In the movie “Hoosiers,” when the small town basketball team meets the big city high school in the state final, the coach measures the distance from the floor to the basket and from the basket to the free throw line. The distances are the same in the sprawling arena as they are in the small gym back home – and on every court in America.
At age 87, J. W. DeLaine is finding the game will always stay the same for him too. Though his step has lost its spring, the ball bounces the same – and he can still kiss it off the glass.
“These legs don’t want to work like they used to,” said Delaine, a longtime Clayton resident now living in the McGee’s Crossroads community. “They’re wearing out’ They ain’t got a spring in ‘em. But the people I’m playing against, they ain’t got a spring in theirs either – they’re in the same boat.”
DeLaine is part of a basketball dynasty of sorts, in a state that appreciates basketball dynasties. He and his teammates recently won their 10th Gold Medal in the N.C. Senior Games, playing this year in the 85-and-older division. At the Senior Games, basketball is three-on-three and played on half-court. Past medals were hard fought, DeLaine said, but this year’s was less so; they were the only team in their division, the oldest there is.
“It still feels good to win,” DeLaine said. “Anytime you can win something, that’s a good feeling.”
DeLaine said the team, cobbled together over the years in pickup games at the gym, includes Carl Dunker, Ken Long, Bill Naylor and Bill Young. The team gains no style points for its name though, going with a straightforward “Orange Co 85+” for the county they qualified in.
At 5-7, DeLaine plays a surprising center on the team. But his hands are big and his arms are long and he’s tough to move in the paint.
“I have a little strength,” DeLaine said. “There was a guy weighing over 300 pounds, but he couldn’t push me around.”
In high school, DeLaine didn’t play basketball or any other sport. He farmed, then served in World War II, then farmed for a few more years. In 1973, he bought a backhoe and dug countless septic systems in Johnston County before retiring in 2000. That’s when he started going to the gym and found basketball.
His first years in the Senior Games passed without any hardware, but a team DeLaine was on in 2003 took bronze. The next year, he got his first gold and has won gold nearly every year since.
“That first one is the one that feels really, really good,” DeLaine said. “We were down three points. The opposing team has a shot and missed it. I got the rebound, took it back and tied up the game. We won in overtime.”
The 2015 medal might be the last medal for DeLaine; he fears his worries his legs won’t carry him another season. But the athlete with more medals than Michael Phelps is happy with his decade of dominance.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson