Mary & Glenn

, Mary & Glenn

, Mary & Glenn

An Unlikely Path to the Special Olympics.

Story by Joe Formichella and photography by George Fuller

Glenn Kemp would be the first to tell you his is not unique. “There must be a million better stories around here,” he says, more than once. “Why me?” Despite the recognizable attitude and approach to life at the heart of his story – attributes still heart-warming and refreshing however often they’re encountered – there are a few quirks to Glenn’s that stand out. There’s an empty cottage cheese container at the beginning of his basketball career, for example. Or his mother, who won an Olympic track and field gold medal the very first time she ever set foot on a track. There’re the favorable comparisons to multimillion-dollar NBA stars – into his seventies now, and never having had any formal coaching– and his as-yet-unanswered challenge to one of them for a shootout. So how did this former eighty-eight-pound self-proclaimed nerd who subsisted for a time on mustard-and-mayonnaise sandwiches get from there to here?

You’ll be glad you asked. Born in 1947 to Mary Zalewski and Hal Kemp in Culver City, California, Glenn considers himself lucky to have lived to tell his story at all. For his first five years, life while his father was still around consisted of sometimes transient living, domestic abuse, and criminal associates. He remembers sleeping in a wooden bread box beneath the counter of the family’s hot dog stand at the Ocean Park Pier as a highlight amongst the beatings, blood and guns, a house fire, hoboing, and motel rooms. Mary divorced Hal in 1952. Life did not necessarily get any better. With no money and no support from her ex, Mary moved with her two small children – Glenn’s sister Ann was born in 1949 – into public housing, what Glenn calls, variously, “government projects,” or, “the ghetto,” in Culver City. He has no memories of playing sports during those years, or any exercise, beyond escaping gang violence, climbing fences, vaulting drainage ditches, and running. Otherwise armed with only kitchen utensils to protect himself, he is amazed, to this day, that he survived at all.

After the third grade, Mary finally heeded a brother’s advice and moved back in with their mother in Toledo, which is actually where Glenn says he“really learned how to run” – but not for anything like fitness concerns so much as further means of survival. But he doesn’t necessarily want to dwell on that too much, because it was also while the family lived in the grandmother’s basement that he discovered basketball. When Glenn could wrest control of the family’s first television set, a black-and-white model, from his grandmother, who preferred Lawrence Welk and professional wrestling, he tuned into broadcasts of NBA games, enthralled by players like Bob Cousy of the Boston Celtics and Bob Pettit with the St. Louis Hawks. That fascination led him to cutout the bottom of a three-pound cottage cheese container and attach it to an iron beam in the basement and practice his own set-shots, using crumpled pieces of paper as a ball.

He spent “hundreds of hours” pretending he was an NBA player, and established a lifelong routine that he has forever after returned to, no matter where he happens to be living – which is quite an extensive list – or what his circumstances are.No matter how much he practiced with those wads of paper though – which he continued on into his high school years, when he finally got his first real basketball, a Voit model – it did not translate into participation in any actual formal or even informal basketball games. He was too short and skinny, four-foot-eleven, maybe ninety pounds, to be considered for any team at school, where he would have benefited from coaching and guidance, where most kids develop their skills and love for the game, or even pick-up games at Wilson Park down the street. He would try, but was continually overlooked. (He did finally sprout six inches and bulk up to 130 pounds before his junior year of high school in 1963).

At Central Catholic High School he even tried out for other teams, as a wide receiver for the freshman football team, but again, was much too puny to make the first cut. Amazingly, he was far from discouraged. Imagine. He asked that coach who had cast him aside what else he could do. He became the team’s equipment manager. This is where the story gets really interesting. During those years Mary worked hard and long to feed and clothe her children and to afford braces and eyeglasses. Her only transportation, besides walking, was the public bus, to and from her day job or night school at Davis Business College to get a secretarial certificate. She didn’t have time for dating, and remarrying was out of the question.

Despite Glenn not recalling any counseling or guidance, any encouragement, discussions, even hugs or “atta-boys” during those formative years, he did absorb his mother’s work ethic, and excelled in his studies. He supposes it was a “relatively hard life,” where birthdays were a “non-event,” and Christmas might mean a new pair of gloves, but he didn’t realize that at the time. “It was what it was,”he says. What stands out, though, as the calendar turned toward the 60s, was that the family finally got its own car – though Mary continued to take the bus to work every day – and they moved out of the basement and into an apartment, into a “bad” neighborhood, but only a half-mile from Glenn’s high school in one direction and Joe E. Brown Park in the another. “This,” he says, is when his basketball “really got started.”

As equipment manager, he was allowed to shoot a real basketball on a real court for an hour or so after the team had finished their practice, until they locked up the gym. And on weekends,once his own basketball could be afforded, weather and daylight permitting, he’d shoot on the outside courts at Brown Park. He became good, very good, and wherever life took him over the intervening sixty years, from Alaska to the Keys, with a lot of stops in-between, he always found out where the nearest basketball court was, and there weren’t too many intervals when he wouldn’t keep up the habit of shooting baskets for hours or join in pick-up games at those courts, whether driving, riding a bike, walking, or running to get there, through a stint in the Army, raising a family, and putting in 35 years with the Postal Service.

After retirement, Glenn and his wife moved to Fairhope in December 2014. The city “isn’t big on outdoor courts for some reason,” as he put it, but he eventually found his way to the rec center, and started shooting/playing amongst and against players who could easily be his grandchildren. “Pops” though – as most in and around the courts refer to him – holds his own. And then some. They respect his game, certainly, but more importantly, to him and them, they respect his life’s wisdom, and his willingness to share it, to take an interest in their lives, to provide whatever he can, or at least any of the things he grew up without that he now knows kids need so desperately, and deserve.

See, basketball had long since become far more than a hobby or an exercise for Glenn. It became something of a touchstone, a centering, if you will, the thing he knows and loves and can turn to for stability when other portions of his life are fraying at the edges, or relief, from the pressures of those other portions, or even as a lifesaver, as he experienced during a crippling and near-fatal bout of depression which overlapped his last years in Atlanta and early residence in Fairhope. And he thinks that for those kids at the rec center – even if most of them entertain fantasies about making it to the NBA with its fame and glory and riches, against staggering, astronomical, all-but-impossible odds– if he can impart just that little bit of hard-earned wisdom, that basketball is something you can control, after a fashion, and practice, all by yourself, and return to, no matter what else is going on. It will always give you a sense of you, a definition all your own, which – even if they might not realize it for years and years – becomes more and more of a challenge as you move into the wider world. And he does it with this simple piece of advice: “Make your last shot before ending practice each day.” Simple, yes, and brilliant. Something we might all do well to heed.

And Mary? Well, that’s an intriguing aspect to the story that brings it full circle. In 2016, at the age of 69, Glenn found out about the Senior Olympics basketball program. Through a contact back in Georgia he was put in touch  with Mike Madden, who managed and sponsored the senior basketball teams for Alabama. Glenn was invited to Birmingham to play in the qualifications for the upcoming national tournament, from which, playing for the 70-74-year-old team by then, Glenn walked away with his first gold medal. And as he prepared for those Olympics in 2017, he thought of his mother, who he says he owes everything to. “I knew my 95-year-old mother was in pretty good condition, ”he says, still walking, going to daily Silver Sneaker fitness classes down in Boca Raton, where she lived with Ann. So he entered her in the 50-meter dash at those same Olympics, and she won a gold medal as well.

In an interview she gave to the National Senior Games Association, Mary was asked, “Glenn’s basketball team won a gold medal. And you won a gold medal. How do you feel about that?” Her answer? “Well, in real life, he went his way and I went my way,” she paused, then laughed. “I’m kidding! It was terrific. Glenn told me something to be proud of: we are both gold medal Army veterans of two different wars. When has that happened before?” See, like a lot of women at the time, Mary wanted to contribute to the war effort in any way she could, to take up the slack stateside, but when she went to enlist in 1942 was told she didn’t meet the 100-pound weight requirement. They told her to “eat bananas and cottage cheese to put some weight on and come back. ”She did, was signed up and shipped from Ohio to Colorado and then Washington D.C., and after an honorable discharge in 1946, made her way to California, which is where she met Hal, married him, and … well, you know the rest of the story. You don’t suppose it was that same cottage cheese container that Glenn would…? Nah.

, Mary & Glenn

, Mary & Glenn

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