Decades after shelving NBA dream to care for his family, Harvey’s James Lewis to be spotlighted at National Senior Games

13 July 2023

James Lewis made a big decision after graduating from Thornwood High in 1974.

He had a chance to play basketball and continue his education at Bradley University or stay close to home and attend a technical school and give up competitive basketball. He was living with his grandparents at the time and they needed him close by.

Lewis chose to stay and attended Greer Technical Institute in Chicago.

Lewis, now 67, never got to pursue his dream of playing college ball and eventually the NBA.

Given that he is one of the top senior players in the country right now and a Masters Basketball Association Hall of Famer, he could be forgiven for regretting his decision back in the bell-bottoms era.

But he doesn’t.

“I don’t know if I would have been good enough to play in the NBA,” Lewis said. “Maybe overseas. Probably so. But I’m not really sure of the NBA. That’s hindsight.”

What’s not hindsight are his achievements on and off the basketball court during his lifetime. Early in his life, he taught kids the sport. Late in his life, he has been teaching older colleagues to get out of their chairs and hit the hardwood.

For that, plus his continued court prowess, Lewis was named a Humana Game Changer — a national recognition for an athlete who exemplifies healthy aging and provides encouragement, motivation, and inspiration for all seniors to live healthy lifestyles.

The Harvey resident will be honored at the National Senior Games, which start Friday in Pittsburgh.

“It was really humbling and an honor to be chosen,” he said. “They told me there are more than 11,000 athletes participating, and they chose me for this.

“It’s a nice recognition for what I’ve been doing the last decade-and-a-half with the seniors — trying to keep them moving and active. I’ve seen what inactivity can do with seniors. It causes them to have failing health. In life, you need to keep moving.”

When it comes to basketball, he has constantly been moving but when he had hernia surgery at age 39, he was away from activity for a while. He slowly rebounded and, after turning 55, his basketball career blossomed.

When he worked for Commonwealth Edison, Lewis used many weekends to travel across the country and play on the Gus Macker 3-on-3 basketball circuit.

As he got older, Lewis attracted the eye of Chicago legend “Sweet” Charlie Brown. Brown, who died in August, convinced Lewis to join the Masters Basketball Association, and Lewis has been thriving there.

While Lewis has played throughout the United States, the pandemic robbed him of a chance to play in his first tournament abroad. His team had qualified for a tournament in Spain in 2020, but because of COVID-19 concerns, the tournament was canceled.

He also began a training regimen decades ago which he still goes through. He has an early wake-up call for 5 a.m. workouts in the gym.

“I worked the evening shift and would get in late at night and was always up early so rather than just waste that time, I would go and get a workout in,” he said. “Sometimes there would be doctors there and we would play pickup basketball.”

It’s a sport that has rewarded him personally and has allowed him to help others as well.

“I love the competition and see all of the other players my age and I still like to play down — even to the 55 (year-old) division,” he said. “I can still get up and down the court with them.

“It keeps me in the gym working out, and trying to keep my strength up. Not only that, it also provides for a pretty good mental health plan, too.”

How long can he go?

Last year’s Senior Games had a basketball division that included players over age 85. The 6-foot-4 Lewis, who possesses a strong outside shot and can still drive inside the paint, thinks he has some good years left.

“As long as I can do these 5 a.m. workouts, I can play awhile,” he said. “I fortunately never had any knee problems. I once had a heel problem but I recovered from it.

“They want me to join the 70s team but I told them I’m not in a hurry. I can still play down to the 50s division. Prayerfully, I can probably play another 10 years.”

Meanwhile Lewis is going to try to enjoy being hailed in Pittsburgh, even though it might make him uncomfortable.

“I like flying under the radar,” he said. “This was overwhelming. I’ve never been a limelight person. I like being in the background, doing my work and help who I can. I like to be out of sight, out of mind.”

Jeff Vorva is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.


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