When most people think of basketball players, they think of lanky young athletes slashing through defenders for easy layups. They think of burly 7-footers powering through the paint for thunderous dunks.
What they probably don’t think of are 79-year-old women who stand a comparatively diminutive 5-foot-3.
But Lorraine Rizzuto is making people pay attention to not only her game, but her passion for it. Rizzuto, a River Ridge resident, recently was named one of 13 people nationally to be honored with a Humana Game Changer Award for serving as a role model to people of all ages and dedicating herself to leading a healthy lifestyle.
Rizzuto will be presented the award when she is joined by more than 10,000 athletes at the National Senior Games when they begin July 3 in the Bloomington-Minneapolis-St. Paul area of Minnesota. She earned the honor as much for her skills on the court as she did for her vast efforts to get New Orleans-area seniors interested in continuing with athletics and friendly competition.
Rizzuto’s volunteerism with local senior games competitions began in 1991, nearly 40 years after she stopped playing competitive basketball. Back then, she played 3-on-3 ball for Dominican High School, but when she graduated and moved to Loyola University, there was no women’s program to help continue the competitive fire. Rizzuto went on to become a health technician, got married, and had four children. In her spare time, she earned a master’s degree in management from Farleigh Dickinson University when her family relocated to New Jersey for 34 years.
But in 1991, back home in Louisiana, friends were asking her to play hoops again.
“They were looking for three people to play in what then was called the Harahan Games,” she recalled. “I told them, ‘Well, I’m one of your three.’ I started playing again, but I started recruiting too. I had a list of 700 people and I was looking for 75 to play in the games.
“And I told them all, even if you don’t like basketball, I encourage you to come out and play something. Being active makes you healthier and it makes you more socially active. There are 19 sports in the Greater New Orleans games, from archery to badminton to basketball. There’s something you can do. One thing I tell people about aging is that you don’t do it by yourself.”
Rizzuto is one of the founding members of the New Orleans Silver Slammers, with whom she will play at Nationals. The group boasts four teams in four different senior age groups, with Rizzuto playing with the 75-79-year-old unit. Each won a senior games title in the state competitions to qualify for Nationals, so the area will be well represented in Minnesota. All four Silver Slammers squads practice twice a week at the Harahan Gym.
“We work hard,” Rizzuto said. “Our uniforms were donated by Mr. Tom Benson.”
Rizzuto plays point guard for the Silver Slammers and she said her strength is passing the ball. She’s not sure exactly how or why she was chosen for the Humana Game Changer Award, but noted that she was elected to the Louisiana Senior Games Hall of Fame in 2008.
“This is extremely flattering,” she said. “I work hard as a recruiter, as a volunteer, and as a player. We have come home with medals every year since we began except in 2013. We will just go and do our best.”
Marvin Hill, the National Public Relations Manager for Humana, said it’s for all those reasons that Rizzuto was chosen for the Game Changer honor.
“We scour the country going through thousands of names of people who will be competing at the national games,” he said. “We had 13 make it. We look for people who are dedicated to their health and who are dedicated to their sport. She certainly fits the bill. After playing basketball in high school, then not playing for 40 years and picking it up at such a level as a senior (citizen). It’s just remarkable.”
Rizzuto said she doesn’t feel particularly “remarkable,” but said she has earned benefits from her dedication to basketball.
“I wake up feeling great,” she said. “I’ve been healthy and active my whole life. Even when I was working in the medical field, I belonged to a health club. Plus, chasing four kids keeps you in shape too. I’ve had two knee surgeries, a shoulder surgery. But really, I’ve had no major physical setbacks. I’m happy to do what I do.”