Make A Splash is a new sports film about a team of women in their 80s and 90s – not from the 1980s or 1990s – who play real basketball, with off-ball picks and turnaround jumpers.
It would be tempting to watch the players and say: Wow, look at those old ladies make cuts and sink those shots! Aren’t they just so … cute? It would also, like an air ball, miss the point.
The 22-minute documentary, one of five women-focused sports films to premiere on 1 June on ESPN in the US, packs in a story that is about far more than their athletic prowess. As much as these women love the game and enjoy staying active, basketball represents something deeper for The Splash, the oldest team in the 50-and-over league in the San Diego Senior Women’s Basketball Association.
Of course, the team like socializing and the road trips. They have become somewhat famous nationally. They are delightfully good at poking fun at themselves: “If you’ve ever seen pregnant manatees play, you’ve seen us play,” says the 87-year-old Nina Duncan, laughing.
The difference between this film and the other four to debut in the W Studios Fifty/50 Shorts initiative is that these athletes have had the benefit of long, full lives. Like most older people, their backstories include challenges that alter their perspectives – even now.
The focal point of the film is the gregarious and hilarious 89-year-old Marge Carl. Carl grew up in New York during the Depression and married a stockbroker in 1954 then had two children. But she describes her husband as a “functioning alcoholic” who killed himself after they divorced.
Her daughter, she says, had the “same DNA as her dad.” By way of explanation, Carl adds, “Heroin is a mean sucker,” Her daughter briefly got clean and sober, but she later died. Carl says of herself, “You’re out of sync. You’re supposed to go first, not your kids.”
So she joined a group for relatives and friends of those who had taken their own lives, and there she befriended the late Meg Skinner, who had lost a child to drugs. Skinner had started The Splash. Carl had played basketball as a child – though girls were not allowed to play full-court basketball back then – and thought she’d enjoy playing again. She was good at it.
“Marge will be 90 soon, you can’t stop her shots,” Nina Duncan says.
When Duncan’s younger son was three-years-old, he was hit by a car while chasing a puppy, suffering permanent brain damage. He lives with Duncan on a farm. Her older son died recently because of hepatitis. She plays ball because, as she says, “so many people depend on you.”
The Splash play the other 50-and-over teams in a modified, halfcourt form of the game. The team have also been invited to put on exhibitions of their skills, including at halftime of a WNBA game in Phoenix, where The Splash, in Carolina blue uniforms, were warmly cheered.
But The Splash have needed to deal with age in a way that most sports teams don’t. One scene shows the players looking at an old photo of the team, pointing to one player after another and saying, “We lost her … We lost her … We lost her.”
One of the players at the time the film was shot, Cori Thompson, had dementia and had difficulty remembering how she was supposed to set an off-ball pick. The visit to Phoenix would be her last road trip with The Splash.
“The team got hit hard by Covid,” says CJ Moloney, the coach, “and the isolation was really difficult.”
The Fifty/50 Shorts program is being released in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the federal civil-rights law known as Title IX, which, perhaps most notably, was to provide balance between men’s and women’s college sports programs in the US.
Most of the women on The Splash had originally stopped playing organized sports decades before Title IX came into effect, but they certainly have benefitted from the additional exposure received by both professional and collegiate women’s basketball teams.
“They all want to be the oldest woman on the team,” Moloney says, smiling.
They do seem to have a good time and appreciate the chance to get out on the floor and stay in motion, even if it is slow motion. Carl quips, “I thought I would be dead by 30, the way I was going. Everyone dared me to do stuff, and I’d do it. That’s how I got pregnant.”
You will have to watch the film to see what happens when Carl is presented with another challenge. Just say that she takes it on, with great courage, aplomb and humor. Even though she has had setbacks, she apparently still has a lot to gain.