While the rest of the world sleeps, Ian Mahoney, 56, shoots free throws and runs sprints. Two to three times a week Mahoney, director of emerging networks at Viacom Media Networks, former St. Francis University basketball player, and cancer survivor, wakes up at the crack of dawn to practice at the University of Chicago Lab School gym.
“I know for a fact that most of the guys aren’t getting up at six o’clock in the morning and getting up shots like I am,” he tells me. “Other guys are still in bed.”
Basketball is life to Mahoney. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, he moved to the United States when he was nine years old, and shortly thereafter fell in love with the game.
“Coming to New York from Jamaica, my brother and I had heavy Jamaican accents, and we moved into a mixed neighborhood in downtown Manhattan,” he says. “We were probably one of the first black families in that area, but we assimilated quite quickly because we learned how to play basketball.”
I arrive at Mahoney’s house at 5:40 a.m. As I pull up to South Woodlawn Avenue, he’s already walking out the door wearing a U-High varsity basketball jacket, worn by players and coaches of the Lab School’s high school basketball team. Strapped over his shoulder is a gym bag, plump in the shape of a basketball, and hanging over the bag are two shiny white Nikes.
Like most college students, early mornings are tough for me. I had to set three alarms to ensure I’d be up in time for Mahoney’s early-morning workout, but Mahoney seemed like he was already in the middle of his day.
“This is my usual time. [I’m] wide awake. No alarm clock,” he says, laughing.
We arrive promptly at six, and the doors to the facility are locked. Mahoney pulls out his keys and opens the door. He has been volunteering at the Lab School for 10 years—as an official assistant coach, as a non-official assistant athletic director, in any way he can.
“The only thing I get paid with is the keys,” he says.
On the court, Mahoney shoots alone. He begins his workout by hitting 60 straight shots: 20 right-handed layups, 20 layups from the center of the paint, and 20 left-handed layups. He tells me that if he misses one, he’ll run sprints. But he doesn’t miss a shot. He trains as if he were still in college, if not harder.
“I remember one of the coaches made a comment a couple of years ago. He said, ‘Ian, you’re like a pro. You’ve got a pro schedule,’” Mahoney laughs. “I’m a middle-aged pro.”
Mahoney, the middle-aged pro, plays in a gym where sunlight filters in through giant windows; even in the early morning, it’s intense enough to mimic the effect of spotlights.
Mahoney takes hundreds of shots in the hour we are at the Lab School. He runs through different drills, placing a chair at the elbow as if it were a defender, running full-court and shooting from the top of the key, passing the ball to himself to replicate the spot-up jumper he is so well known for by the guys he plays against.
After the ball leaves his fingertips, Mahoney will occasionally call out for it to get in the basket by saying, “Come on, girl. Get in there!”
At one point, Mahoney hits 16 straight free throws. As a former college athlete, I watch someone more than twice my age make more consecutive shots than I ever have in my life—mid-workout, between sprints and push-ups and dozens of what he calls “game shots.”
“In the 12 years I’ve coached here, not one kid can outshoot me,” Mahoney says. “Not even my son, and he can shoot.”
Mahoney’s son, Breck, played basketball at the Lab School and at the University of Redlands.
“And they wonder why I make shots, Vince. You know why I make shots?” He asks me. “Because I put the time in. My thing is, if you’re going to play competitively, you’ve got to work.”
And Mahoney is as competitive as they come. He lives by the Michael Jordan philosophy of basketball: If you aren’t the one up early, taking shots, someone else is. Even at 56 years old.
The reason Mahoney practices like a middle-aged pro is so that he can win against other middle-aged pros.
For almost a decade, Mahoney has been getting together with a group of former college and professional basketball players who compete in pick-up basketball games two, three, and sometimes four times a week at the Lab School gym.
The games started eight years ago when Mahoney first began volunteering with the athletic department at the Lab School. He and a few other Hyde Park residents, who had previously played college or professional basketball, started habitually getting together to play, since Mahoney had access to the gym. He says that once he started opening up the gym on a regular basis, “this is where they all gravitated to.”
“Arne Duncan, who is the secretary of education and went to Lab, James Fleming, and a couple of other guys, we started off playing half court. Two-on-two. Three-on-three. Then, the game grew to five-on-five,” Mahoney says.
The games that take place at the Lab School are pick-up basketball, which essentially means informal basketball with no refs present. Teams are chosen on the spot and players make their own officiating calls, which leads to plenty of arguing and trash-talking.
“There is no real pick-up game without some kind of trash-talking,” says Mahoney. “It’s fun because it keeps us motivated. It’s part of basketball. It keeps us young.”
Mahoney’s favorite line is telling defenders they are “too late” once he lets go of a shot. He says that each of the regulars at the Lab School pick-up games has his own form of talking trash.
Among the regulars are Kendall Gill, who had a 15-year NBA career and once led the NBA in steals; Malik Murray, who played at DePaul University; Rob Feaster, who as a junior at College of the Holy Cross and nearly led the nation in scoring; and Jeff Sanders, who played four years in the NBA and several more overseas.
“These aren’t your typical weekend warriors,” says Mahoney.
The age among the regulars ranges from 23 to 57 years old, but, Mahoney says, “Don’t let the age fool you. Guys are in shape.”
None currently play professional basketball, and the regulars’ present careers range from politics to teaching. But not just anyone can walk in and join a pick-up basketball game at the Lab School. There are usually between 12 and 15 players present, and they all know Mahoney, who organizes the game schedule.
“It’s invitation only,” says Mahoney. “I’ve had to throw guys out. I’ve had to put a list with the security guard. We don’t want any riff-raff. We may argue amongst ourselves on the court, but once we get off the court it’s the best.”
The exclusivity of the pick-up games and the number of high-caliber players has drawn some of the biggest names in basketball and beyond to the Lab School.
When I ask Mahoney who has played at the gym before, he tells me, “I’m going to start with the biggest name, President Barack Obama.”
A Hyde Park resident and basketball aficionado who played in high school, Obama has made several visits to the Lab School pick-up games, though those days take a little more preparation.
“He’ll have his security guys in each corner and outside. And the snipers on the roof and the dogs will come in. They’ll sniff every single door and cranny,” says Mahoney. “Then, we’ll come in and play for two hours.”
Mahoney says Obama fits right in with the Lab School pick-up basketball regulars. That he holds his own competitively, and with his trash talk.
“The President is very competitive. You think we talk trash, oh my god,” laughs Mahoney. “He talks a lot of trash.”
A member of Obama’s cabinet and one of the originals at the pick-up games, Arne Duncan visited for a game a few weeks ago, and I attended. Wearing Harvard basketball shorts, where he played before going professional in Australia, and neon Nike sneakers, Duncan looked like one of the regulars.
Duncan did more than hold his own, completing no-look passes and finishing at the rim like the former pro that he is. Like the regulars, Mahoney says Obama and Duncan are basketball junkies.
“When Arne is coming home [to Chicago], he’ll call me and ask, ‘Ian, when are you guys playing?’ And he gets upset if it’s not within his time frame,” says Mahoney.
According to Mahoney, the second-biggest name is Michael Jordan, who came to play four Christmases ago along with former NBA all-star Charles Oakley.
“Guys heard that he was playing and they were trying to get in. We had to lock the door.”
Mahoney remembers Jordan’s favorite trash-talking lines being, “Haven’t you seen me on ESPN?” and, when someone would try to steal the ball, “If you reach, I teach.”
As to what attracted the greatest basketball player of all time to Hyde Park, Mahoney credits the quality of the pick-up games, which he and many of the others say are the best in the city.
“The reason why he plays with us is because he knows we know how to play,” Mahoney said. “He knows if he comes in here he has to guard his man; if not he’s going to get scored on. He knows he’s going to get the guys’ best games. They’re going to play him really physical. He’s going to talk shit. They’re going to talk shit back to him. And he loves that.”
Jeff Sanders, a regular and a former NBA player, says the biggest draw for former professional players is that the Lab School games are competitive while remaining fun and without conflict. He says that there are plenty of pick-up games across Chicago where players are always trying to show up the pro on the court. At the Lab School, there are multiple former professionals who played overseas, in the minor leagues, and in the NBA.
“Most of the guys who are pros, they want to play where they can have just a good game. When they come in here to play it’s just good, clean basketball,” says Sanders. “In here, between these lines with us, we all know you. We’re going to compete.”
Continuing to play
For the players who participate in the Lab School pick-up games, the love of competition and basketball will keep them coming back, and will keep the age range of the games ever rising. Despite a lack of dunks—Sanders says if he ever dunks at this age, it’s an accident—the Lab School players are still working to improve their skills, just as they did when they played in college and the pros.
“You really don’t develop until you retire,” says Sanders. “Because you get to that point now where all of that athletic stuff that I used to do, I can’t do that now. So, I’m going to pay attention to what’s the easiest way to score.”
On when Mahoney thinks he’ll be done playing: “I’m going to continue playing this game until they throw dirt on me.” It’s a response shared by many of the other guys around the court.
He recalls how the Lab School pick-up games helped him through his battle with cancer as the perfect example of how much basketball means to him.
“I remember a day or two after the surgery I still made arrangements for the guys to play, and part of my rehab was to just come and sit down and watch the guys because the banter, the shit-talking, was what I needed,” Mahoney tells me. “I remember my wife and I went to see the psychologist after the surgery and she asked me, ‘Well, do you think you need therapy?’ And I said, ‘No, I have my own therapy. There are 20 guys on the South Side that are going to get me back.’”