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This cancer-surviving, hoops-playing 80-year-old has a need for a new teammate

Jeff Neiburg, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Senior Living Features

PHILADELPHIA -- Bruce Rubin is getting a bit desperate.

How desperate? This isn’t an unlikely scenario ...

Rubin, 80, could be at a coffee shop with his son, Brad Brooks-Rubin, and the barista might be tall.

“Do you have a tall living grandfather who plays basketball?” Rubin might ask.

It’s a pretty unusual question. Maybe not the most unusual on the scale of things a random stranger can ask you, but awkward nonetheless.

“Wherever you are with my dad, it’s almost impossible going through a day without him asking,” Brooks-Rubin said.

Rubin, a Brooklyn native who has lived in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, since 1978, has represented Pennsylvania’s BUX-MONT Warriors in three-on-three basketball at the National Senior Games since 2009. He plans to do it again in 2025, but his longtime teammates — Dave Marovich and Roger Raspen — are recovering from injuries. They’re likely to play, but the Warriors need a few extra players to augment in general.

Still, the Warriors have a very specific need in order to try to improve on the 1-6 performance in the 80-to-84 division at the 2023 games in Pittsburgh. They need some height. Like, real height.

“A tall old guy,” Rubin said jokingly (sort of).

Calling all 80-to-84-year-olds who are at least 6-foot-5 and can play basketball at a high level. Know anyone?

If Billy Cunningham is a name that comes to mind, don’t worry, Rubin met with the 6-7 former 76ers forward. Cunningham, a Hall of Famer, can no longer play because of his back, but he did sit down with Rubin at a hotel in Conshohocken a few years back when the Warriors were playing in the 75-to-79 division.

“It doesn’t make a difference where they live, as long as they’re willing to travel and can play basketball and come with us to one of the state tournaments,” Rubin said of the requirements for the prospective teammate.

Dates for this year’s state tournaments, which qualify the Warriors for the 2025 National Senior Games in Des Moines, Iowa, have not been announced yet. They will likely be in the spring or early summer.

So there’s time, but not a lot of it.

A bump in the road

Rubin took a hard fall last summer after running into some younger guys while playing basketball — it’s rare he’s playing with older guys — and he hurt his back enough that he spent a summer Sunday in a hospital waiting room because of the pain. While waiting, Rubin felt a lump on his right breast.

A few days later, he learned that he had Stage 3B breast cancer, and a few days after that his right breast and four lymph nodes were removed at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

Next came treatment. Doctors originally wanted Rubin to go through a chemotherapy and radiation regimen. But Rubin said he wasn’t satisfied with that option. He was worried about the impacts of chemo, even on his otherwise healthy and in-shape body, and wanted to keep playing basketball and running track.

 

“We talked about treatment options that will balance the need to beat the cancer and the need to live your life,” Brooks-Rubin said.

“I was really worried that if the treatment didn’t go well, that if it was worse than it ended up being, it wouldn’t just be his body, the physical part, breaking down, it would take away what really gives him energy and life.”

Rubin’s wife, Gail, died in 2017, and although he still works as a consultant in supply chain, product development, and global sourcing, it’s basketball and running (plus being a father and grandfather) that he lives for.

Father and son got to researching, and doctors at Penn settled on a plan for Rubin to undergo 20 radiation treatments. The final treatment was on a Tuesday, and the next day Rubin received a standing ovation at his regular Wednesday pickup game in North Wales.

“It was a fantastic feeling,” Rubin said. “I’ve never gotten a standing ovation before.”

Getting to 2029

It’s the basketball and running, which Rubin has done for years with the Philadelphia Masters Track & Field Association, that he says helped save his life, especially the quality of it.

“If I wasn’t in the shape I was in, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you today,” Rubin said. “There aren’t a lot of us, but there are a number of 80-year-old athletes doing all kinds of things.”

Rubin had some further testing done last week. The cancer is gone, and according to his doctors, is unlikely to return.

There was no point during recovery when Rubin thought he wouldn’t play hoops again, he said. The regular Wednesday night pickup game started up again this week, and Rubin is gearing up for another run at the Senior Games, despite being kicked out of a regular Saturday game in Harleysville because the organizer said he was too old.

Rubin has a goal of playing 2029 games in the 85-plus division.

“Wherever it is, get there,” he said. “And hopefully we’re all well and able to play.”

That would mark 20 years since Rubin first attended a Senior Games. The 2009 event was at Stanford University, and Rubin said it provided a lifetime highlight for him. It wasn’t the playing, it was watching a 102-year-old throw a discus.

Rubin has been at every Senior Games since.

“You go through life sort of hoping you do things that make your parents proud,” his son said. “It’s very cool to be able to be proud of your dad.”

Except, of course, when he’s asking if a barista has a tall, basketball-playing grandfather.

“The flip side of being proud is the number of times I’m embarrassed,” Brooks-Rubin said with a laugh.


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