Master’s league priorities: players first, winning second

By way of introduction
Shunpiking Magazine, October-November 2007

Watercolour by Bob Semple

ONE’s mind plays tricks with creeping age, or dementia. And so it was this past December in a wet locker room at Dalhousie’s Studley Gym, as I asked a group of fellow basketball players just when our “old mens’ league” had been formed. Most had been founding members. The discussion was hilarious. Answers ranged from 1978 through to the early 1990s. We referred to wedding registers, children’s birth certificates, school graduations, gyms and tournaments. 

No one knew. The mystery continued for several weeks and onto a Christmas Day flight west where, lo and behold, sat Walt Finden, a sometime professor of mathematics at Saint Mary’s. It was serendipity: somewhere over the Great Lakes, we finally pinned it down with the precision of science, which is another story altogether.

The Metro Mens’ Masters Basketball League is one of Nova Scotia’s best kept secrets. On the occasion of its 20th anniversary, we are reproducing an article from Full Court Press, Basketball Nova Scotia, March, 1990, unearthed in a scrapbook kept by the Cassidy family in Grand Desert, and slightly edited for this publication. Along with elaborating the origin and features of this league, and the joy and fraternity of sport, it enunciates a simple principle: sport, arising from the people, belongs to the people by right, and should be taken back into their hands.

* * *

John Cassidy, co-founder

IT’S my second game – ever – of basketball. There are two minutes left to go in the second half. Our team is two baskets behind.

The whistle blows, and John Cassidy, our 6’6″ centre, comes off the floor. He tells me to go on for him.

I look at the clock, look at the score, and ask him if he is sure.

John replies, “It’s your turn. Everyone plays. What’s the issue of the score?”

I remember saying to myself: “This man means what he says. He’s serious (about the principle).”

So I sub in, our team loses, but I gain some insight in both this man himself – I only learned about six weeks later that he was an Olympian and former Canadian national team member for ten years – and how the game was to be played in the new Metro Mens’ Masters Basketball League.

I even came up with a motto for it, “Friendship First, Competition Second.”

Cassidy and Jimmy Walker formed the Master’s League in early 1987. They were both playing, and still play in the Nova Scotia Senior Basketball League (NSBBL). But, they say, a lot of guys were over 35, and weren’t as swift or competitive as they used to be.

Secondly, and as important, was a conviction which had grown over recent years against a vulgar style of play and attitude epitomized in the American motto, “winning is everything – the only thing.” Would players respond to another ethic?

Thirdly, they wondered how many other people getting on in their years [1] who weren’t as competitive as they used to be, or [2] were inactive but who could be energized into active participation.

“The whole thrust of organized sport is focused on youth. What about when you get older?,” asks Cassidy about the reason for the emergence of masters sport. “Then there’s this massive hype, hype, hype for professional, or spectator sport. Are we just to be couch potatoes? We wanted to see if we could develop a structure and atmosphere where ordinary players come out too. Where they feel the most important, rather than some aging super jock.”

Jim Walker, co-founder

Another origin of the league was the continuing success of lunch-time basketball at Dalhousie University, now in its 11th year, and at the Technical University of Nova Scotia, now in its 8th year.

So, in the spring of 1987, they organized a master’s tournament, the Frank Baldwin Retirement Classic named in honour of the iconic coach.

The response was so good – enough to form six teams – they put a notice in the paper (a very small notice!) that summer, with the first 40 who replied composing the rosters for four teams in that first full season as a league back in the winter of 1987. The notice stated, “No previous experience necessary.” I had played but one game in high school, indeed my entire life. Not quite believing what I had read, I humbly put in my name.

The season has expanded to about 25 weekly games with some 85 players registered. They have a phone list of some 150 or more, and are always on the lookout for more.

Minimum age for playing in the Master’s League is 35. But the average age of the players is over 40.

There are several players in their 50s and Don Wheeler swears he is only 61. He has steel plates in both legs and can only run in one direction. Once, during a game, I asked his team-mate how it was that they were passing the ball to him so many times. Darrel Clark replied, “basketball is a game played with five players.” Wheeler also organizes two representative teams each year from the league to participate in the annual Acadia Over 40 Tournament, organized by Bill White, which now attracts some 10 teams from the Valley, Truro, the South Shore and the Metro region.

Wheeler and seven others function as team reps, and together with Walker, Leo Weniger, Peter Cooke and Jim Wigglesworth constitute the organizing committee. But it was Walker and Cassidy’s team-mates from the Dartmouth Building Supplies team in the NSBBL – such as Albert Slaunwaite, Bruce Duffy, Mickey Ryan and Chip Budreski – who formed the core of the league in its formative period, and who still play.

Wheeler says the master’s league is not designed for pros, but for anyone who wants to participate. It really doesn’t matter how good or bad you are. Because it’s for fun, although many games can be intense, hard-fought and competitive – indeed more exciting than your average NBA tilt – the league does not keep records of team standings or individual scores, because it’s not important.

“We have tried to balance each team,” says the league’s introductory form written by Walker and handed out to each player, “to the best of our knowledge so that there will be a 8-way tie at the end of league play. How well you do is a function of how well you combine your efforts with the other members on your team. Good Luck!”

After the first couple of games, players may even be traded in order to balance teams.

Another important principle: players join the league first, a team second. And players are recruited. In fact, on an individual level, the recruiting is surprisingly active. But the new player is recruited to the league, and in this way participation of the individual is enhanced and strengthened.

The games are played according to FIBA rules, with some notable exceptions. The Master’s League tries to keep play as clean and as sportsmanlike as possible. Thus, only four fouls are allowed and, to save time during the game, no foul shots are taken, with a point added to the score of the team which has been fouled, if in the act of shooting, or possession.

There are no 3-point shots. Games which end in a tie are settled with a shoot-out – foul shots by all players. After a brief experiment with players volunteering to referee, games are now played with a paid referee. But it’s not uncommon for players to call their own fouls or to point out to the ref that, in fact, the ball had gone out off their hand. “You (players) keep the game in perspective,” is a recurring theme of many comments by officials, after refing their first game.

In this context, many players were astonished earlier this year at the first altercation, with two players receiving technicals (one game suspensions).

Indeed, says Weniger, “our most important award is for the player who everyone thinks has added the most to other’s participation and friendship.”

The other important award is for the most improved player. These are judged by the players themselves at a season-ending social evening and meeting.

The ethic of increasing and improving the quality and level of play and participation is expressed in a number of creative initiatives.

Coaches’ clinic

The league’s first coaches’ clinic has held last December in place of the regularly-scheduled game. Its theme: “you are never too old to learn new things.”

Carolyn Savoy of the Dalhousie Lady Tigers, together with her assistant coach, Doug Partridge and player Angie MacLeod, who tried out for the national women’s team last year, enthusiastically ran the players through two hours of drills in such fundamentals as warm-up exercises, dribbling, shooting, and inside power moves as well as aspects of team defence. Some 20 players – one quarter of the membership at the time – participated.

When Ms. Savoy first received the invitation to coach, she was very intrigued: “I’ve conducted clinics all over the province and Canada, but never with a group of men older than myself!”

For her part, she distributed Dal passes and posters to all the participants. The evening finished with a most amiable social function where Carolyn was presented with several gifts of appreciation.

The Annual Family Day

To be held this March 25 from 1-5 pm. The family day was inaugurated last year with some 35 family members of all ages from three to sixty spanning three generations, participating in a program of games and competitions, basketball and swimming, work and fun.

This year, the programme is being deepened, and will commence with a coaches’ clinic, with Carolyn Savoy, in which the parent and child participate together in a learning activity. Along with this, the Master’s League is extending an invitation to all players whether they are members or not, to participate, including women master’s players (over 30). This may also assist in the development of co-ed games.

“Our family day stems from seeing the number of kids who would come out to watch their fathers play – it’s usually the other way around! So, they would take part in warm-ups, cheer and we would encourage them to help out with scoring and timing. One time, our team was short and we got Chip Budrewski’s son to play. And another concern was to extend the field of social activity beyond the locker-room, as well as a concern for the family.”


Of special importance are the organizational principles followed by the Master’s league. It tries to actively implement the principle of self-reliance, of organizing on the basis of one’s own efforts.

Secondly, says Jim Walker, “we’ve learned to try and keep things simple. When we have an activity, we don’t try to shoot beyond our possibilities, to do too much. And it works.”

Thirdly, the League has tried to keep a low profile, neither chasing after the media for publicity nor spending time begging for corporate sponsorship.

Fourthly, the League’s democratic spirit is shown by the fact that the major controversies usually follow the few unpopular decisions which are not well-founded, such as suspending games on the evening of the American Super Bowl, or are poorly explained and communicated.

It is said by the sports media that the time of true amateur sport has passed with the dying out of the Victorian era. But the Metro Master’s League is proceeding on the course of the best sporting ideals of amateur sport. Its stability, vitality and dynamism are clear and concrete proof of this. These fundamental features of amateur sport will be carried forward through ever more active participation, cooperation and expansion amongst the population base of the metro region and the province itself.


The league has expanded to 12 teams and 108 players who play 21 games.

Fifteen players are over 60; Darrel Clark, at 69, is the elder. Competitions are also now being organized for players over the age of 45 (see below).

Ryan, Slaunwaite, Budreski, Cooke, Wigglesworth, Walker and Seed still play. Cassidy was inducted into the NS Sport Hall of Fame in 2005. On Labour Day weekend, his family holds the Sandy Young Memorial Tournament in Grand Desert, honouring a former team-mate and Nova Scotia’s leading amateur sports historian. Don Wheeler, a centre of so much in amateur sport in the Halifax area and former director of recreation for the Halifax Housing Authority, has tragically passed away (as did Duffy who became a referee and Weniger who turned to bridge). In a profile of Donnie by Harv Stewart, published in the Halifax Daily News before he passed away, he emphasized that his ethic towards sport was summarized by the motto, “Friendship First, Competition Second.” Jim Walker has continued as the anchor and president of the league.

Join in

New players are always welcome and can obtain information from Jim Walker. Games are played every Sunday at Studley Gym, Dalhousie University, from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. New members are accepted on a waiting list basis – first come, first served. Please send an email to Jim Walker at or call him at 902-209-5115 (leave a message) with your height, weight, year of birth, mail address, email address, home and work phone numbers and a general statement about your playing ability. Players are added to the league when others leave for varied reasons. Players are added first from returning players and second from new players in order of the day they applied.


April, 2007 Grand Masters (over 45) participants (Click to enlarge)


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2 responses to “Master’s league priorities: players first, winning second

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  2. I could not refrain from commenting. Exceptionally well written!


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