Mike Mayta knows he probably shouldn’t play pickup basketball. He underwent replacement surgery for his right knee in July. He’s 52.
Last week, he found himself playing at the Central YMCA, rejoining a pickup game that stretches back to the 1980s, perhaps longer, and counts former East High and Shocker star Jamie Thompson among its more famous alumni.
The noon game in the old gym with a running track overhead, one metal fan-shaped backboard and one glass, and a heavy bag hanging near one sideline, is like many that go on in Wichita. Lots of gyms feature regular games with players of varying skill levels and ages. These days, the downtown run sometimes leans toward more Legends than Rookies and there are days when numbers dictate 3-on-3 as the game.
There aren’t many pickup games that inspire as much loyalty and affection as this gathering. Current and former players will gather Friday evening for one final round of highlight-reel shots, perfect passes and crisp teamwork in the gym, followed by a few beers at a to-be-determined location. The Central Y, built in 1959, is a future parking lot for the new Robert D. Love Downtown YMCA rising next door.
“We’ve been doing it for so long, it’s kind of like our home gym,” said Lance Russell, who started in 1999. “It’s bittersweet, a little bit.”
Through the years, the injuries and the arguments, the game thrived with a blend of people who work downtown, people looking for exercise more exciting than a treadmill and people who play anywhere, anytime. Plenty of former college and high school players showed off their skills over the years. It’s also a place where former wrestlers and guys cut from their freshman team can make a game-winning shot to start their afternoon with a buzz.
“There’s nothing special about the gym, that’s for sure,” said Mayta, who started playing around 12 years ago. “It’s become more of a social thing.”
Mayta plans to play Friday. Herb Coin, who remembers playing with the late Thompson, former Shocker Gary Mann and former Kansas State and NBA player Lew Hitch over the years, will be there. Coin, 77, played for the University of Wichita from 1954-57. He is the game’s patron saint of longevity.
“The guys treated me damn good,” he said. “They didn’t push and bump me around like they did each other.”
He played until two years ago, often walking up and down the court and often surprising younger players who underestimated him.
“That dude can still shoot,” Mayta said. “It’s amazing. That’s the kind of stuff that’s cool about that game. I always thought that if Herb can still play, there’s no reason I can’t show up.”
Doctors replaced both of Coin’s knees two years ago, sending him to the sidelines.
“They told me I wasn’t supposed to run,” he said. “I told them ‘Don’t worry, I never could run.’ ”
John Lehecka, a lawyer whose office is a half-mile from the Y, serves as the game’s unofficial commissioner. He sends out the morning e-mail rounding up players. He bought Coin a birthday cake and served it during the game on his 75th birthday. When nine guys are standing around at noon, he heads to the locker room to recruit No. 10. He’s been playing since the mid-1980s and organized Friday’s reunion.
“When you go, a lot of it is just to hang out with the guys,” he said. “All of us love to play basketball, but as much as anything you look forward to seeing your friends.”
That is one of the attractions for Mayta, who says his gentleman’s agreement to guard and be guarded by Lehecka keeps him safe. He swears he can resist testing the knee with drives to the basket or cuts into the lane. Lehecka reminds him when he gets too frisky.
“Don’t tell my orthopedic guy,” he said.
Friday night, a bunch of pickup basketball players meet to send out the old gym and renew friendships. Let’s hope nobody needs an orthopedic guy on Saturday.