Six years on the hardwood

Broken ‘medal streak’ doesn’t dampen Drizzle’s spirits

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Lonely at their first three Washington Senior Games appearances, Port Townsend’s women’s basketball team went looking for competition, even producing a YouTube video daring other teams to step up.

The Drizzle, who won Senior Games gold in 2015, 2016 and 2017 (by scrimmaging the other half of their own team, it must be noted), suddenly faced an actual bracket of opposing teams made up of former varsity players and rec league hotshots from serious basketball cities like Olympia and Seattle, plus Hoquiam, and Silver Lake.

The gold medal streak, a “three-peat” as the players jokingly call it, ended.

But that’s beside the point, says Drizzle co-founder Robin Stemen.

The spirit of play and friendship is the point, and this winter the team is celebrating its sixth year of twice-weekly practices, which mostly amount to full-court pickup games. Instead of flaunting gold medals, they are basking in the glory of the Senior Games’ sportsmanship award they won last summer.

The Drizzle started in 2014 when Stemen was looking for a way to buck up her friend Joanna Sanders, who had admitted she was feeling life was becoming all work no fun. They talked about a ladies night out and other common cures and then Stemen joined Sanders at a Port Townsend girl’s basketball game and something clicked.

They should play some hoop, Stemen suggested.

Sanders said that was the last thing she would have ever predicted would come out of Stemen’s mouth. Sanders is a serious student of the game. But Stemen was clueless.

Something about the squeak of the sneakers, the thud of the ball and the girls’ joy in playing made Stemen want to give it a try, even though she’d never been on an organized team and didn’t know what a shot clock was.

The two called some friends and organized a pickup game at the Community Center. “Would you want to do it again?” they asked in the sweaty aftermath. 

“They all said ‘Yeah’ and the next thing we knew, we were playing twice a week,” Stemen says.

Stemen had never played anything but high school gym class hoop, and that was back when girls weren’t supposed to break a sweat on the court, and had to pass after every three dribbles.

Now known as “The Rebound Hound,” Stemen says she loves the team spirit and the new skills she and her team-mates have learned. Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings, they reserve the gym at the Mountain View YMCA for practice, but it’s likely not a practice most serious athletes would recognize as such.

“People are really supportive and usually we’re laughing or joking,” says Monica Mader, a newcomer to Port Townsend and one of the younger players, at age 29. She played varsity for St. Mary’s Academy in Portland and knows from competitive basketball. This is different. “Joanna sometimes will play music. It’s just really silly and fun...(sometimes) serious, but there’s bouts of giggle fests.”

About 17 players, ranging from their 20s to their 60s, call themselves Drizzles and a half-dozen show up at each practice, with some coming from Sequim and Bainbridge Island.

It’s all three-on-three, a half-court game, at the Senior Games. But during practice, the Drizzle play full-court Nesmith ball.

 “We love the fast break and just the hail mary kind of shots,” Sanders said. She’s 58 and says the age range at practices has run from a seven-year-old to a 70-year-old. “Sometimes people have gotten hurt, but mostly we’re a safe game,” she said. “Some jammed fingers, broken fingers, a ball in face, strained muscles.”

Players come back for the social connection, she figures. “Everybody needs like seven interactions a day for healthy people. And it is a challenge in learning something new, so it’s keeping your brain active.”

Other than twice-weekly practices, their major undertaking is the senior games each summer. There have been scrimmages with local high school varsity girls teams and there is talk of trying to tunnel through bureaucratic obstacles to play at the women’s prison. But mostly they just get together to play and laugh.

“I think it’s fun because it’s women,” said Rose Burris, a 62-year-old retiree from Portland who joined the team in October. “If there was testosterone involved it might be a little more serious.”

Burris is Mader’s mother and the two say squaring off on the court is good fun.

Mader agrees the all-women atmosphere is freer, but that doesn’t mean it’s a ladylike version of basketball. “We actually have never played on the same team,” she said of her mother. “It’s fun to guard against her because we can throw a bit more elbow.”

For her part, Burris is enjoying a higher-speed workout than she might otherwise. “It’s just ‘go out and do your best’ and you don’t have to be perfect. There’s no shame if you constantly miss the basket like I do.”

Sanders, called “J-Dog” on the court, said playing just for fun took some getting used to. “I grew up as an Indiana Hoosier knowing the game very well,” she said. Her father had played for one of the mid-1950s high school teams romanticized in the film “Hoosiers.” “It’s a family tradition to love the game,” she says with reverence.

But what built the Drizzle was the sense of play, as opposed to a fierce drive to win.

“She kept making it so hysterical and fun,” Sanders said of Stemen. “It’s so playful and fun to be around our fearless leader. It is silliness. We shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously that we lose sight of that fact that it is about being playful.”

That word — playful -— comes up a lot when talking to Drizzle members.

Stemen said it keeps them focused on their mission, which is not world domination.

“I think there’s something about learning a new sport and standing up for yourself and allowing yourself to miss and fail and try again and learn new skills,” she said. “And (to) have the support of your team. Just to challenge yourself. It doesn’t matter if you miss. Even if you do miss, with basketball you’re on to the next thing.”

Not that it’s easy for everyone.

That spirit of play was all well and good when The Drizzle was the only team at the Senior Games, but when others showed up and handily beat the Port Townsend squad, something had to change. It turns out, they had to change their minds, not their field goal percentage or rebound tallies.

“That idea, that you were going to get beat bothered a lot of us that knew the game as a competitive sport,” Sanders said, counting herself one of them. “But other members who were more comfortable in their skin, said ‘My self esteem isn’t all tied up in winning or being perceived as a loser.” She credits Stemen with setting the example. “She was the coach on how to lose and realize that’s not why we started to play.”

Though defeated in their 55-plus bracket during last July’s Washington Senior Games at Olympia, the Drizzle was featured on the event program’s cover for winning the Dennis Mahar Spirit of the Games Award. The trophy says  “For enthusiasm, gamesmanship, and representing the character and spirit of the Senior Games.”

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