It had to be 95° plus in the old William James gym on Tuesday afternoon when the Monday Basketball League met to play as they have been doing twice a week for more years than most members can count. This is no casual pick-up game of horse or street basketball for the well-seasoned team. As soon as the ball hits the hardwood court, the courtesies and pleasant exchanges that mark the lifelong friendships of the players are set aside for the constant ribbing and hustle of serious competitors.
The game starts as soon as there are enough players, with others joining in as they arrive shortly after work. It’s exceptional to see an over-50 aged group of men running, jumping, blocking, and sinking baskets like a group of neighborhood kids. It’s extraordinary that the group has been playing every week continuously for almost 50 years.
The Monday Basketball League (MBL) was originally formed in 1965 when local real estate broker Robert Tanner, then a recent graduate of Georgia Southern, started playing basketball with a group of friends at the old Georgia Southern gym near Marvin Pittman.
“We were buddies who always enjoyed playing ball. We all played in the Rec Department’s Men’s City League and Church League,” Tanner said. “We started playing every week on Monday nights as a way to get together and to exercise. We played full court for a while, but found that we had too many loafers, so we went to half court. In half-court there is more action – it never stops.”
Founding team members include locals Tanner, Bobby Underwood, Marcus Seligman, Steve House, Ronnie Pope, Roy Woodard, and former Georgia Southern basketball standout Don Adler. Adler still holds Georgia Southern’s overall single-game assist record of 23 against Jacksonville in 1964 when the Eagles played at the NAIA level. Of the original team, only Ronnie Pope remains an active player at 71.
“We got tired of playing skins early on and I had jerseys created for the MBL, but nobody wanted to wear them,” Tanner said. He kept one of the jerseys from the 1960s as a souvenir. The team did wear the jerseys one time, when a visiting lady’s basketball team didn’t make it to play at Georgia Southern and the MBL played the Lady Eagles at Hanner. “They beat the stew out of us,” Tanner said.
In 1969, the MBL moved to the old Grady Street gym, which became their home court for three decades until it was torn down to build the new police department at 25 West Grady Street. The team then moved to their current location on the planks of the old William James gym on Williams Road.
They added Sunday night to team-play early on, and had Sunday and Monday match-ups, but changed in recent years to Tuesdays and Thursdays to better accommodate everyone’s schedules. The men play three or four games of three on three for 20 points. “We usually have around six or seven players and average three games,” said Tanner.
Over the years the roster has changed when players moved away or became unable to play due to injury or the limitations of age. New players walked on in the 1980s when Lee DeLoach, Robbie Turner, Jimmy Wiggins, Bob Deal, and Jimmy Hugh Griffith joined in the game. Jimmy High and Charles Brown, who played briefly, were what Tanner wryly called, “Wannabes.”
This good-natured ribbing is part of what makes the games fun and competitive. Tanner and Pope became the league’s first “Commissioners,” or “Commish” for short, serving as the ones who kept the games going; the ones who called around to see who would be playing each week. The men also coached current players Hill and Tyson when they were middle schoolers on Rec Department teams.
A teasing atmosphere of trash talk permeates the games that now include players Pope, Randy Hill, John Lavender, Alan Tyson, John Rule, Roger Doty, Jimmy Wiggins, Bill Williams, Lee DeLoach and Randy Anderson. Ed Nelson has played and opens the gym for the players each week. The close-knit group has developed nicknames for each other and for the three-member teams, that add to the competitive spirit of the games.
“The Dream Team” consists of Randy “Crow” Hill, Ronnie “The” Pope, and Jimmy “Win at Any Costs” Wiggins. If one of the players isn’t there, it becomes “The Modified Dream Team.” Tyson said, “We try to turn the dream into a nightmare.”
“Portal” is Lee DeLoach, who played high school ball for Portal High.
The new “Commissioners,” still under the control of Pope and Tanner are Randy Hill and John Rule for Tuesdays and Thursdays respectively.
Hill keeps a “novel” of rival emails exchanged between players, between games. “You’ve got to read this to understand,” he said. The “Novel of Hope, Despair, Athletic Competition and Brotherhood,” is titled “Damn the Dream!” It includes game prognostications, wrap-ups, name-calling, and a little mud-slinging. One summary goes – “It is the worst dream I have had in a long time, the league is falling apart quicker than we can order the wheelchairs,” wrote Hill.
It’s not all on the court action for the men. They meet for a Bible study each week prior to games. “We meet once a quarter to fry fish, John Lavender furnishes the fish, and Randy Anderson is the cook,” said Hill. There’s also a yearly Reunion/Christmas party at Randy Anderson’s cabin where Alan Tyson leads the caroling.
“Somebody’s on the injured or reserve list all the time,” Hill stated. The injuries and the temperature inside the gym are the player’s greatest challenges. But, the Dream Team keeps going. There’s an invitation only list of fill-ins from the next generation who are called on as needed to play including Mitchell Hill, Tracy Waters, Will Wren, and Michael Mallard.
There’s talk of the group doing an exhibition game for charity. That will be a game well worth seeing. The public will have the opportunity to watch the men that hold the record for the longest continually playing men’s basketball game in the MBL. “We’ll be going until we can’t go anymore,” said Hill. “Then we’ll form a wheelchair league.”