Be like Nick

Nick Ohara: “First of all, it’s fellowship. After that, I love the workout and the feeling after a good game.” Photo by Jim Walsh

Nick Ohara joined our weekly basketball game last year. At 81-years-young, he’s the elder statesman of our crew, which meets up to play two to five times a week, with players ranging in age from some guys’ teenage kids to my 23-year-old son and his friends, to the rest of the 30s-40s-50s-60s crowd and Nick.

This is a column about Nick and the joy of growing old gracefully together, but forgive me if the prose feels a little bruised at the moment, because the truth is this afternoon Nick, 81-year-old Nick, torched me for two three-pointers, a few rebounds and an in-my-face game-winner. Talk about feeling old.

“Who’s got him?” went up the cry, out of respect and not the ageism that’s so rampant in this society, from our amiable smart-ass rugby-playing attorney buddy Vince, which is easily the most humiliating thing one teammate can say to another, challenging you on defense with nothing but the brutal truth: Dude you just got whipped by a senior citizen and we lost.

The truth is Nick gets up and down court with the best of us, is a sniper of a shooter, strong under the boards, and he can drive to the hole as well as most of us. More than anything, he sets an example and a standard for us all — ballers and shot-callers of all ages who, barring injury, want to keep playing for as long as we can.

“It’s a good group of guys,” said Nick, a retired F.B.I agent who still works as a background check investigator, and he’s right. “It’s a good game. It’s a remarkable bunch of guys, and I’ve been fortunate to play with them since I moved here. Good-natured, good teammates, not overly aggressive, not complainers and just very easy to be around.”

It rarely gets talked about as a key to quality of life, and in fact most of the bonding done at our gym is rarely acknowledged as the brotherly love it is, but the fact is I know lots of men of all ages who use semi-organized basketball and hockey games to stay connected and to stay in fighting shape. As I get older, I get more and more restless watching spectator sports, and I find that my main connection to sports is our weekly game: Being with the dudes and laying it all out there on the court and truly pushing yourself until you’re gassed and sore is everything.

“First of all, it’s fellowship. After that, I love the workout and the feeling after a good game,” said Nick, a native of Madison, South Dakota. “Even the frustration is not all that bad, because it teaches you that there’s more to life than just getting upset over a ballgame. It’s a fun time, it’s a good group, it’s great exercise. We laugh, we vent once in a while and we enjoy each other’s company. It’s family. Not your immediate family, but like if you got together with your family on Thanksgiving and played touch football.”

As you may have read in this space last time, I’ve been thinking about aging and old men, as I suppose that describes me and, by too many accounts, what afflicts this country and world. But I’m lucky. I know tons of good men, and I see my son, brothers and father regularly, and I have good male friendships old and new. I’m always learning from them, and I’m always looking to my elders for lessons.

Most recently, over the weekend from the Star Tribune story headlined “Growing Men’s Shed movement gives retirees a place to talk, give back and feel valued,” I learned about the work of the Hopkins-based Men’s Shed, which is “part of an international movement begun 20 years ago in Australia to address growing concern about isolation and loneliness, particularly among men post-retirement.” From the New York Times story headlined “These Men Are Waiting to Share Some Feelings With You,” I learned about the ManKind Project, a 33-year-old nonprofit with 24 chapters in the United States and 11 regions abroad that “focuses on men’s emotional well-being, drawing on elements like Carl Jung’s theories of the psyche, nonviolent communication, breath work, Native American customs, and good old-fashioned male bonding.”

Saturday night at First Avenue, I learned about grace, heart, commitment, chops and soul from 67-year-old grandfather and music legend Curtiss A, who paid tribute to John Lennon one more glorious time, saying at one point, “We elected Hitler, and every day I wake up ashamed to be an American,” before blasting into “A Hard Day’s Night.” The day before I learned perspective from the great Minneapolis blues-funk legend Willie Murphy, who, when I interviewed him about his killer new record “Dirtball,” reacted to my suggestion that he’s just made the best record of his life at age 75 with, “Stop saying it like that!”

From my friends who stay ever-curious about hobbies like baking, cooking, bicycling, running and live and new music, and my friends in established bands and friends who are just starting their first bands in their golden years, I’ve learned that you do anything you can do to stave off the blues or middle-age funk for as long and as hard as possible. That’s what Nick is doing. And in a world that too often encourages us to both act our age and stare at screens to get our participatory kicks, Nick proves that age is a number and there’s nothing like full-contact sports to wake a body up.

“I consider myself blessed because of good health and, most of the time, mental stability,” he said. “Some of my friends from South Dakota still play, and we play in the Senior Olympics, and we’re going to Albuquerque this year to play in the 80­–84 age group. But it’s rare to find folks at my age who play. In fact, the only time I find people my age playing is at the Senior Olympics.

“We won our age group six years ago in Houston; we came in third in Palo Alto eight years ago; we came in fourth in Cleveland, and fourth in Birmingham two years ago. Like our game, it’s good guys, passionate about the game, and some great ball players still playing at my age.”

So by all means be like Nick; I know I’m trying. In fact, I’m so inspired by my elder that I intend to honor him by making damn sure I never let him beat me again like he beat me today — like a drum.


Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].