Sunday, November 30, 2003

This grandpa still has fast hands, drive

Peter Bronson

When I heard that Hoot Gibson was living in Cincinnati, I didn't believe it.

"Sure he is,'' they said at the Greenhills Kiwanis meeting. "He lives in Wyoming.''

If a legendary Hollywood cowboy lived in Cincinnati, he'd have to be in Wyoming. It figures. But the Hoot Gibson hero of silent-movie Westerns would be a ripe old 111, so it would be sort of remarkable if he lived anywhere.

Turns out the original Hoot Gibson died in 1962. But the one they were talking about does live in Wyoming, and he's quite a story all by himself.

John "Hoot'' Gibson was a forward on the Kansas State basketball team that lost the 1951 NCAA Championship game to Kentucky. "It has weighed on me all these years,'' he said the other day in his living room.

But he's making up for it. Fifty years later, he still plays basketball twice a week. He's good, too. Gold medals from the Senior Olympics prove it.

Gibson's team has won the gold twice, and won a third-place bronze this year just six months after one of his teammates had a hip replacement.

They compete in the 70-75 age group. "It can be very physically demanding,'' he said. "We play three or four games in one day.''

And when he's done playing half-court, three-on-three basketball in the Senior Olympics, he joins a volleyball team and wins silver and gold medals there, too.

"I've been lucky,'' he said. "My joints don't bother me much.''

"Lucky'' might be an understatement. My knees were screaming just listening to him.

Hoot got his nickname from a high school coach who was apparently a fan of the movie cowboy. "It just stuck,'' he said.

"I was a skinny, scrawny kid. I was quick, but I didn't have a lot of weight. There weren't as many big men in those days.''

After college, Hoot served in Korea, then came home and became a veterinary pathologist and researcher.

When he played in college, a newspaper story about his defensive talent said he had the fastest hands in the Big 7 conference. "I was dating my wife at the time and it caused her some embarrassment,'' he laughed.

He still has fast hands, plays tough defense and says his shooting has improved with age.

Some might look at Hoot Gibson and see a quiet grandfather, retired veterinarian, Kiwanian or Presbyterian - not the Larry Byrd of the Senior Olympics. I looked at this soft-spoken, modest gentleman, and I think I saw the future: millions of over-the-hill baby boomers, running in circles, shooting the three-ball, leaping entire inches off the floor to launch a jumper and clinging by their fingernails to the glory of their youth, long into their 70s and 80s.

For most of us, it's as appealing as cellulite strangled in Spandex. But Hoot pulls it off.

"It's been very good for me,'' he said. "It helps me stay healthy. My father died at age 63, but he never got any exercise.''

OK, OK, I'm convinced. But just one thing worries me. I can see it now: "Magic'' Bronson drives for a lay-up at the Senior Olympics in 2015 - and Hoot will be there to block it.

E-mail or call 768-8301.

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