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Standing 5 feet, 5 inches and weighing 125 pounds, Wes Meltzer is often the smallest man on the basketball court. But for the past 17 years, no one has played a larger role or commanded more respect in adult basketball in South County.

Meltzer, 73, a former college women’s basketball coach, retired from New Jersey to Venice in 2000 and just couldn’t put away his basketball. “I’ve loved it my whole life,” says Meltzer, who played in high school and has refereed and coached for decades.

Meltzer poured that love into creating a Sarasota County basketball league for the “old legs”—men 50 and older, many former high school and college players. The league, which now has a 60-and-older offshoot, brings together dozens of men on Monday and Wednesday nights for camaraderie and competition in two 20-minute halves.

“Having a ref and the level of competition [make it] like playing in high school except almost no one can jump,” says Jeff Boone, a local attorney, who’s been playing in the league for nine years. “Most of the guys can really play.”

Meltzer has never played in the league he created; he organizes the teams, books the gym, and on game nights walks up and down the court, blowing his whistle and calling fouls.

“It was my intention to play,” Meltzer says. “But I was playing softball at the time and couldn’t afford to get hurt. Besides, as the referee, I decided it wouldn’t be fair.”

Meltzer is an old pro at organizing basketball teams. As a junior-high teacher in New Jersey, he couldn’t tolerate the school not having a basketball team, so he started one. He went on to coach junior high school for 22 years and in the 1980s became the women’s basketball coach at College of Staten Island. Title IX, the law that brought parity and opportunity for women to play sports, had finally kicked in, but not all things were equal. Meltzer says he had to modify the volleyball uniforms into basketball uniforms the first year.

“We won the first championship in school history,” Meltzer says. And the next year, the women had their own uniforms.

When Meltzer and his wife, Yvette, moved to Venice, he couldn’t find an adult basketball league. So he approached the county about starting one. While he was forming the league, he started refereeing area school basketball games. He stopped doing that a few years ago because he felt like he was too slow to get into position to make accurate calls.

But for the adult league, “I can walk up and down the court and officiate.” For one thing, the court is shorter, and the guys—much as they don’t want to admit it—don’t move as quickly. Rules are different, too.

“There’s no pressing. I don’t want guys to get hurt slapping at the ball,” Meltzer says. No elbows out when rebounding, and as soon as the ball is secure, “No one can grab it out of the player’s hand,” he says.

Meltzer has the perfect demeanor to be a ref, Boone says. “Wes thoroughly enjoys being around everybody. He knows how to keep it fun.”

Meltzer also volunteers at Mote Marine and Big Cat Habitat several days a week. “I don’t ever see myself retiring,” he says. “The only thing that would stop me is if I couldn’t get up and down the court.”

The basketball league runs December through April. Call (941) 488-2803 for more information.

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