Marlen Garcia: Basketball in her 80s keeps her going strong

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Edwina Dennis

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At 81, Edwina Dennis is picking up new moves in basketball.Dennis practices weekly at the Levy Senior Center in Evanston, and a volunteer has taught her to post up near the basket to gain an advantage on players guarding her.I didn’t know what that meant, Dennis, a great-grandmother who has lived her whole life on the South Side, tells me. Dennis prefers to back away from the defender and stand under the basket. That’s not an effective way to catch a pass and score.This is the best thing that could have happened to me, especially in my old age, she says of the last 10 years playing half-court 3-on-3 basketball.OPINION

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Almost every two years she travels to play in the National Senior Games, and she hopes to be in Minneapolis and surrounding cities for next month’s tournament if she can get a ride. Her usual travel partner is battling cancer and is doubtful for the trip.If illness is a reality of old age, so is the importance of remaining active to fight it. Arthritis is taking a toll on Dennis’ shoulders, knees and back. She sometimes relies on her great-grandson for help rising from the couch.Once she gets going, there is no stopping her, whether she’s raking leaves, shoveling snow or playing basketball.“Physical activity is paramount,” she says. “If you sit there like a bump on a log, you just fade away.”Each time she steps on the court she makes up for opportunities she didn’t have as a teenager.Growing up near 37th and Cottage Grove, there were no organized athletic teams for girls, she says. She played in neighborhood softball games and loved to roller skate. In the 1970s, the Illinois High School Association began sponsoring state tournaments for girls, more than two decades after Dennis’ high school graduation.“I can’t imagine living in that time,” says Dennis’ granddaughter, Zellonda Harris, who starred in basketball at Morgan Park High School and graduated in 2005.Her grandmother had star potential as a teen. Dennis was 5 feet 10 inches tall at 13.By the time adults sign up for Medicare, they are shrinking. Not Dennis. She is still 5-10 and a lean 135 pounds. She figures that’s why a stranger asked her to play years ago.This year she joined a team from Colorado because her Chicago team, appropriately named She-Ca-Go, isn’t playing, she says. “I am playing on a younger team. I couldn’t find anyone my age.”Her desire to play draws admiration from her two daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Dennis cheered them in their pursuits. She retired early from her job as a Public Aid caseworker to help her children raise their children and now helps with her great-grandson.“She would never do something for herself,” her granddaughter says. “We never expected her to say, ‘This is what I want to do for me.’ She was always extremely active. Even if you walk with her now, she keeps the pace up.”Late in life Dennis learned a funny thing: There are ball hogs at every age.“Everybody wants to shoot. Did you know that?” she asks. “I just want to win.”Follow Marlen Garcia on Twitter: @MarlenGarcia777


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