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Meet the Immortals

Local guys carry basketball skills to the national level

By John Addyman

Fast-break pass from Garry Bonnemere to Cecil McClary against the defense from George Klemann and Dennis Turner.

He’s still shooting.

“You’ve got to take shots to make shots,” said Dana Wolcott, who, at age 75, has earned the right to be thought of as a basketball sage.

But unlike most sages, he’s still on the court, playing the game.

Wolcott and a group of Rochester septuagenarians are a team good enough to compete at the National Senior Games Association championships that were held in July in Pittsburgh. Some 11,576 similar athletes joined Wolcott in going for the gold in 20 sports. In the basketball division alone, 116 teams from all over America hustled half-courts in three-on-three contests to claim a title and bragging rights.

Rochester’s team, which Wolcott captains, finished fourth in the 75+ age class, against 12 other teams.

The youngest NSGA teams competed in the 50+ age class. The oldest athletes were burning the court in the 85+ age class.

And the name of the Rochester team?

“The Immortals.”

Dana Wolcott

Some of the other teams in the national finals were The Old Gold, Remaining Few, Rhode Kill, Code Blue and the Albany Fossils.

In the Immortals’ class, the Iowa Westerndorf Bucketmakers took home the gold medal, beating Hoops for Life from Illinois in the championship game. The Immortals lost a close contest to the Massachusetts Black Bears in the bronze medal game.

Garry Bonnemere, 76, is an Immortal who has been part of the Rochester basketball scene for more than 20 years. Raised in Teaneck, New Jersey, he played basketball at Hiram Scott College in Nebraska and graduated with a degree in sociology, which led to a career in fuel-oil sales at Cities Service, then electrical products sales for 3M. He’s coached girls’ jayvee basketball at Irondequoit and boys’ jayvee at School of the Arts.

“A Rochester basketball league started around 2000,” he said. “It was an over-50 league. I was looking for a place to play and saw an article about the league in a newspaper: they were looking for players.”

Wolcott explained that the league started with six teams, eight or nine guys on each team. Games were at the DePaul Rec Center on Buffalo Road, with a season that went October to March. Those were good times.

Rochester assembled two all-star teams in 2003 and tried to qualify for the NSGA national tournament, which meant winning in the New York state tournament held at Cortland State. The all-star team, named “The Lions,” qualified for the national championships in Hampton Roads, Virginia. With 20 teams in their 65+ class, they finished fifth that June, the Rusty Pistols from Texas winning the crown.

In 2017, Rochester sent a team of all-stars called “Billy’s Barnstormers” and placed second at the championships in Birmingham, Alabama. Code Blue from Alabama won the event.

Gerry Bonnemere

Wolcott said there’s a measure of satisfaction when it comes to state and national competition. “You get to beat up guys from other states whom you don’t know. They get so disappointed when we win.”

“And when you compete, you’re challenged,” added Bonnemere. “You will more than likely, especially in basketball, run into people who are better than you. You try to at least stay close to improve your game. But you know what? You get better as you age.

“I still work out. I play on Sundays with a bunch of younger guys. It’s all I can do to keep up with them, but that’s OK. Competing against younger guys earns a measure of self-satisfaction and integrity. They ask, ‘How old are you?’ And I tell them. And they’re like, ‘Yeah, right…’”

Wolcott, who is a lead innovation coach at RIT after 38 years at Kodak, has had a similar experience.

“A couple of years ago I played in a league at RIT. One of my students, a kid who was 6-foot-8 and could dunk, asked me to play. And we came in second place. I played almost the whole time in every game. I just had to make sure I started downcourt to the basket ahead of everyone else,” he said.

Bonnemere also admits the reality. “The game has changed. When I was in high school, there was no three-point line. The skill level of the players today is off the charts totally. There are some moves that I can’t do today. The spring in the legs is gone,” he said.

The two men also have military backgrounds. Wolcott was in the Marine Reserves and the Army Reserves; Bonnemere retired from the Army National Guard as a major, after 25 years of service.

Aging has been kind to both men, and to the guys who joined them on the court for their Thursday practice at the Sports Garden in Henrietta, a perfect venue.

What has kept them young?

Rochester Immortals’ Cecil McClary drives for the basket while Dennis Turner trails the play.

“Staying active,” said Bonnemere quickly, adding a measure of determination. “To show that even though I’m older, I can still do active, competitive things. That’s my drive. Sometimes it’s difficult because of my age, but put me on a basketball court and it’s play to win. I’ve matured in the fact that losing, particularly in pick-up games, doesn’t bother me as much as it did. I still want to win. Coaches along the way instilled in me the attitude to try hard and do your best — that’s all you can do is do your best. If you do your best, then you can rest.”

“Working with students every day” keeps Wolcott young, he said. “That’s amazing when they ask me to go play basketball with them. One young lady asked me to go skydiving with her. And others have asked me to do other things with them. You’ve got to stay young. If you want to work on any new ideas with these students, you have to keep up with what all the new technology is; you’ve got to be on top of the AI [artificial intelligence] stuff. There are some crazy things going on. You have to be on top of that because everyone is going to know everything about you all of the time.”

Bonnemere said younger players tend to wrongly judge the value of an older, experienced player.

“The young folks would laugh at us. They would think, ‘What’s with these guys?’ They don’t understand, they have no clue. They think the world revolves around them, that they are it; particularly if you’re playing basketball,” he said. “I played Sunday two-on-two with a young guy, never saw him before. We played a game of 11 and I think I took three shots the entire game. He would get the ball, do his one-on-one moves, and I’m standing like this, waiting for a pass. It really pissed me off. I didn’t say anything. He didn’t understand the concept of teamwork. If you’re open, if you’re there, give me the ball.

I’ve got my clippings from when I was in high school and college,”  Bonnemere added. “I can read them a thousand times. I just want to be able to win and contribute.

“There’s something that’s been on my mind of late: when do I stop? Will I know when to stop? There’s going to be a time when I can’t get my arm up, when I can only jump so high off the floor…my intent is to play until the wheels come off.”

“I should hope so,” agreed Wolcott.

Fourth place at the National Senior Games Association championships. From left: Garry Bonnemere, Larry Guttmacher, Dana Wolcott, Cecil McClary and Jon O’Connor.

He noted some of the players expected at the practice, which was just starting — Cecil McClary, a construction company owner who has a pronounced rainbow shot; Lawrence Guttmacher, a professor of psychiatry at RIT; Jon O’Connor, a former Kodak manager — and others.

The door is open for more guys to join the Immortals and perhaps restart a league.

“This focuses you on a goal, to get out there and be active,” he said. “If someone is interested, they can show up on a Thursday night at the Sports Garden at 5 p.m. We would like to resurrect the league and have five or six teams. We need a commissioner to organize it. Steve Edgerton was the commissioner who set up over-50 basketball in Rochester. We need someone like him. He would set up our trips. He knew everybody. We had a lot of fun playing up in Maine and having a lobster dinner on the beach.”

Practice began this Thursday night. Instead of playing three-on-three in a half-court game, as they would in the NSGA competition, the Immortals went whole-court, five-on-five. The pace was brisk. There were blocked shots, fast breaks, and in-your-face defense. Everybody was active. Everybody got their hands on the ball.

Once again, here were young guys cruising a basketball court with their buddies in the evening. Yesterday wasn’t so far away…for the Immortals.