May 28, 2022 4 min read 1 Comment
Photo: Paul Vickers, left, practices against his friend, Gary Kaylor.
By Ray Glier
Ft. Lauderdale___ I am not going to try and distort reality by saying an 86-year old man can sell out a basketball arena with a display of his skill.
What I am going to say is that we should marvel over Paul Vickers because he is where we all want to be at 86, which is upright and bouncing around on a basketball court like we are 26 again.
Vickers may not sell out the arena, but he would get a standing ovation if he stood up to take a bow.
Vickers’ team, the 56’ers, ran roughshod over the competition in the 85+ age group this week at the National Senior Games and he was a big part of it. They won their five games by an average margin of 24 points. The team they were supposed to play in the Gold Medal game of the 3-on-3 tournament forfeited, which was just as well because the 56'ers walloped them by 25 in the opening round.
Vickers was one of the three starters for the champs. He rebounded, he passed, he defended, he set screens, and he scored. He does not want to be regarded as exceptional on a basketball court. He won’t even think he is anything special, much less say it out loud.
Vickers was a standout as a 6-foot-4 guard on a state champion in 1953, but even then, I imagine, he was the least noisiest player on the team.
He plays because “it’s exercise and it’s fun” not to prove anything, or settle a score, or bend time.
The lesson watching Vickers is simple: Age can be ruthless, but we don’t have to help it along. We can push back. We need to push back.
“Heavens no, I didn’t see myself playing this long,” he said. “When I was 40, I wondered if I could play until I was 60. Now that I’m 86, why not 90?”
Vickers plays three days a week near his home in Atlanta. The games can be with high school aged kids all the way up in age to him. His Saturday morning group seems especially satisfying to Vickers.
“The camaraderie is just outstanding, a lot of fun,” he said. “It's as much satisfying just playing with friends as it is how many points you score. It’s a great game.”
Vickers said he is not the first player chosen in the pick-up games, but sometimes he is not the last, either. Why wouldn’t you want him on your team? The first pass to Vickers is never the last pass. He is 6-foot-4, which is taller than you and me. Most of us have to wait for the ball to hit the ground first to get a rebound.
“If you pass me the ball, you’re going to get it back,” Paul said. “None of them mind playing with me because I’m a team player.”
You don’t have to guess how Vickers stays fit for basketball at 86. Look at those tree trunks for legs, sitting atop size 14 shoes. Vickers has done weights with those legs, you bet. He has also kept those legs free from serious injury. That comes with exercise but also, his wife Martha says, “from not doing anything stupid” like diving on loose balls. There are some limits.
The aesthetics of a game of basketball involving 85+-year old men can look awkward for the NBA fandom, but there are flashes of brilliance, which can still get the hard-earned hardcourt praise of, “Nice move.”
Vickers had one of those moments here at the National Senior Games. He had the ball on the left side of the lane, faced the basket, gave a ball fake as if he would drive right, then drove left, and had an easy layup.
To be sure, Vickers missed more shots than he made in the tournament, but he also knocked down some 12-foot shots from the baseline and, always, always stayed on his feet.
Those feet were made for more than hoops. The ebullience of Vickers extended to track and field at the Games where he competed in the long jump, triple jump, and high jump. He snatched three silver medals.
But basketball is his game. The 56ers were originally a team of 1956 high school graduates from New Jersey. They recruited Paul, a 1954 graduate, several years ago. In 2019 the 56'ers went to Finland and won a gold medal in the World Games beating Russia in the finals. They remained the 56'ers, even with the 54'er, Vickers.
While most of the players are Jersey guys, Vickers grew up in Atlanta. He played football at Georgia Tech (end) and graduated in 1958 with a degree in mechanical engineering.
Even though he is what we referred to 50 years ago and still refer to today as a “ringer”, he is close with these men. Vickers’ has this way about him that welcomes him into any circle. Before one game, a 56’er sorted through some jerseys in a bag looking for his old number. “Find that one that made you so good,” Vickers said to the man. They both laughed as the man took No. 21 out of the bag.
Vickers had already put on his No. 25, but it is more than the jersey, of course, that gives a player presence.
It is sharing the ball. It is moving and staying active and not letting the rust build up.
“I haven't played golf for 40 years, 45 years,” he said. “If I went out and tried to play golf, I would injure myself. Just keep doing what you’re doing, keep the joints oiled. Don’t get overweight.”
Vickers is practicing disobedience in the face of ageism. He reconciled long ago he had lost a step, but that doesn’t keep him from the court, like some others who use diminished skills as an alibi for sitting home.
He just plays. That’s the goal, right? Keep playing.
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