Alley-oops for the OLLI Hoops

For this basketball team made up of women in their 60s and 70s, getting exercise, enjoying camaraderie, and learning a new skill has been a slam dunk

Members of the OLLI Hoops, a group of women in their 60s and 70s who met through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UCSC (OLLI), get in some court time. 
Scrimmaging builds skills and friendships.
“We can do anything,” says Mathilde Rand, a retired elementary school principal and former PE teacher who serves as the team’s unofficial coach. (Photos by Carolyn Lagattuta)

Sunlight filters through the high windows of the old gym, and, for a moment, it’s possible to forget the grey hair and the age-spotted skin of the nine women on the basketball court.

Their shoes squeak against the hardwood floor as they maneuver for shots. Arms block, bodies bump, and when a ball drops through the net with a whispered swoosh, everyone cheers.

These are the OLLI Hoops, a group of women in their 60s and 70s who met through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UCSC (OLLI), and have taken to the basketball court as a way to get exercise, enjoy the camaraderie of other energetic women, and, for many, learn a new skill.

“A lot of them (the women) weren’t even encouraged to do any sports” when they were young, says Mathilde Rand, a retired elementary school principal and former PE teacher who serves as the team’s unofficial coach. “But now, they’ve decided this is the right time. Time is up. We can do anything.”

The group began last October when Mary Caravalho, 68, a retired educator whose two sons played basketball, saw a YouTube video about a group of 80- and 90-year-old women in San Diego’s senior women’s basketball league.

Caravalho, who spent the majority of her high school years in St. Louis, Mo., and Mobile, Al., “where girls weren’t supposed to perspire,” was intrigued.

As one of 700 members of the UC Santa Cruz Osher lifelong learners group, she posted a notice saying she wanted to start a senior women’s basketball team. Besides meetings and lectures, OLLI has about 50 peer-led interest groups that focus on literature, history, science, film, current events, hiking, and nature.

Eleven women signed up.

“This gives me a lot of joy,” says Lillian Miranda, 72, as she took a break between drills on a recent Monday. The retired Massachusetts juvenile court judge says she likes being part of a team and meeting new friends. But basketball also feeds her lifetime hunger for learning new skills, she says. It’s a passion shared by many on the team.

The women talk of playing recreational sports like soccer or basketball in junior high or high school but none competed on a high school or college team. Most grew up during the time before Title IX, part of the Education Amendments of 1972, which required that any educational program that received federal money could not discriminate on the basis of sex. A study published in 2008 in the The Sport Journal reported that athletic participation by girls in high school increased from 295,000 in 1971 to 2.8 million in 2003–2004—a jump of more than 840 percent.

“This is fulfilling a youthful wanting,” says Caravalho, who described herself as a tomboy who liked to play softball and army games as a kid. One of five children, Caravalho remembers her father telling her at the age of 13: “Mary, I have three sons, I don’t need another.”

“Luckily, that didn’t really crush me,” says Caravalho, who adds this team “has really changed my thinking about what I can do and what I want to do.”

That kind of gutsy resourcefulness seems to be a characteristic of the group.

Needing a place to practice besides a cracked outdoor court, the team found a gym that charged $25 for a one-hour session and divides the cost among its 11 members. As for uniforms, the group located reversible purple and white jerseys—perfect for intra-squad matches—for $9 each. One of their members leads warm-ups, another wrote a team song to the tune of The Hollywood Argyles’ 1963 hit “Alley Oop,” and they all came up with the group’s pun-tastic name and its team cheer.

“The first time we did it (the cheer), we cracked ourselves up,” says one team member, causing other members of the squad to laugh with the memory.

Members of the group also have bonded with the UC Santa Cruz women’s basketball team. The OLLI Hoops team got to join a practice with the Slug squad, and its members have have become regular attendees at the UC Santa Cruz team’s home games.

Todd Kent, coach for the successful UC Santa Cruz women’s basketball team, says his players love looking up in the stands and seeing the older players, adding he has plans to work with the squad in the future.

“I think it’s a really cool connection,” he says of the old and young players. “I see a potential for not only having the OLLI members mentor our players but our players mentoring the OLLI group in basketball. It’s an awesome partnership.”

For more information about joining OLLI Hoops, which requires membership in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, contact Caravalho at