Playing to win

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Mavis Albin, 76, left, and Nikki Leader, 66, two members of the Celadrin Tigerettes senior women's basketball team of Livingston Parish, meet each Tuesday to practice basketball at the C.B. Pennington Jr. YMCA in Baton Rouge.
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Mavis Albin, 76, left, and Nikki Leader, 66, two members of the Celadrin Tigerettes senior women's basketball team of Livingston Parish, meet each Tuesday to practice basketball at the C.B. Pennington Jr. YMCA in Baton Rouge.

Senior basketball champion Tigerettes subject of PBS documentary

At the free-throw line, Nikki Leader propped the basketball against her hip and examined the bruises across her 66-year-old arms.

She fingered a bandage across her left wrist that covered a wound earned in a very physical senior basketball tournament in Texas a few days before.

“They’re rough,” said Mavis Albin, her 76-year-old teammate. “They’re pretty rough.”

Leader nodded, then bent her knees and popped a free throw into the basket.

“It doesn’t get any easier,” she said.

Members of the Celadrin Tigerettes, a women’s 65- to 69-year-old basketball team, Albin and Leader are known for playing ferocious basketball. In the 16 years their six-woman team has competed, they have amassed a record of 200 wins and five losses. And they remember every single loss.

“We’re all poor losers,” Albin said. “We don’t like to lose. I think that’s one thing that’s made our team as successful as it is.”

They have won five gold medals at National Senior Games and are prepping for this year’s games in Cleveland. A team of documentary filmmakers followed them for inclusion in “Age of Champions.” The film about senior athletes has won awards at festivals and will play nationwide on PBS stations this summer.

Once they scrimmaged the Harlem Globetrotters in Chicago — and lost by only one point. In late March they traveled to New York and appeared on NBC’s “Today” morning show.

“It’s brought so many gifts to us, so many blessings,” Leader said. “We couldn’t have traveled like we’ve traveled and played and met so many different people. ... It’s amazing what we’ve been able to do.”

Their sponsor, a company that makes the joint flexibility and pain relief supplement called Celadrin, has allowed them to travel much more than they ever could have, they say. And the players talk up Celadrin’s benefits every chance they get.

While most of the team is older than 70, they play in the 65-year-old bracket because they have to play in the age group of their youngest member.

Albin has been playing senior basketball the longest. After she and her husband retired from their building supply business in 1992, she saw a magazine article about the National Senior Games, and a desire to play basketball again grew within her.

“I made a few phone calls, and my life changed,” she said.

Eventually, members of that team from Baton Rouge wanted to play in a higher age bracket, but she wanted to continue competing against younger teams, where “you can push and shove a little bit,” Albin said.

In a scrimmage back then, Albin played against Leader, who was a teacher and basketball coach at Denham Springs High for 19 years, then taught in East Baton Rouge Parish before retirement. When she saw Leader play, she said she didn’t want to play against her again, and they formed a team of Livingston Parish players.

“I cannot imagine playing against her, just how good she is,” Albin said. “She knows ball, she knows how to shoot and play the game.”

Leader’s sister, Wanda Blailock, also plays on their team. While five of the Tigerettes are Louisiana born and bred, Canadian Mary Bendsen, who played at the University of Victoria and represented Canada in the 1967 and 1971 Pan American Games, is the one non-Louisiana player the team is allowed under senior games rules.

Most of the women grew up playing a different style of basketball. When Albin was a teenager, girls only played on one side of the court or another and could only dribble the ball once.

“When I was 17, I had to play grandmother basketball because you couldn’t touch anybody,” Albin said. “You couldn’t foul. ... But now that I’m a grandmother, I’m having to play 17-year-old basketball, very physical now. It has kind of evolved into this full-contact basketball.”

The “Age of Champions” film captures their style of play. At the 2009 National Senior Games, the film producers held a casting call for participants that drew 1,000 athletes. They chose the Tigerettes and a few others because they had a competitive drive and an inspiring story, said Keith Ochwat, managing director of the Documentary Foundation, which produced the film.

“They play very hard basketball and they break a lot of stereotypes of a lot of older adults, as do a lot of senior athletes,” Ochwat said. “Most senior athletes compete in senior games for camaraderie, exercise and fun. The Tigerettes play to win.”

A clip from the documentary shows Leader hustling for the ball and colliding with opposing players. It also features other teams complaining about the Tigerettes.

“There’s a difference between our team and their team,” one opponent said to the film crew. “We play a finesse game, and they play a muscle game.”

But the “muscle game” is played by all the teams, Leader said, and the documentary shows that.

“Basketball is a contact sport,” Albin said. “It’s a contact sport for 17-year-olds and it’s a contact sport for 50 and above. It’s a rough game. It really is.”

The team members suffer injuries no different from men who play. They get busted lips, black eyes and broken fingers.

“It takes us a few days to get over playing when you play that hard and that aggressive,” Albin said.

Playing, Leader said, makes them better people. Preparing for tournaments leads them to eat right and exercise regularly.

Leader wants to play ball for the rest of her life.

“As long as I’m able and healthy and nothing calls me away, like family,” she said, “I’m going to play.”