Monday, February 19, 2007

Hooping It Up at 53

Steve Caccia, dean of students at NHTI by day and The General to his long-time men’s league teammates in the Over-35 Concord Men’s Basketball League (a misnomer of sorts because the team Cash plays on has only one guy in his 30s and most are well over 50), sauntered into the NHTI gymnasium last Tuesday night to watch a first round men’s basketball game between NHTI and UMaine-Augusta.

Two Tech students who play lunch bunch basketball with Cash quickly came over and joked the he (Cash) could or should be playing for the UMaine-Augusta team. As it turns out, number 53 in for the Moose from Augusta was about the same age as Cash.

No. 53 was Charlie Bickford and the number on his shirt equaled his age.

“Charlie Bickford, more gray hair than me, was going through lay up drills and patting his teammates on the back,” remarked Caccia. “He never got into the game and U Maine - Augusta lost by 12 or so, but there he was cheering and exhorting his teammates on. A 53 year-old guy with two knee braces, taking a two and a half hour bus trip to be part of the guys.”

What Cash didn’t know was that Charlie Bickford was becoming a celebrity of sorts.

When Cash arrived home and opened his email he found a article done two days before by Jimmy Farrell, a splendid writer for the Hartford Courant. Farrell published a lengthy piece in the Courant on Charlie, who grew up in East Hartford before moving to Maine 13 years ago. Farrell, an alum of the Concord Men’s Basketball League when he was earning his spurs with the Concord Monitor in the 80s, spun an interesting tale of this over-the-hill guy who just didn’t want to hang ‘em up.

For those of us who just can’t figure out how to stop playing basketball, or any other sport for that matter, Farrell’s article on Bickford gives us a new cult hero.

But it doesn’t stop there.

After finishing his article, Farrell started getting contacted by people including a novelist in Connecticut with connections with a producer in Hollywood who wanted to talk to Charlie about his “life rights” and maybe make a movie.

Go figure.

Two weeks ago, Charlie was just another aspirin popping old-timer trying to squeeze out another game of hoops.

Now……..who knows. Maybe we’ll hear of a casting call for Don't Leave the Gym on a Missed Shot.

In any event, I’ve already contacted Farrell to make sure my old men’s league geezers get first crack at being extras if Charlie’s story ever becomes a movie.

1. Video of Charlie Bickford:
http://video.courant.com/global/video/popup/pop_player.asp?ClipID1=1231440&h1=Aging%20Hoopster%20Plays%20College%20Basketball&vt1=v&at1=news&d1=109033&LaunchPageAdTag=news&fvCatNo=1&backgroundImageURL=&activePane=info&playerVersion=1&hostPageUrl=http%3A//www.courant.com/news/local/hc-oldhoopster0213.artfeb13%2C0%2C4934979.story&rnd=80869422

2. Jim Farrell’s article on Charlie Bickford from the Hartford Courant:

Final Drive For No. 53
A Gray-Haired Athlete With A Busted Knee Kickstarts Small-Time College Hoops Team

By JIM FARRELL
Courant Staff Writer
February 13 2007

AUGUSTA, Maine -- He took three aspirin Thursday morning, four more after lunch and six more just before 7 p.m.

Charlie Bickford wanted desperately to dull the pain in his damaged left knee so he could hobble onto the court once more to rebound and sweat and push and hold his own against kids almost a third of his age.

"This means the world to me," said Bickford, who at 53 is thought to be the oldest college basketball player in the country.

Bickford, who grew up in East Hartford and moved to Maine 13 years ago, knows he is living a baby boomer fantasy.

He knows that most people his age are too busy or too lazy or too tired to do what he is doing. Suspending time. Refusing to slow down and grow up.

"I can't change the number of years I've lived, but I can control how old I am," said Bickford, an affable man with three kids and, crucially, an indulgent wife, who enrolled at the University of Maine at Augusta 13 months ago and joined the school's hoops squad because the Moose were short on players.

"My goal was just to be a practice player, to help out, see if I could keep up with them," said Bickford, who is 6-foot-4 and burly at 240 pounds. "It's a guy thing."

Bickford, who lived in a house across from Rentschler Field when airplanes and not footballs filled the air, has always been an active, ambitious athlete. A three-sport standout at East Hartford High School, he went to an Arizona junior college on a football scholarship. He has run the Manchester Road Race more than 15 times. He has hiked much of the New England portion of the Appalachian Trail. He has worked as a Maine guide, taking rafters through treacherous whitewater rapids. He skis, snowshoes and kayaks.

"Everything is fun for Charlie," said Mike Lappen, a friend of Bickford's from Bolton. "He's very personable and easygoing, but he also knows what he wants and goes for it."

Bickford has always had a passion for basketball, which made it especially painful when - despite being the tallest student in his high school as a sophomore - he was cut from the team, prompting him to switch to wrestling.

Then there was more disappointment, when a knee injury in college ended his football dreams.

But Bickford recuperated, enrolled at Manchester Community College and joined its basketball team for the 1978-79 season. He was only a benchwarmer, though, and in the entire season scored just 2 points - one basket in a depressing 40-point loss to some team down in Bridgeport.

"I always figured that was it, that that was how my career had ended," Bickford said.

He and his wife, Laura, who is a hospital administrator, decided to move to Maine in 1994 after the birth of daughter Mary Kate.

For Bickford, who has worked as a nurse and as an independent photographer, it was something of a homecoming. He was born in Lewiston and has lots of relatives in the area, and he had loved vacationing in Maine.

"It was nothing against Connecticut - I have so many great memories from there," said Bickford, who nevertheless raves about his post-and-beam house in Belfast, on 6 acres just a mile from Penobscot Bay.

When Bickford joined the UMA team last season, he not only shored up the roster but brought unprecedented attention to a team that was struggling against other low-profile colleges, schools like Husson and Hesser and the awkwardly abbreviated UMFK - the University of Maine at Fort Kent.

"He saved us last year," said coach Jim Ford, who is about three weeks younger than Bickford.

Ford said Bickford is popular because he is selfless.

"Everybody is always concerned about how he is doing because he's always concerned about everybody else," Ford said.

In the early part of last season, the Moose had just five players. Bickford made six, and his strength and defense helped UMA spring a couple of late-season upsets after losing its first 18 games.

The team's record wasn't important, though, to the newspapers and television stations throughout the state that told the story of the unlikely middle-aged maverick. They all played up the irresistible detail that Bickford had been given a uniform number - 52 - that matched his age.

"It was crazy," said Eric Gagne, who went to high school last year in a town just south of Augusta and read all the stories. "No one could believe it, hearing about this weird old guy."

Gagne, 18, is now a teammate.

Bickford said the media coverage was flattering, but what he relished most was being part of the team. He loved the camaraderie. The competition. The challenge.

This season, Bickford said, has been just as rewarding but in different ways. He has not played as much because the team has more and better players - a development the coach attributes to the attention Bickford brought the school last year - and also because of his creaky left knee, which needed surgery in December.

But teammates say Bickford is an inspiring presence. "He acts younger than some of us," Gagne said.

The Moose take their hoops seriously, but beyond that they have little in common with big-time teams featured on ESPN.

In the fall, the team practices on outdoor courts because indoor gyms are hard to come by. Road games, such as those at Presque Isle, require a 480-mile round trip in two vans that usually return to Augusta at 3 a.m. There are no cheerleaders, although the men's and women's teams often play back-to-back and urge each other on.

But it's not all hard luck.

For example, the team ended up with its star player, a Chicagoan named Deon Cheers, only because he had already purchased a Greyhound ticket to Augusta when his would-be travel companion backed out. And there's Ford, a high school teacher by day who is a sharp coach and was once an assistant on the Bates College staff.

Best of all, home games are played at the Augusta Civic Center, a top-flight arena adjacent to the tiny campus that can seat about 8,000.

Alas, there were only about 75 fans watching Thursday, which was "Senior Night," the last home game of the season. Ford said Bickford would be in the starting lineup if his knee was OK, which is why Bickford had a cortisone shot, wrapped his knee in ice and gulped down all those aspirins.

"No way I won't be ready," Bickford, who wears No. 53 this year, said before the game.

He scored a total of 8 points last year and 6 this season, and he said making a basket on Senior Night in front of a crowd that included about a dozen of his relatives and friends would be a dream come true. It did.

Less than 20 seconds into the game against Eastern Maine Community College, despite being surrounded by taller players and higher leapers, Bickford grabbed an offensive rebound and quickly hit a short bank shot.

His teammates jumped up, elated, as Bickford limped back on defense, barely disguising his smile.

He came out after three minutes to high fives and hugs from his sons, 6-year-old Will and 9-year-old Jordan.

Bickford played less than a minute the rest of the night but was animated throughout, shouting encouragement and handing out cups of water to sweaty teammates.

UMA won, 90-85, and Bickford played the final 15 seconds - going in only after a group from the women's team chanted, "Charlie! Charlie!"

Afterward, he was relieved and reflective.

Bickford knows there are those who pay big bucks to attend basketball fantasy camps - if you're over 35, you can spend $10,000 to spend a week at a camp run by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski - but said it's impossible to measure what his experience has been worth.

"Age is no barrier," he said. "For things to end like this, walking away with cheering teammates and friends and family and a hug from the coach - I'm the luckiest guy in the world."

Contact Jim Farrell at jfarrell@courant.com.

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