Every weekday, around noon, a group of middle-aged men gather at their local YMCA. They are tax attorneys, small business owners, employees of the city, the unemployable and everything in between. Their elbows are knobby, stomachs rounded and hairs grayed – or gone altogether. Every jaunt up and down the basketball court is a lumber – as if the full measure of their lives travels down their legs and out their feet with each thunderous step.
Basketball is a life long love affair: You play until your body is as worn as the rims at the park – as the saying goes, ‘ball till the wheels fall off.’
The professional game, however, is a young man’s sport. Every year, a fresh crop of younger, more athletic players enter the workforce – pushing the long-toothed out. The average NBA career lasts less than five years; the average NBA player is 26.7 years old; the oldest team in the league – the Clippers – has an average age of 29.9. 1
None of this is to mention the physical toll that the grind of an 82-game season takes on a players’ body – evident as a grand total of 25 players in the leagues’ 70 year history have lasted into their forties – with Vince Carter currently taking up the mantle of man-in-the-rocking-chair, as the only active quadragenarian in the NBA.
Without the perks of the NBA lifestyle – state-of-the art practice facilities, large training staffs, enormous paychecks – and with homesickness, language barriers, at times shoddy business practices that result in subpar housing and lost wages, and the weight of expectations to excel as a jack-of-all-trades import player, it is probably even more daunting to sustain a multi-decade career overseas.
To stick around, you truly have to love what you do.
In many ways, the handful of notable 40-year olds still getting buckets internationally – from the most notorious, Stephon Marbury (40, China), to possibly the oldest, Asi Taulava (44, The Philippines),– embody the spirit of the YMCA’s lunch run: Men willfully defying the realities of time in the name of nylon shorts and a jump shot. Except instead of doing it for 75 minutes a day, it has been their entire lives.
With that in mind, we tapped two guys in their forties, in the midst of their international basketball swan song, to look back at their careers, how their bodies have held up, and what they have learned from the game.
Darrel Lewis: It was never about the money, but it took me years to realize that.
Surrounded by teammates – six of whom have yet to turn 20 – Darrel Lewis looks more 28 than 41. His face isn’t worn or weathered and he moves up and down the court well – as if he is in his first few years of pro ball, not his seventeenth.
“My game hasn’t changed so much, [I’m] just a little slower, but I’m 10 times stronger (now),” Lewis, a 6’4” guard for Thor AK Akureyri of the Icelandic Dominos (Premier) League says. “I always knew how to score but, to compensate for my age and to save my energy, I do a lot of posting up guards. Most guards don’t like to be physical, they just want to take the ball and go.”
The next oldest player on Thor AK is all of 28, giving Lewis the rare distinction of being the only player on his team born during the Gerald Ford Administration.
Lewis points to “staying in shape and being able to compete with guys five, 10, 20 years younger,” than him, as among the primary motivations for him to have continued his career for so long.
With the fishing hamlet of Akureyri as the backdrop, Lewis leads a life that the #ballislife crowd would most likely describe as beautiful in it’s simplicity.
“A typical week for me depends on if we play on Thursday or Friday,” Lewis says. “My day is like this: wake up around noon; eat breakfast; go to the gym for about two hours; eat lunch; then go home until practice; most practices here are only an hour-and-a-half.”
Battling for the league’s eighth and final playoff spot, and with the regular season ending on March 9th, Lewis has been arguably Thor AK’s most valuable player this season, leading the team with 8.1 rebounds per game, and second in scoring with 19.0 points per game.
“They [opponents] don’t talk trash to me. Although I’m older I’m a threat and can affect the game in many different ways,” Lewis says. “There is nothing like running 94 feet for 35 plus minutes a game.”
After a superlative career at Division III (HBCU) Lincoln University, in which Lewis graduated in 1999 with the most points scored in university history, a Sam Cozen Small College Player of the Year Award and D3Hoops.com All-American recognition, he started his professional career with the Youngstown Hawks of the now defunct International Basketball Association.
“It was always my dream to play professionally,” Lewis says. “I knew when I went to a D3 school not known for basketball I was going to have to work harder than I ever worked to get nationally recognized and that’s what I did from my first season to my last.”
In 2002, Lewis broke into to the Dominos League and has since spent the past 15 years bouncing between Iceland Greece and Italy. In 2005, he became a naturalized citizen of Iceland, competing for the small island’s national team.
“The culture of basketball in Iceland has gotten 10 times better,” Lewis says. “Gyms are packed now; you have die hard fans following their team to each gymnasium all over the country. Icelandic basketball is a lot of pick-and-roll, and what has changed since I got here in 2002 is that the Icelandic players have gotten 100 percent better. It used to be the Americans on each team pretty much competing against each other because the domestic players were not so good.”
Basketball started as an escape for Lewis, who grew up in Coatesville Pennsylvania, and who says of his youth “I came from a family of drug abusers.”
“Definitely, it was an escape, but I didn’t know it at the time,” Lewis says. “I just loved the game and knew it was special to me. I would go early in the morning to the court and leave late at night, sometimes not stopping to eat.”
Among the players Lewis has competed with and against over the past two-plus decades, he considers Jameer Nelson, Eric ‘Pooh’ Evans, and Richard ‘Rip’ Hamilton, who he played high school ball with, as the most talented.
“He (Hamilton) was a lanky, smooth scorer, not so aggressive, but he could see the whole floor,” Lewis says.
After 17-years abroad, does he have any regrets about his career?
“I regret one thing earlier in my career,” Lewis says. “Leaving a team because of my pride. I knew I was a better player than another player, and I deserved to be starting over him, but when that opportunity passed over me, I wanted to go. I felt like I worked hard every day, getting better, and I was proving myself as the sixth man, so when a key player left the team, I felt like I should have been next in line to replace him, but that didn’t happen.
It was never about the money, but it took me years to realize that, it was always about the experience.”
What advice would he give his younger self?
“Always believe in yourself, even when the odds are against you,” Lewis says. “It’s always good to have a relationship with God, so you have a foundation of faith to stand on in troubled times, because this business will chew you up and spit you out. I think the strangest thing I’ve seen in my career is when a team expects a player to play without paying him his money, and the excuses they come up with – bills don’t stop, God forbid if you own a house; have a mortgage, car, health issues.”
Lewis says his family wants him to play until he can’t play anymore, but when this season ends, he will most likely call it a career.
“I miss my family, holidays, kids birthday, Lewis says. “Although my body can play a few more years, my mind is tired of leaving. I will miss the game, and the money, nothing like getting paid to do something you love. Basketball will always be my forever story, but it’s time do something new.”
Michael Takahashi: I think I opened the door for this new Generation of Japanese-Americans in the league now.
Michael Takahashi – then known as Mike Dorsey – was once described by the Los Angeles Times as not even being a short 6’5.”
It was 1994: Warren G and Nate Dogg’s seminal hit Regulate was a chart topper, the Lion King was the year’s biggest movie and on NBC, Generation X began taking cues from six single Friends who spent their days idly drifting through life in a coffee shop.
At the time, Dorsey was the most valuable player on a 27-win Los Angeles City College team that played fast, pressured the ball and scored on the break. His athleticism, it was thought, would enable him to match up against much taller power forwards at the DI level at Cal State Northridge as a transfer the next season, thus making up for his relatively diminutive stature.
“When I first started playing, I was very limited,” Takahashi says. “I was a very athletic but undersized forward. I started playing organized basketball when I was in high school so I was a late bloomer. When I was in college, all I did was run and dunk. I couldn’t shoot at all.”
In his lone season at Northridge, Takahashi, lived up to his billing as a leaper – leading the team in points (12.7) and rebounds (7.1). After an invitation to play for the Japanese National Team led to a lucrative offer to turn pro in Japan, Takahashi, the son of an American father and Japanese mother (Takahashi is his mother’s last name) left Northridge early.
22 years later, Takahashi is still playing pro ball in Japan.
“When I came to Japan I slowly expanded my shooting range until I became proficient,” Takahashi says. “At my peak I was pretty versatile. I was very athletic but could shoot and play defense. Now I’m just old and slow. I can still shoot but my dunking games are long gone. On the occasional day I may feel like I’m in my 30’s and be able to get up, but they come far and few in between. What I lack in athletic ability I make up for in experience. I understand what I need to do to be effective. I just try to make the right play.”
Takahashi boasts perhaps the most impressive résumé in the history of Japanese basketball: nine league championships; seven all-Japan tournament championships; a decade on the national team; all-star games; all league awards. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that at the height of Takahashi’s run with the Isuzu Motors/Isuzu Giga Cats -1995-2002 – that he was the most prolific player in all of Asia.
“Basketball has been through peaks and valleys since I first got to Japan,” Takahashi says. “For the first 7-8 years, our national team was probably in the top three in all of Asia, China being at the top and South Korea and us fighting behind them. I think this brought a lot of attention to basketball. The possibility of maybe making the Olympics created a lot of excitement. I was on Isuzu and everyone was excited to come watch us play. We won five titles in seven years.
In the middle of my career, I felt like a lot of the Asian teams were developing, Iran, The Philippines, to name a couple. We kind of stalled and in turn I feel like basketball stalled as well. Football (soccer) was gaining so much popularity that basketball became a lower level sport. I feel like in the last five years basketball has been on an upswing. More of our players are attempting to go to university in the states, playing in the NBA summer league and playing overseas. All this has helped raise the profile.”
At 42, Takahashi doesn’t play as much as he used to. On a solid division leading Seahorses Mikawa team of the newly formed Japanese B.League (the country previously had two pro leagues, this season both merged forming one super league) he has only appeared in nine games, playing a combined 36 minutes this season.
“This may be my last year,” Takahashi says. “I haven’t been playing much this season so it hasn’t been as fun. I love the competition. I love to compete! That’s my motivation. To prepare and try to win, I think it’s like that for most athletes.”
As he’s entered into the twilight of his career, Takahashi says his body still feels good, with the grind of the long season a greater challenge mentally.
“These last few years of my career, physically I’ve felt pretty good considering the miles on my body,” Takahashi says. “Mentally has been the greater challenge. Being away from my family these last couple years has taken its toll on me – another reason why this may be my last year. My kids are nine and six and although they come to Japan a couple times a year, I miss the day to day. Trying to find the motivation to keep pushing forward when you don’t get to play is another obstacle. I look forward to when we play in practice now because it’s the only time I get to quench that competitive thirst.”
What has been the reaction from his family, friends and teammates to his continued career?
“They can’t believe I’m still going,” Takahashi says. “I have teammates that weren’t even born when I first came to Japan. A lot of my teammates tell me about stories when I came to their elementary or junior high school to practice and they came to see me practice and play. It’s pretty crazy.”
And, what has been the key to his longevity?
“Practice, practice, practice,” Takahashi says. “Normally I will try and get a good workout in before practice. I like to lift weights and it’s a great way to activate my old body before I try to get up and down the court. Rest when I can and try to eat well. Fortunately I have avoided any major injuries. I’ve had quite a few minor surgeries but nothing serious.”
In a 22-year career it’s hard to take a snapshot of a singular career highlight. For Takahashi, his best moments perhaps came early when he was leading the national team at the 1995 World University Games and the 1998 World Championships (now World Cup).
In 1995, Japan lost in the championship game to Team USA in a battle of the tournaments only undefeated teams. Led by Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, Ray Allen, Kerry Kittles and Charles O’bannon, that incarnation of Team USA set a tournament record for points scored in a World University Championships championship game (141); still, Japan played well, all things considered.
In 1998, Takahashi played arguably the finest basketball of his career at the World Championships, averaging over 16 points a game, with big performances against Russia (23 points), Puerto Rico (20 points) and Yugoslavia (15 points), prompting the biggest regret of his career.
“After the 1998 World Championships, I was offered a couple of contracts in Europe, but at that time I was very secure where I was in Japan,” Takahashi says. “As I look back, I think that would’ve been a great challenge and sometimes I think what would’ve happened if I had taken the leap? I also feel like around the age of 25 I had evolved as a player and wish I would’ve played in the NBA summer league just to give it a shot. My summers were very busy with the national team though.”
The son of an American musician, growing up in Riverside California and not picking up basketball until high-school: Takahashi could have been many things, the odds of one of those things being a basketball trail-blazer in Japan….unquantifiable.
“Few people get to experience playing basketball for a living,” Takahashi says. “Basketball has been like a dream to me. I would’ve never thought I would be able to play professionally, let alone play for two decades. It’s provided me with opportunities to do things I could only wish to experience. I will forever be grateful to basketball.
It’s kind of weird: when I first got to Japan and started playing, I was the only half-Japanese, half-American player in the league. I think I opened the door for this new generation of Japanese-Americans in the league now. I just tried to be myself. The good and the bad, as I got older I learned to appreciate things a little more. After I got married and my kids were born my whole perspective on life changed. No matter how terrible basketball was for me at a given time, my family made everything ok.”
Cover Illustration by Daniel Rowell @