Documentary tells story of Raleigh team of women in their 70s

CorrespondentSeptember 12, 2013 

  • Details

    What: “Granny’s Got Game”

    When: 3 p.m. (sold out) and 5:30 p.m. Sunday (Q&A with director Alford and players at 4:30)

    Where: Wells Fargo IMAX Theatre at Marbles, 201 E. Hargett St., Raleigh

    Cost: Free (but must reserve seats)

    Info: 919-882-4629 or gggimax.eventbrite.com

North Carolina is basketball country, of course, with plenty of local programs, fierce rivalries and world-famous teams to root for. And for nearly 20 years now, one particularly amazing local women’s team has been getting attention for their successes on the court.

The amazing part? This team just took the bronze medal in the National Senior Games Championship in the 75-and-up bracket. That’s 75 as in years. Of age.

The team, now known as the Fabulous 70s, was established in 1994, when the players were in their spry 50s. For two decades, the team has been practicing weekly and playing regularly in state and national tournaments.

The fascinating story of the Fabulous 70s is told in “Granny’s Got Game,” a new feature-length documentary from local filmmaker Angela Gorsica Alford, screening Sunday at the Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh. The screening will be held in the Wells Fargo IMAX Theatre, and is free and open to the public.

Sunday’s film screening is part of an informal local filmmakers series at Marbles that organizers hope to extend and expand.

“Our customers are always looking for new things, and we don’t always get enough through the regular pipeline,” said Tim Hazlehurst, Marbles vice president of operations.

A director’s vision

Director Alford has her own basketball story. In the 1990s, she was a member of Vanderbilt’s top-ranked women’s team and was offered a spot in the WNBA after graduation. Instead, she launched a career as a software engineer in Research Triangle Park before later turning to film and video production. Alford recently graduated from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies.

Alford said she was inspired to make the film after meeting the Fabulous 70s’ team captain, Judy Barton of Raleigh, when the two were picking up kids – children and grandchildren, respectively – after school.

“I would see this older woman in a full track warm-up suit and basketball shirt,” Alford said. “She caught my eye and we had a rapport right away.”

Alford, 37, spent the next year following the team and compiling footage for the film.

“I just went to practice every week,” she said. “After about three months, I started interviewing the players in their homes. I’d gotten to know them and their stories. They were comfortable with me, and I got them to be pretty candid, which was great.”

Barton, now 78, said that the team quickly became used to having Alford and her camera around. “Oh, after a while, we didn’t even notice her.”

The result is a film with some intimate moments and fascinating details. During one sequence, filmed at the 2011 national championships in Houston, team member Shirley Pearce is hospitalized after collapsing before a match. The incident derails the team’s tournament bid, but it also brings them closer together.

“We didn’t really have basketball on our minds,” Barton said. “But I think it showed just how much of a family we were. Shirley was our main concern. We’re close friends above and beyond what we are as teammates.” Pearce made a full recovery and still plays for the team.

Hoops, health and camaraderie

The film is also filled with interesting stories from the past. When the players first started with high school basketball in the 1950s, the game was radically different – you could only dribble the ball twice before passing, for instance. Women’s sports weren’t exactly encouraged and there were few options for the female athlete.

And so most players stopped playing ball entirely, for 30 or more years, until forming the senior team in the 1990s. As the film attests, basketball has once again become a central part of all the players’ lives.

Basketball is a tough sport at any age – but in your 70s it really is a whole new ball game. In the modified three-on-three half-court match-ups of the Senior Games, pick-and-rolls can and do result in broken ribs. The team has seen players drop out over the years, due to various medical conditions, and two of the original team members have since passed away.

Original member Sarah Wiggins, 75, whose husband Twig helped start the team, said that camaraderie is the most rewarding part of the experience. But she also feels that playing basketball again has greatly improved her overall health.

“I don’t know, if I wasn’t playing and hadn’t made this commitment, that I would even get much exercise,” said Wiggins, who lives in Youngsville. “I don’t think I’d be in the shape I am now. I don’t know where I would be.”

Barton said that the team really is a kind of family.

“We’ve been through a lot together in 20 years,” she said. “You know, at this age – from your 50s to your 70s – a lot of different things happen to you in your life, to your body and brain and everything else. Having the close camaraderie of these gals – we’re very close. We know everything about each other. What one person goes through, we all go through.”

Inspiring for all ages

For her part, director Alford said she hopes the film will inspire athletes of all ages. “It’s just this whole world that I knew nothing about,” Alford said of the Senior Games, which in North Carolina alone facilitates sports for more than 10,000 athletes age 55 and up.

“Part of my goal is just to let people know that this is out there,” Alford said. “So many people, they want to keep playing and doing these things but they can’t compete with the 20-year-olds down at the Y anymore.”

“I know it’s affected my own kids. I always tell this story: One of my kids was playing basketball in this little church league, and one of the other kids fell and got this really nasty floor burn on his knee. So the poor kid, he’s trying really hard not to cry, and my son said, ‘Look, my mom is doing this movie about these grannies, and they get hurt a lot worse than that, and they never cry.’”

For those who may be interested in playing on the local team, go to grannysgotgame.com and submit an email expressing interest.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service