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Senior guard thriving

McKenna, 69, won’t let the game of basketball pass her by

By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / December 12, 2009

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WINCHESTER - On the court, there are old bones crunching on hard floors. Sheila McKenna, the scrappy point guard for the Connecticut High Fives, is 69 years old and still diving for loose balls.

Now why would the retired Attleboro teacher do that?

“Because they are there,’’ she says, sounding more like Mount Everest explorer George Mallory than the oldest player from Massachusetts to play in the Rock the Ages intergenerational three-on-three tournament held recently at Winchester High School.

McKenna travels the country playing in the Senior League, in which each team can have one out-of-state player.

“We played at Stanford, in Utah, up to Maine, and down to Florida,’’ says McKenna, who lives in Attleboro. “We hold our own. We’ll be the oldest team in this tournament. We are 65 to 69.’’

She says motivation is never a problem.

“We still have the heart,’’ she says. “We are still competitive. We still want to win.’’

Today they play a tripleheader. No big deal, she says.

“We’ve played as many as four games in one day.’’

The third game is against “the kids.’’ That’s what McKenna calls the host team, the Massachusetts Miracles, who compete in the 55-59 age bracket.

Age is irrelevant, according to McKenna. “We’d like to think we are young at heart.’’

McKenna is short, even for a point guard.

“I’m only 5-4 3/4 and used to be 5-5,’’ she says. “I’m shrinking.’’

She was born in 1940, before the Celtics existed. And she’s not afraid to mix it up, either.

Sometimes she plays in pain.

“Knees aren’t bad, knock on wood,’’ she says, rapping her knuckles on the bleachers. “I’ve got a bad shoulder. I had a Grade 1 separation last March when we were playing in Arkansas. Got knocked down and kneed in my shoulder going for a loose ball. I got knocked down three times going for the ball, but I finished the rest of the tournament. I reinjured it shooting. It’s been bothering me a little bit. I try to forget about it on the court.’’

She’s been playing for the High Fives for 15 years. When the team was formed, the ladies realized they had three players who took predominately hook shots. Some of the women wanted to call themselves the Connecticut Hookers.

That didn’t fly with Sheila, who is in the bell choir at church.

Her tournament game is more fundamental than flash, although she can dribble between her legs and make behind-the-back passes like her idol, Celtics legend Bob Cousy.

“Those are just warm-up drills,’’ she says, frowning. “That’s showboating. We don’t do that.’’

She’s not interested in the Celtics, either.

“I don’t follow them,’’ she says. “I just don’t. I would rather watch high school or college teams play.’’

For McKenna, “The Big Three’’ would be ice, ibuprofen, and steaming hot showers.

“I just stay in there as long as I need to,’’ she says.

She works out at the YMCA, simultaneously dribbling two basketballs and doing situps. She runs a mile three to four times a week. She concludes her workouts with 40-50 free throws, because she knows a game could be decided at the line.

But she doesn’t like watching game tape.

“We’ve seen ourselves on tape,’’ McKenna says. “It’s not poetry in motion, either. It looks like slow motion.’’

But teammates actually think she is getting better.

“She’s quite a bit older than the other players in the league, but her athletic ability seems to be timeless,’’ says Phyllis Serafin, who has played with McKenna for eight years. “Her athletic prowess doesn’t seem to be affected by her age. She’s really worked at improving her shooting ability, and it’s paying off.’’

She’s definitely old school
When McKenna played for Fairhaven High School from 1954-58, the rules were different for girls’ basketball.

“It was two dribbles my junior year,’’ she says. “Three my senior year. So that’s another skill we had to learn. The unlimited dribble for women went into effect when I was in college.’’

When her high school team won the league championship her senior year by 1 point, Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House.

McKenna says there is no secret to her longevity. While an estimated 46 million Americans may have arthritis, Sheila McKenna’s got game.

“The secret is avoiding major injuries,’’ she says. “I guess I’m just lucky. Oh, it’s in the genes; my mother and father were both great athletes at Fairhaven High and the three of us were all in the Hall of Fame there.’’

Her father, who taught high school shop, found out one day that his daughter received detention because she chose basketball practice over orchestra practice.

“Sheila will not be playing violin her whole life,’’ he prophetically told the orchestra teacher. “But she will be playing basketball.’’

She played round-robin tournaments with Bridgewater State College, which didn’t have an intercollegiate program. She taught physical education at Attleboro High School for eight years and coached field hockey, volleyball, track, and basketball for 11 years. Currently she’s a volunteer assistant coach of the Dover-Sherborn High School girls’ basketball team. She goes to all the practices and keeps all the statistics.

“She’s a real spark plug,’’ says athletic director Heath Rollins.

She’s also the only player in the Rock the Ages tournament to have her own cheering section in the Winchester gym, complete with fans young and old holding “Go Sheila/We love you’’ signs.

“Sheila’s probably the most supportive but intense person I’ve ever met,’’ says Terry Graninger Dessert, a parent of one of the girls on the Dover-Sherborn team. “These girls love her. She has become a friend, a grandmother. She comes to all their events, she goes to all their games. She’s great. She’s proven, no matter what age, you can play a sport if that’s your passion.’’

Not the retiring type
In the first game, the High Fives are trailing in the second half when McKenna scores two straight baskets, one a nifty underhanded scoop shot after she ran her opponent into a pick. There’s also a scary moment when she hits the deck hard going for a loose ball. But she gets up quickly.

The game goes into double overtime and McKenna, her chest heaving, steps up her game. She distributes the ball, sets old-fashioned picks, gets a key rebound, and dribbles out the clock - shades of Cousy.

“I was tired, but I’m ready for two more,’’ she says, gulping Vitaminwater on the sideline.

The word “retirement’’ is not in her vocabulary.

“I’ll play as long as the knees hold up, and the rest of me,’’ she says. “I have no intentions of retiring.’’

In the second game, McKenna runs into a pick set by a younger, taller player and winces. She ices her shoulder and returns, once again diving on the floor hard. The High Fives again come from behind to win.

In the third game - against the kids - the High Fives spot the Mass. Miracles a big lead, then overtake them at the end. By this time McKenna is on the bench, the loudest voice in the gym.

“She is an inspiration to us all,’’ says Tina Quick, a Miracles player. “She leaves it all out on the court.’’

Everybody wants to hug McKenna after the game.

“When I’m shooting, I feel like I’m 18,’’ she says. “When I’m going for a loose ball, I feel like my get-up-and-go got up and went. I feel 69.

“But I love it. We took all three games and there’s no substitute for victory. How neat was that?’’

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com.

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