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The Power Game Making connections while making a fast break

Vernon the investment manager was being covered by Doc the psychiatrist, who blocked his way to the basket. Rod the TV anchorman was guarded closely by big Greg the fund-raiser, so Vernon had to look elsewhere. But Dan the poet couldn't shake free from Harry the law partner.

So Mike the shipping executive got the ball. He let fly an awkward-looking, one-handed push shot that seemed to start near his socks. But it went in and his team took a two-basket lead.

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This is lunchtime basketball at the Downtown Athletic Club, a hoops haven for middle-aged, three-piece-suiters playing a friendly five-on-five. And basketball is not the only thing on the agenda: It's often the time for a little professional and social networking under the net.

Uptown at the Jewish Community Center on Park Heights Avenue, the aging but still enthusiastic sign up for the three-on-three league. No full-court games; no one under 30 need apply. The accent is on a friendly atmosphere, but even so these guys mean business.

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"They come here for the relaxation," says Rob Kiewe, the JCC's health and fitness program director, "and they'll still spend 15 minutes arguing with each other about a foul or who touched the ball last before it went out-of-bounds. But when they leave, they're friends again."

Such is the allure of pickup basketball, that quintessential sport of youth that many people nonetheless cannot give up. Once it was an expression of teen-age insouciance and self-expression. Now it's a way for harried corporate executives to recapture that feeling of simply hanging out -- and maybe, with President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore both fans of pickup ball -- to be with it as well.

B6 Not that any sensible person should be playing bas

ketball at age 40 or 50, with the attendant maladies of bad knees, bad hands and slow everything. Yes, it's a sport for young people who can run and jump without ripping an Achilles' tendon. But its older aficionados swear there's nothing like a couple of hours on the court.

"It all revolves around the love of the game, and we don't want to give it up," says Greg Roberts, who tore up a knee playing college ball at the University of Connecticut but is a regular at the DAC lunchtime games. Now he's 33 and executive director of Baltimore Educational Scholarship Trust, a non-profit organization that helps find college scholarships for young people. "Sure, you can relive the glory playing pickup ball," he says. "And being in the corporate environment, as so many of us are, you can release some of the tension."

Vice President Gore knows. He's 45 but isn't thinking of hanging up his sneakers. You might have seen recent clips of him shooting around at the Capital Centre before a Washington Bullets game, where he showed off a respectable jump shot.

"He plays the game as often as he can, but not as often as he'd like," says Marla Romash, a spokeswoman for the vice president. "He really, really loves the game. If he can't get into a game, sometimes he'll just shoot around with his son [Al Jr.] or one of his daughters."

Though President Clinton is perceived more as a jogger, he's also been known to join in a pickup basketball game. And on the Hill, the spirited 4 p.m. games in the House gym have been an institution for years, though with the recent large congressional turnover -- and the defeat of such talented gym rats as Tom McMillen and Tom Downey -- it's unclear whether they'll continue with the same enthusiasm.

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(Also unclear is the fate of the annual Democratic-Republican charity game, which was "fanatically competitive," according to Tim Curran, a reporter for Roll Call, the newspaper that covers the Hill. "There were lots of elbows and knees, and accusations of cheating.")

Bob Ferry, the former Bullets general manager, started playing pickup ball again three years ago. Now, at 55, he plays in an over-40 league at the Naval Academy.

"I had no idea I'd ever play ball again," says Mr. Ferry, who played in the National Basketball Association, primarily with the Bullets, from 1960 to 1969. "I hadn't played for 20 years, I guess, but when I moved to Annapolis three years ago, I got to playing again. It's mostly old friends -- one guy runs a mortgage banking company, another runs a restaurant. And anyway, it's a lot more fun than lifting weights and riding the stationary bike."

The game even draws in athletes from other sports. Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken, known as a talented and ferociously intense pickup basketball player, loves the game so much he had a court built at his Baltimore County home. Former Orioles pitchers Don Stanhouse and Jim Palmer have dropped in on games at the DAC. Jean Fugett, the former NFL tight end, plays at the club whenever his busy schedule as a Baltimore attorney allows. And Scott Manning, the former goalie for the Baltimore Blast soccer team, has signed up to play in the JCC's three-on-three league.

There are a few former college players at the DAC lunch games -- Mr. Roberts, for instance, and WBAL-TV anchorman Rod Daniels, who played at Paterson (N.J.) State College -- but mostly they're people who picked up the game along the way and never stopped, even as they moved up the corporate ladder. Some, such as Vernon Reid, principal owner of the investment managing firm V. A. Reid and Associates, didn't start playing until their 20s. Now Mr. Reed, 38, plays twice a week.

They play a game well below the rim -- if anybody dunks, he's assuredly a visitor, or a club member who usually plays at the more aggressive nighttime and weekend games. Over the years, individual games have been adjusted to allow for the inevitable physical decline. Mr. Roberts, for instance, is usually the tallest player at 6 feet, 6 inches, but often takes outside shots to get away from the constant pounding inside.

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Mostly, though, players admit it's the ambience as much as the )) exercise that draws them. Pickup games are a great leveler: How someone performs in the boardroom means nothing if he doesn't make the right pass. Indeed, it's not uncommon to play alongside someone for years before finding out he's a partner in a law firm or runs his own construction company. He's just the guy who shoots too much, or maybe has a nice spin move down pat.

"It's become a really important part of transitioning in Baltimore," says Mr. Daniels. "I came to town in 1984, and joining the lunchtime game became a great way to know the city right away. Some of the guys have become very close friends, people with whom I get together socially, and it's also been a tremendous resource for stories."

Michael P. Cataneo is known at the DAC for his funny-looking outside shot, but off the court he's the 53-year-old president of Cataneo Inc., Baltimore Harbor's principal line-holding company (they tie up the ships at the harbor). "It's my therapy," he says. "I like the competition, and it's a way to get away from the stress and strain of business. Plus I like the group -- so many people with varied backgrounds."

Naturally, getting so many professionals together means there's inevitably business and shop talk. But the players say the networking is subtle -- not so much that deals are struck in the locker room but that barriers are broken down.

"I'm in the fund-raising business, so it was an opportunity for me to recruit some members for our board," says Mr. Roberts. "I've met a couple of the guys in the gym who have helped us in fund-raising."

"It's more social than professional," says Mr. Reid. "I meet a lot of professionals I know at the club. And it's an opportunity for many whites to meet the black professionals in an avenue they might not have otherwise.

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"I have a few friends who run big enterprises. They could have lunch at the Centre Club or the Maryland Club. But they want to enjoy the workout playing basketball. We do network, but it's a different kind of networking."

Charlie Levine sees a similar camaraderie with the pickup games at the Jewish Community Center. "I've gotten friendly with a lot of people," says Mr. Levine, 33, who owns a janitorial supply company with his two brothers. "I like just hanging out there."

A former player at Pikesville High School (Class of '77), he's played in a lot of pickup games. One regular game drove him crazy: "The lawyers argued every call, and the accountants couldn't keep score." He finally got out of that one.



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