A love for the game

Johnnie Buckley takes a shot Friday during practice at Chota Recreation Center.

While golf and pickleball are the most popular sports in Tellico Village, one woman continues to pursue her passion in a different field of play.

Johnnie Buckley grew up with a basketball in her hand as a young girl in Louisiana and has followed her love for the game all of her life.

“I probably started playing when I was about 10 years old,” Buckley said. “We didn’t have much for girls and that was the only high school sport we had. I played a little bit before high school and our school was a K-12 school, so I started playing in eighth grade on the high school team. I didn’t start until my senior year and it was fantastic. We had a really good team, and we made the top four in the state. I think I averaged 20 or 21 points a game. I grew up with it and I loved it.”

Buckley continued to play during adulthood before moving to Maryland and England.

“I was involved in women’s basketball when we lived up in Maryland in my 30s and 40s,” she said. “I actually played in England. The last few years my husband worked, we moved back and forth between here and England. I got on the internet to see if they had any leagues, but they were all young people. I thought, ‘I’m not going to let fear keep me from anything.’ I got on the train and went on down to the next little town where they practiced, and that was super fun.”

Buckley and her husband, Steve, moved to Tellico Village in 2006, where she joined the Smoky Mountain Mamas, a small 3-on-3 basketball team based in Maryville that consists of women from ages 60-80.

“I saw an article in the newspaper about the Smoky Mountain Mamas and I called the lady,” Buckley said. “I ran into one of my tennis friends that was part of the group, so she encouraged me to come and I did. It’s just been amazing. I’ve made tons of friends from Maryville and Knoxville. When I started, we had people coming all the way from Tazewell. It’s so healthy for us because it keeps you active. We all enjoy the friendship and we’re very competitive people.”

Shirley Millsaps is one of Buckley’s teammates and credits Buckley as being one of the best players on the team.

“I’ve played for about 13 or 14 years now,” Millsaps said. “You know what Johnnie is going to do. She’s very focused on her shot and her defense. Her shooting is unreal. She can nail a foul shot or three-pointers. She’s quiet and she doesn’t say anything. She just plays the game.”

Millsaps and Buckley have become best friends over the years.

“You know what, it’s been really interesting,” Millsaps said. “We’ve become like a family. We’ve played together for so long and we’re just like a family. To be able to go to the nationals has really been a privilege.”

Smoky Mountain Mamas is one of many teams across the country that participate in the National Senior Games Association, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to motivating active adults to lead a healthy lifestyle through the senior games movement.

Every two years, qualifying teams from all over compete in the NSGA National Games.

“Some of the best teams come from San Diego,” Buckley said. “We’ve played all different states and I would guess that we have around 18 or 22 teams in our division. We have senior games every year in our state and if you win, you qualify for nationals the next year.”

Since joining the Smoky Mountain Mamas, Buckley has traveled all over the United States to compete on the national stage.

“I have been to at least four games,” she said. “The first one was in Louisville. Then it was the San Francisco area, Houston and last year was Birmingham. We also went to Cleveland, Ohio. We missed the one in Minneapolis. I’ve gone most every other year.”

The team has again qualified and will compete in June for the national championship in Albuquerque, N.M.

Until then, Buckley will continue to put in time on the court and work to perfect her game.

“It’s so fun,” she said. “I laugh because you see the older folks with all their gear in the airport and it’s like younger teams that travel. I am excited, but we are low on numbers. You look forward to it and usually a few months before going, I come here and shoot. My routine is to make 100 baskets, so it usually takes me about an hour. I like to do that every day when we’re getting ready for the state qualifier or nationals.”