Former Vanderbilt and Team USA basketball player Angela Alford has combined a budding talent as a filmmaker with her love for the game. Her film, Granny’s Got Game, follows the Fabulous 70s, a senior women’s basketball team, for a full year culminating in their trip to Houston, Texas, for the 2011 National Senior Games Championship.
The team, comprised of seven resilient women who are now in their mid-70s, has not only survived since 1994, but also thrived, despite a slew of physical and mental challenges its players have overcome.
With the inspiring, feature-length film slotted to appear at the 2013 All Sports LA Film Festival, ATLX jumped at the chance to get Alford’s perspective on how the movie was made and what gives these women the strength to continue playing after all these years.
How did you come across the Fabulous 70s and their remarkable story?
I was very lucky. It was in my backyard. The team practices at my local YMCA. One of their coaches that’s in the film, Dawn Funderburk, she and I were playing basketball together with some other women at the Y, and she told me about the team she was coaching. And then I found out I knew one of the women. Judy, who’s the team captain, her grandkids went to preschool with my two kids. I had seen her at the preschool in her Senior Olympics warm-up, so she’d already caught my eye. And so I approached Dawn and I approached Judy and said, ‘Hey, I’d love to learn more about you guys and do a video piece.’ And they were game.
I had a career as a software engineer and when my son was born nine years ago, I decided to quit doing that full time and then kind of reinvented myself a few years later and went to Duke University and studied documentary film at their Center for Documentary Studies. It was like a continuing ed. program. In order to finish the program, you need to do a 10-minute piece, so I decided to do my 10-minute piece on these women. But after I spent a little bit of time with them, I said, ‘I’d love to follow you all the way to Nationals, to go to Houston and turn it into a feature-length film.’
I kind of talked the women into doing it, because I approached them kind of appealing to their grandmother side and said, ‘Hey, I need help with homework,’ and they said, ‘Ok.’ I was kind of unassuming, and they just got used to me being around. And of course I totally fell in love with them…You can’t help looking at their stories and not.
The film opens with the sound of a bouncing basketball. Then, the first images we see are wrinkled hands tying shoes. What was your thought process regarding how you’d open the film?
It’s kind of a contradiction. You’ve got the shiny, white Nikes and you don’t expect to see the aged hands tying those up. One thing I was trying to do with this film was not make it a film about cute old people doing something crazy like, ‘Ah, look at them.’ And I’ve even done some screenings and I’ve heard people, especially in the 10-minute piece, kind of laugh at the very beginning when you see the women play. And then they see them play a little bit more and then you hear their stories and then the laughter stops and it’s like, ‘Wow. I can’t believe it.’
What I was trying to do was treat them like athletes and respect them. Even decisions I was making scoring the music – it has an original composition for it – so we talked a lot with the composer: ‘I don’t want cutesy music. I want this to be the same as an ESPN documentary. You’ve got to build the tension and treat them with that respect.’
I think many viewers will be inspired by the it’s-never-too-late-to-start-playing-again message. The film documents how there were far fewer opportunities when the women were younger. None of them played basketball in college. Shirley, for instance, was offered a job at a plant in New York and a spot on its women basketball team, but her parents wouldn’t let her go. How did these women start playing again nearly four decades later?
These are not women who sat back too much, so even though they didn’t have a team that was their own, they were coaching their kids whether it being softball or tennis. They were out in the driveway, shooting with them every night. So I think they’ve always just found love and passion in sports, but it wasn’t until their late 50s when there was an opportunity for them to play on a team and it was socially acceptable, like it was supposed to be 50- and 60- and 70-year-olds playing. I think Sarah tells the story – it’s not in the film – but she had been playing softball in a church league with her daughter and the other teams would be like, ‘Who’s that old lady with you?’ So for these women to find that opportunity later in life, that reignited the passion.
I love how each one of the featured team members is distinctly unique from the rest of the team. To what extent do you think these personality differences have allowed the women to form a cohesive group by complementing one another?
I’m just a real big proponent of people experiencing team sports, because when you have a common goal of winning a game, running a play together, it pushes you past the differences, but I think that’s an interesting perspective: how did their personality differences complement each other to build their success? Mary’s been their leading scorer for many years, and Mary is like the sweetest person ever. And if she had been some kind of cocky, dominant player, that might have turned some other people off. So the fact that their most unassuming player is one of their best players gives an interesting dynamic to them that maybe has led to their success.
At the same time, there are important similarities among all the women. What do you think are the main qualities they share?
They’re competitive. They really are. You don’t keep playing in your 70s if you don’t enjoy winning. So I think that (it was) that competitive spirit. Even I found women of all ages – because there hasn’t been the same amount of opportunities that the men had – that they’re just grateful to have a chance to play. They’re grateful to have each other and the opportunity to get back out there, so that’s been a big part of it. They understand what it’s like to be a part of a team. Like I said, a lot of them coached and they are experienced with sports and so they understand how the pieces have to mesh to get going, not that they don’t have problems.
You’ve been quoted as saying that you when you first met them, you expected to “find genetic wonders,” but that the women were “just like everyone else.” They’ve been through serious illness, deaths of loved ones, a slew of injuries and everything else one might expect, but they’ve managed to stay active through it all. What can others learn from these women’s extraordinary resilience and strength?
I’m in my mid-to-late 30s now and everything’s getting a little creaky now. I certainly can’t do what I did when I was 20 and to hear that people were still doing it 40 years beyond my age, I was just like, ‘No. There’s no way. They’ve got to be genetic anomalies.’ But after I saw them in action, I realize they do have the same kind of aches and pains and problems that all of us have, but they just play despite that. And one of the key things for them is that they’ve never really stopped playing. They’ve always been active. I think that’s a big key- just don’t ever stop; just keep going and going.
Throughout the movie, the women make it clear that they’re much more than teammates. Most teams talk about feelings of camaraderie, but they’ve helped each other get through the loss of a spouse, cancer, debilitating injuries and more. In their advancing age, how much more important is it that they’re always there for each other?
I wanted to show an example of what this community is, so that when viewers are watching, maybe for them it’s not a basketball team. But maybe for them, it’s a quilting group or a book club or something at church, but just to have something that you do every week and you’ve got the same group of people. And if you don’t show up, like if one of them doesn’t show up to practice, another one’s calling them and finding out what’s going on. That kind of accountability that comes with it– that really helps. When they go through these things, they’re there for each other, because they’ve grown together and it’s really unusual, too, to have the same group of women together for 19 years. To have the same core group for that many years, that’s really something special that I’m pretty jealous that they’ve stayed that close for so long.
As a former Division I basketball player at Vanderbilt, how do the memories of your playing days affect how you view these women’s long and impressive journey as a team?
One of the things when I was structuring this film, because of my own basketball background – I was a player in college and had a successful career and still play and coach and all that – when I saw the women, after I spent some time with them, I started seeing that they fell in(to) these archetypes that all sports teams have, like the bossy captain or the talented player but she never runs the plays right, the post player who’s not aggressive enough. I think with Sarah and her husband, Twig, I had seen dads or moms coaching their daughters, but now it was a husband and wife, but the dynamic was similar.
I found that when I was watching it, it reminded me of teams that I had been a part of and saw that as a way for younger players to watch the film and identify with these women through basketball. And when I do screenings now, especially when there’s younger kids in the audience, I say, ‘When you watch this film, I want you to pick out which of these six women you think you’re the most like.’ And they’ve really enjoyed that.
With the first first film, you’re very inexperienced, so every step of the way I needed to learn how to do it. I spent a year in production. I filmed them from October 2010 to October 2011. I spent about two, three months with them before I went into their homes to do the interviews that you see in the film. So I’d already kind of built a relationship with them, and I think that was important that they felt comfortable with me. I already knew some of their stories, and that worked really well. But my interviews, I shot as a one-woman team and set up the camera and got everything going, set up the lights, and then sat down and did the interview, so they felt more comfortable than if I brought a crew with me.
I had to learn the technical stuff, the production and then after that, putting together a piece, editing it, and then fundraising it. I did an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign to raise enough money to pay for the composer and the sound mix and color correction and some of those things you need to do in post(-production), but I really didn’t have the expertise to do them at the level. Other smaller things I did like closed captioning, I’ll do that myself.
Every step of the way was a new challenge and I really enjoyed that, so that’s been a real learning experience. It kind of goes back to my engineering background in that engineers are kind of like a problem-solver so I felt like every problem that popped up along the film, ‘Well, let me figure out how to overcome this,’ and so I enjoyed that part of it.
What did making the film mean to you on a deeper, emotional level?
I think the big emotional part of the film was I really got close to the women, and then when they went to Houston and Shirley gets very scary ill and the team was struggling and it was just really kind of emotionally overwhelming for me. And I definitely don’t want to put the video camera running when Shirley’s in the hospital. She signed up to be in the documentary, but she didn’t foresee that this was what was going to happen, so there was some ethical decisions on how much do I show (of) her and how do I represent this in the film and should I stay in the hospital because she needs me and I need to talk to the doctor and call her daughter and give her an update or should I go to the gym and film the next game because that might be a key part of the documentary. I didn’t see any of that coming so that was a bit overwhelming, but I think it all worked out in the end and I was comfortable with the decisions that I made in putting the women first and the film second and I can feel good about that.
I shared it at the Lunafest Premiere and a lot of people were laughing at the beginning and thinking it was going to be a comedy and ended in awe of the women. I think it was kind of neat to see that arc with the audience, just over the 10-minute piece. We’ve had a great time showing the feature at festivals. A lot of times the women will come with me. It’s not unusual for them to get big standing ovations, because they’re just remarkable and they’re inspiring. I quite often have women come up to me afterward (and say), ‘How can I play? Where can I find a team?’ Wanting to get out there themselves or sharing their stories about what it was like when they played in the 50s and 60s, the pre-Title IX life. We did a screening on Capitol Hill in support of legislation that’s trying to increase the number of opportunities for girls to play at the high school level, so that was really neat to see the film used in that way.
And the women were a little shy at first. They don’t really think that their story is that special like, ‘What’s the big deal? Yeah, we play. We’ve always played.’ They’ve been great representatives of Senior Games and encouraging other people to get out there. ‘We can do it. You can do it.’