Experience is in their court

IT'S A LITTLE after 12:30 on a sunny February afternoon when the first game begins in the worn gym at the Bykota Senior Center in Towson.

Outside, an unseasonable warm spell has pushed the temperature to 65 degrees, and lovers walk hand-in-hand up Bosley Avenue. But nobody cares about the weather in here. In here, 10 guys are going at it in a game of full-court basketball, which would be unremarkable except for the fact they're all old enough to be somebody's grandfather.

Some guys hit their 60s and take up golf; some, the only exercise they get is clicking the remote or lifting themselves from the kitchen table. These guys at the Bykota come here three times a week and run up and down for 90 minutes, and they know it's a cheap, wonderful tonic for the ravages of old age.

"When I was growing up," says one of them, Paul McGillicuddy, 70, "people in their 60s and 70s were in rocking chairs. It was inconceivable that we'd be athletically elite."

"This," says another, Walter Wintsch, "is two hours of therapy with no fee."

Wintsch, at 76, is the oldest guy here. This is how old he is: Growing up in upstate New York, he says, "I remember playing with a peach basket nailed to the garage door."

Whoa, you think, who was the president back then, Lincoln?!

But then Wintsch tells you he was a medical corpsman in a landing craft plying the waters off Omaha Beach during the allied invasion of Normandy, shuttling the American dead and wounded, as well as German prisoners, back to the ships offshore.

Between games, he shows you a copy of his ship's deck log. There it is at the top: Tuesday, June 6, 1944. One notation begins: "Received from officer in charge the remains and effects of the following men ..."

One is listed as Doherty - gunshot wound to the head. Another, Fiore - gunshot wound to the chest. Yeah, Walt Wintsch has seen a lot of things many of us hope we never see.

But that was a long time ago. Now he's here playing ball with a dozen other guys who love the game and can't give it up, guys like Tom Murtaugh, 65, who started these pick-up games 18 months ago; Bucky Kimmett, 72, who played four years at Towson State and is in the school's Hall of Fame; Frank Lastner, 70, who also played at Towson State after three years of varsity ball at Loyola High; Arky Vaughan, 72, who starred for Towson Catholic way back when.

Watch them for a while and you see this is the basketball of two-handed set shots, hook shots, running one-handers. This is basketball from another era, the game set in amber.

This is hoops before the between-the-legs dribbling and the monster dunks of today's game - even before the jump shot, really.

Hey, these guys actually pass to each other! They cut through the lane! They look for the open man! In the first of seven games to 10, Frank Lastner hits Bucky Kimmett with a sweet touch pass underneath and the rest of the guys nod and clap in appreciation.

These guys play hard, too. Not long ago, one of them slammed into the wall under one basket and had to be taken to the emergency room to get stitched up.

Did this have a sobering effect on the games?

Did they all stop and look at each other and say: "Gee, maybe we oughta take it easy after what happened to ol' what's-his-name?"

Yeah, right.

What they did do was hang pads from the wall under the basket, so that the next guy who went slamming into it would at least not bleed all over the court.