For Dietrich, the Senior Games is nothing but a network

No matter where Rodney Dietrich’s life takes him, basketball is his universal language.

Whether he’s strengthening bonds with his older brother, reaching out to the at-risk youth population, or building relationships in his current role as an integrated services specialist and aging social worker for the Chatham County Council on Aging, every shot captured by the local resident of Buffalo, New York is steeped in purpose.

Given Dietrich’s standing in the 50 or over category — those eligible for the Chatham County Senior Games — he was quickly approached by an interested party when he started work on the Council last January.

It was Liz Lahti, manager of the East Chatham Senior Center and co-coordinator of the Games, who set a record entry of 262 athletes in 2022.

“When I first started, Liz, of course, she said, ‘Why don’t you join the Senior Games?'” Dietrich recalled. “I asked what they had and she said they had different categories. I said I like basketball, so I said I would sign up for basketball.

Although Dietrich never played on an organized team, he could be found battling with his older brother constantly in Buffalo’s driveway. The Harlem Globetrotters were frequent visitors to the area, allowing for an opportunity to see someone other than the hapless Washington Generals. From 1970-1978, the Buffalo Braves called the city home as an NBA franchise before eventually becoming what is the modern day Los Angeles Clippers.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the way they handled the basketball,” Dietrich said of the Globetrotters. “I could never do something like that!”

The many hours of shooting in the lane – albeit with more misses than necessary for the younger Dietrich – paid off in his first Chatham County Senior Games experience. He won a gold medal in his age group in basketball shooting, which follows the “around the world” format from different areas of the court.

“It’s all over the world, but I’ll tell you, I didn’t capture it very well,” Dietrich said.

It didn’t matter that day. Dietrich, a military veteran, has been busy making connections, something that has served him well throughout his professional career. At least one long journey was undertaken to see a competitor.

“The whole thing is to do it together with other people,” assured Dietrich. “There was a lady who was doing it with me too and her family drove all the way from Virginia to come and support her. They had little signs for her. I like the togetherness of games, but my older brother played. I looked up to my brother a lot growing up; he was a great guy.

However, the younger Dietrich would never pull off a one-on-one win from his brother, the pride of Buffalo’s Kensington High School. Whenever there was a one-on-one battle, Dietrich was the one to return the basketball after it flew over the net.

“Every time I played against him, he never missed a shot,” Dietrich said of his brother. “People, they do things and it reminds them of something they did, of the good times they had. Whenever I watch basketball or play basketball, it just reminds me of the time I spent with my brother.”

While Dietrich was growing up in Buffalo in the 1960s and 1970s, the city was undergoing changes. The son of a black father and a white mother, Dietrich’s class was one of the first groups to transition to an integrated school. His father was a city bus driver and happened to be the driver on the first day of his son’s integration.

It was certainly different for the multiracial Dietrich, but his family still felt some of the pushback toward integration in schools.

“My father was black, but my mother was white,” Dietrich said. “So it was a little bit different for me, but being in their family, I suffered the same things that they had to go through. It was hard at times, but people were together and families were together.

Before arriving at the Council on Aging, Dietrich served as director of a facility for at-risk teens. He was a unicorn in that particular field.

Turnover rates were high, with many unable to cope with the aggressiveness of youth just a stone’s throw from the prison system. But Dietrich, despite being punched and spat on in the line of duty, became indispensable to operations and remained for 12 years.

Indeed, basketball has become a primary means of communication. Dietrich ran what was known as a Level 3 facility, which meant the next escalation involved being locked up in a detention center.

The kids were quickly running out of time – and options. Some were kicked out of seven different schools and returned report cards with all failing grades.

Through basketball, Dietrich stepped in and turned failing students into A/B honors recipients. They will then be allowed to play for their high school and high school basketball teams.

“I think I got more out of them than a lot of therapists,” Dietrich said. “During therapy, they’re just sitting there across from someone. But when you’re playing a sport like one-on-one basketball or just shooting around the world, you’re playing and their minds are at ease. They’re more open to telling you things.”

Dietrich interacts with a diverse population and the ball and basket, plus the antics on the court, de-escalate many situations.

“You talk about traveling, I had one kid running all over the court,” Dietrich recalled. “He would just hold the ball and start running. And then he would go and take a picture of it and think that was it. None of the children said anything to him, they just laughed.

After Dietrich was discharged from the army, he had to spend some time in a hospital in Virginia. His brother visited him and they went out to a local basketball court.

“We went out there and we’re still shooting, playing basketball,” Dietrich said.

Years later, the elder Dietrich never missed a beat.

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