Early Bird Carl Linden shoots from the baseline as the defense ruffles the waters during recent aquatic basketball play at the Auburn Valley YMCA. Linden, who turned 80 on March 13, has been a regular at the Y since 1975. MARK KLAAS, Auburn Reporter

Early Bird Carl Linden shoots from the baseline as the defense ruffles the waters during recent aquatic basketball play at the Auburn Valley YMCA. Linden, who turned 80 on March 13, has been a regular at the Y since 1975. MARK KLAAS, Auburn Reporter

Early Birds make a splash

Just regular guys gather to hoop it up in a long-running routine at the neighborhood Y

Accustomed to calm and order in his peaceful house of worship, the clergyman has found clamor and chaos in a battle waged in heated waters.

For at least 20 minutes before predawn, three mornings a week, the minister turns playfully sinister for aquatic basketball at the nearby, friendly Y.

Full-contact water hoops is a splash zone of incidental elbows, accidental scratches and intentional dunking – on the rim and below the surface. It can bring out the best, and sometimes the unexpected, between combatants in a public swimming pool.

“I can tell you one thing … this is the only place that I can feel free to swear,” said recently-turned 80-year-old Carl Linden, long retired after 31 years as pastor of a Baptist church in Edgewood.

“My two words are ‘nuts’ and ‘phooey.’ ”

Linden, a baseline-sharpshooting Swede, is just one of the guys who belong to the anonymous Early Birds.

The group formed in 1967 when Harlan Radomske and Earl Pitts began to meet up with friends for regular exercise and play, and quickly the Early Birds took wing. Soon, routine became tradition.

What began 52 years ago at another pool on the other side of town, continues today poolside indoors at the Auburn Valley YMCA. The group of 50-and-older men comes together Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings for calisthenics and stretching before dipping into the pool for a friendly half-court game of usually 3-on-3 or 4-on-4 splash-filled dribble, pass and shoot.

Linden, who joined the Early Birds in 1975 and has been coming back ever since, describes the game as somewhat spartan, a combination of basketball, water polo and street fighting. Score is casually kept, post-ups are physical. Holding, grabbing and tight screening are accepted parts of play, but there are no hard feelings in the end. Emphasis is placed on fun and camaraderie.

As many as 10 and as few as four players typically show up.

“If anybody wants to join us,” Linden warned, “one of the things they might want to remember is if they don’t want to be held under the water, just get rid of the ball … and you’ll float to the top.”

Over the years, the roster has changed but the purpose has not. Regulars like Radomske, Pitts and Ron Scott have moved on, and players like Linden, Ron Claudon, Gary Van Hee and Bryan Terhune have swum in.

“It’s been a great cast of characters … all the others who have come and gone. Good guys,” said Myron Dutenhoffer, who at 50 is one of the youngest in the Early Bird flock. “It definitely would be nice to see more new people come in and carry it (on).”

Every once in awhile, younger players and lifeguards join the fray, and come away with a few bruises. Water, the group says, serves as an equalizer and is more forgiving to older joints.

“We love having new guys who have been playing (on-court) basketball because they stop, they turn, they do this and that, and then they get whacked (when they attempt a shot),” Claudon said with a grin. “It takes them awhile to finally get it.”

Even the retired minister likes to mix it up.

“I watched him in the pool (the other) morning wrestle the ball away from a 20-year-old former Auburn High School water polo player,” Claudon said of Linden. “I joked that he will be as tough as Carl in another 60 years when he is 80.

“Carl is also one of the most competitive, genuine fun-loving guys I know.”

Life as a minister is sedentary work, and Linden wanted to be more active. He found it with another fellowship of sorts.

“I don’t know if it keeps me young, but I needed the exercise,” he said. “I realized right away the exercise was good, but the physical competitiveness in the pool is what I needed, too.”

Young at heart, Linden is strong and agile, belying his age.

“I hope I can be that fit, too (at that age),” Don Songras said of his Early Bird teammate.

Brief but frequent, the gatherings bring a good start to the new day and a reminder of what’s really important.

“It’s a great group of guys,” Van Hee said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

At 59, Claudon is in prime condition, the best physical shape of his life. Claudon is a busy man who has volunteered his time in the community while managing his dealership, Valley Buick GMC/Valley RV Supercenter.

Water hoops is only part of his exercise routine, time he savors with friends.

“It’s a special group of guys,” said Claudon, an Early Bird for 35 years.

Carl Linden, left, battles Don Songras for position during Early Bird aquatic basketball play at the Auburn Valley YMCA. MARK KLAAS, Auburn Reporter

Carl Linden, left, battles Don Songras for position during Early Bird aquatic basketball play at the Auburn Valley YMCA. MARK KLAAS, Auburn Reporter

Carl Linden, left, tangles with Gary Van Hee as the ball squirts free during Early Bird aquatic basketball play at the Auburn Valley YMCA. MARK KLAAS, Auburn Reporter

Carl Linden, left, tangles with Gary Van Hee as the ball squirts free during Early Bird aquatic basketball play at the Auburn Valley YMCA. MARK KLAAS, Auburn Reporter

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