illinois Secretary of State. The most recent political celebrity to play in the shootout is Arne Duncan, the former Harvard co-captain and Academic All-American who served as U.S. Secretary of Education from 2009 through 2015. Others are: Malcolm X mathematics professor Richard “Hondo” Williams, Ebony Magazine senior vice president Dennis Boston, and St. Xavier University women’s basketball coach and Athletic Director Bob Hallberg.

Bringing It Home

Relationships are strong all-around in The Windy City Senior Basketball League, demonstrated by player Dion Jones and referee Mau Cason embracing pre-game. (Photo by Maggie Rife Ponce)

While Charlie Brown was becoming an All-American at Seattle, serving in the Army, playing in minor professional and semi-pro leagues, and distinguishing himself as a referee, Rotman was putting basketball on the back-burner and pursuing a legal career. Rotman did his undergraduate work at the University of Illinois at Chicago and went to law school at DePaul. After passing the bar and establishing his practice on LaSalle Street, Rotman became active in civic affairs and was elected president of the Chicago Public High School Alumni Association. “I wrote to all the Chicago public high schools to send me a list of their most famous graduates,” he remembered. “DuSable had Harold Washington (the city’s first black mayor), Fred Rice (the city’s first black police superintendent), and a lot of other famous people. They also sent me a whole list of basketball players, and Charlie Brown and Paxton Lumpkin were on the list.”

Rotman got an idea: to hold a reunion game between the Roosevelt and DuSable teams that were pitted against one another in the 1954 classic to raise money for both schools. He got Brown’s phone number from DuSable, and Rotman gave him a call. Brown loved the idea. Preceding the reunion game at Whitney Young was a dinner party in the East Bank Club. As for the game, Roosevelt lost again but that was secondary. The enduring significance of the game was the warm friendships enkindled at the dinner and on the court.

A few years later, Rotman heard about the pickup games that Pat Craddock, Gerry Belko, Holt, Hughes, Barcus, and other middle-aged men were playing at Sacred Heart and was invited to join the group. Craddock and Belko discovered a national tournament in Florida for senior players and they took their game on the road. “The following year I brought in Charlie Brown and Alan Denenberg (a former Loyola University player who today is one of the top seventy-five-plus players in the country),” Rotman remembered.

Those early tournaments led to many more. Vacations turned into expeditions to the National Masters Championships in Coral Springs, Florida, the Huntsman Senior Games in St. George, Utah, the Buffalo (New York) Masters, and numerous other tournaments around the country. “We thought we had died and gone to heaven,” Holt reminisced. “The fun we had as we turned back the clock and began reliving our youth and the reigniting of our love for the game gave everyone a high that no drug could match.

“It was Charlie who said: ‘We can do this locally.’ We scoffed. We did not realize what a prophet and seer he was and the power and influence he would wield over all of our lives. Charlie persisted. The first shootout was held in Broadway Armory on the North Side and consisted of mostly local teams with a few out-of-town players.”

After establishing the shootout, Brown set his sights on creating a league. Devine, Frey, Chuck Yacullo, Bill Yacullo, and Mike Hogan from the Our Lady of Perpetual Help group joined forces with the founding fathers to make it happen and the word spread to middle-aged men who were playing pickup ball at venues scattered around the metropolitan area. Brett, O’Brien, Bob Swedlow, and Frangos were among the pioneers who helped the founding fathers launch the league. “Charlie had a lot of influence at the park district,” Barcus said. “I don’t think any of the rest of us could have gone in and said: ‘We want to have a league.’ It’s a league that has brought together guys who didn’t know each other. And where else in the country can you play in a league with guys over fifty?”

“I met Charlie Brown and started playing Windy City Senior basketball at the age of fifty-six and it changed my life,” said sixty-six-year-old Mel Mocco, who in June played on championship teams in the fifty-five, sixty, and sixty-five age groups in national tournament competition. “I never realized there was basketball in my future well into my sixties.”

Brown’s older brother, Leroy, was his right-hand man in running the league before his sudden death in 2007. A swimmer at DuSable and in college at Tennessee State, Leroy didn’t play in either the tournament or the league but he played an integral role in their success stories.

Charlie’s daughter, Rosalind, has stepped in to fill the void left by her uncle’s passing, and Charlie is looking for her and players in their sixties, like Brooks and Batts, to perpetuate the legacy of basketball and brotherhood created by the Windy City Shoot-Out and the Windy City Senior Basketball League.

“I was in the middle of the social change our country was going through in 1954,” Charlie reflected. “I know what the difference is before, during, and after that. And right now I am enjoying the residuals of that. You don’t have to be an Uncle Tom; you don’t have to be a Malcolm X; you don’t have to be a Martin Luther King. Just be yourself and find the best approach for the situation you’re in.

“We’re all one family. Everybody has to look at it that way.”

About the author

For forty years, Neil was a byline writer for the Chicago Tribune and his beats included the Chicago Blackhawks, Big Ten football and basketball, and horse racing. Among his many national and regional awards, he was a member of a reporting team that earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2000.

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