September 2023 Athlete of the Month
By Del Moon, NSGA PR Specialist
James Lewis, 68
No one loves basketball more than James Lewis, and it has been a constant presence in his life. One testimonial to this is his induction into the Masters Basketball Association Hall of Fame. Yet, as deep as his passion is, James has always kept his perspective.
“My love for basketball has always been secondary to the more important things in life,” he says.
As a rising talent James dreamed of playing college ball and going beyond, but there were other pressing needs. “At the time I was helping my grandparents with their family automotive business and other issues,” he recalls. “In my junior high school year I had an opportunity to enter technical training, so I made my mind up to stay close to home and focus on helping everyone around me.”
“I don’t know if I would have been good enough to play in the NBA,” Lewis told the Chicago Tribune recently. “Maybe overseas. But that’s hindsight.”
Basketball remained his passion after school days by playing in Chicago city leagues, and when he traveled to the South for summers to work fields picking cotton and peas James would still find a way to pull a game together in free time. After beginning his career as a hydraulic technician with Commonwealth Edison, James regularly spent his weekends traveling to compete in the Gus Macker tournament circuit for many years until he was sidelined for a hernia surgery at age 39, followed by an operation on his foot that further complicated a return.
“My son told me, ‘You can’t just sit around doing nothing Dad, you got to get up and move,’ so I started going to the gym at 5 in the morning and got together with a bunch of older guys playing pickup ball,” he notes. “A lot of them were doctors and attorneys and such and that got me back running full court five-on-five a couple times a week.”
A Chicago basketball legend, “Sweet” Charlie Brown, convinced James to start playing masters tournaments around the Midwest. He also later toured the country with a team called “Canusa” comprised of Canadian and American players. In 2022, James started a new journey with Senior Games and helped his J-Town team win a silver medal in the 2023 National Senior Games presented by Humana.
“I heard about National Senior Games from some guys I compete against in the Gus Macker circuit who also played in it, and they needed another team member,” he explains. “So I qualified and played in Pittsburgh – and I loved it. I met so many great people from all around the country and even beyond.
“When I was in the Parade of Athletes, I looked back at this long line and it was like it was a box of Crayons,” he adds. “That’s how colorful a portrait of people it was. What I love about sports is that it brings everyone together from all ethnic groups.”
The more James talks, the more you understand that he loves helping others get in the game as much as playing it himself. In 1992, James and some friends started a nonprofit organization called The Higher Level, and he enjoyed giving back by teaching basketball and life skills to youth in the Chicagoland region until 2016. “You just try to help one person at a time,” he says.
This dedication to serve others helped James earn recognition as a 2023 Humana Game Changer athlete. “I’m appreciative for this recognition because it gives me an extra talking point to get closer to people,” he says. “Now I help other seniors because I’ve seen what inactivity does. Outside of getting my workout in, my joy is in seeing them getting involved. I tell them, ‘Look, life is about moving, you gotta keep moving. Do as much as you can, sit down and get rest if you need it, but when you are able get back up and start moving again.
“The thing about basketball is that you work on so many different aspects of your life if you are committed to the game,” he continues. “Playing ball puts me in my quiet mental space as much as it keeps me physically fit. And for us as a team it’s a fellowship. We’re coming together, checking on each other, helping through injuries like a family.”