Sanford Parker, Senior League Basketball Team Hero
The Men’s Senior League Basketball Team members huddle for a shot with their bronze consolation bracket medals. The team practices at the Levy Senior Center and attended the 2017 National Senior Games in Birmingham, Alabama. One team member, Sanford, had lifelong ties to the state and the sport.
Sanford Parker seldom plays basketball with us, but he definitely is on our team and shows up at every practice his health allows.
We’re a 75-and-over squad whose home court is the Levy Senior Center in Evanston where we practice every Tuesday and Thursday at noon. Sanford sits on the sidelines and occasionally settles our disputes with his un-biased judgment calls. “It sure looked like a foul to me.”
Sanford used to play, but he is in his mid 80’s now; not to mention, he’s on the downhill side of several bouts with cancer and a surgery that weakened his right arm. He was a top-notch athlete in his day, winning the 220-yard dash at the Alabama state high school track meet at the height of segregation.
Sanford got excited when he learned that the Senior Games of America (unofficially called “Senior Olympics”) would be held this year in Alabama – his home state filled with life-long family and friends. He joined our van ride to Birmingham and on the way we heard more of his story.
Sanford was born to a large African-American farming family near Tuskegee, Alabama. He went to Black schools and excelled in academics and sports. He recalled his strategy to escape segregation in the South by studying sciences and receiving an engineering degree at Tuskegee Institute.
His plan continued into the military where he found his access to opportunities was more equal. In the Air Force, he became a specialist in radar maintenance and repair, all the while taking his growing family around the Pacific to various bases.
Over the years, he and his wife raised four boys and a girl. His son Ronnie, now almost fifty years old, lovingly assisted his dad on this trip, making sure he ate right and took his meds. We got many clues on this trip about how close and caring his family truly is.
In mid-life Sanford took early retirement from the Air Force and moved to cosmopolitan Evanston where the schools offered a solid education for his kids. He commuted daily to the Argonne National Laboratories where he negotiated and supervised grants that Argonne gave out for scientific research.
Sanford’s good judgment, generous spirit and sly wit won him a lot of credibility in business, with family, and friends like us. He’s a warm and interesting fellow to be around.
In Birmingham, our team had its moments of humiliation (we lost five games) and our moments of glory (winning four). Sanford’s extended family made up most of our cheering section. One high point for us was getting our picture taken with bronze medals won in the consolation bracket with Sanford proudly smiling in the front row.
But the highest high point came when we were safely 20 points ahead in the waning minutes of a game. Our captain substituted Sanford onto the court and whispered to the opposition and the referees that Sanford is battling cancer, but he would very much like to participate in one more game.
The opposing team honored good sportsmanship and gave Sanford every opportunity to score, but the ball just wouldn’t go in. Finally, one player told the ref, “Give us a technical foul so Sanford can shoot a free throw.” That’s what the ref did, only he urged Sanford to step up and shoot from four feet away.
Sanford heaved the ball up to the net where it rolled round and round the rim and finally went in. The video camera was rolling. Everyone on both teams and in the stands cheered and danced like after a little league home run. It was a sublime moment of victory beyond all competition for everyone around.
Sanford ambled back to his chair and sat down exhausted, totally pleased with his effort. That’s the moment we’ll remember most of all in Birmingham.
On the way home Sanford was in bliss, telling stories that made the miles roll by with ease. I’ll close in Sanford’s honor with the joke we all liked best.
There were two childhood friends who loved to play baseball, a pitcher and a catcher. In grade school, high school, and later in life they always played on the same team.
As they got older and their bodies began to fail they would retell the stories of their best games and often wondered together, “Will there be baseball in heaven?” They made a vow that whoever died first would try to let the other one know if they played baseball in that great beyond.
It so happened that the catcher died first. A few days after his funeral the pitcher got a phone call.
He picked up the receiver and heard his friend’s voice say. “Hey buddy, I called to let you know how everything is up here. It’s exactly like we hoped, we play baseball every day and we never get sore. It’s just wonderful.”
His pitcher friend replied, “That’s terrific. I’m so excited to hear it.”
The catcher answered, “I’m glad you’re excited ‘cause I just checked the roster and wanted to let you know, you’re starting tomorrow.”