CLEARWATER — There is something about basketball that keeps one playing into mature age. There’s the camaraderie, the teamwork, the footwork — the things of life.
“I just turned 62 last week, and I don’t fish, I don’t golf, I play basketball — slowly,” says Jim Sweeney, an organizer for the Tampa Bay Masters Basketball Tournament. “It’s a passion for me, a lifestyle, it’s my circle of friends.”
Sweeney, who played basketball for Boston College, is also the U.S. representative for the Federation of International Masters Basketball — an international organization that oversees senior basketball in 46 countries. Sweeney and hundreds of other Masters senior basketball players 40 to 70 years old are preparing for their annual tournament at the Long Center. The tournament runs from Jan. 23 to Jan. 26.
“The tournament features 46 teams and approximately 500 outstanding senior players from 33 states who bring incremental revenue to our local economy from hotels, meals, rental cars and more,” Sweeney says. There’s even a team from Lithuania, he said.
It’s a mistake to consider these men washed-up basketball players.
“These guys who are at an advanced age have kept themselves physically fit, and they have come to compete to the best of their ability and embrace the spirit of the competition,” Sweeney tells the Beacon. “They want to come and play hard, and they want to have a good time and go home healthy.”
Tampa Bay Masters Chairman Donald Dye, 57, plays for The Toasted Monkey Beach Bar in St. Pete Beach. He says many Masters players are former American high school, college and a few professional basketball players who didn’t need convincing to organize.
“The teams were started by guys who get together to rent a gym and hold pickup games on weekends and evenings,” he says.
Dye says 46 teams are coming from all over the country, with most players paying their own way. The players, some in their 70s, treat the tournament as a family vacation, bringing wives and grandchildren to sunny Clearwater, Dye said. The wives also help with the organizing and managing the tournament.
While members of a team pitch in to cover their entry fee, a few teams get local sponsors, such as the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Sports Commission; Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Zephyrhills; Physicians Wellness, Clearwater; State Farm and several other local companies. Teams from other states lean on their sponsors to pitch in on air fare and motel rooms.
“To me, it’s a team sport, but when you only have five guys out there, you can shine individually,” Dye says. “With the Masters tournament there is camaraderie, seeing guys from all over the country and the world because you make friends from all over the place.”
The Masters tournament was started in 1985 in Jacksonville by Dr. William Bosworth, who handed the reins over to the next generation in 2017, Sweeney said.
The teams play over several days with elimination rounds, with each game consisting of two, 20-minute halves, regular rules and professional referees.
With team names like Allied Doors of South Florida, Florida Georgia Line, Victory USA 65, Tampa Swish, Tru Game and Front Court Masters, it’s a bet the tournament will have a lot of great action. By the way, there’s a local team called the Clearwater Aces in the tournament.
It’s love of the game that brings the players, not big money.
“Our goal is to break even, we’re a nonprofit,” Dye says. “There are no prizes. We give a fancy T-shirt to the winning team. This tournament is for bragging rights.”
The Clearwater Parks and Recreation’s Long Center is at 1501 North Belcher Road. Games begin Thursday, Jan. 23 at 9 a.m.