80-year-old artist pivots between canvas and basketball court

By Mollie Rotmensch
Medill Reports

Kathleen Eaton may live in Sleepy Hollow, Illinois, but she’s all energy and depth. The professional artist sometimes paints with a twisted knee ligament and jammed fingers. She’s not accident-prone. She’s just the baller. This class act puts on her knee brace and low-top Under Armor shoes for 3-on-3 half-court basketball every Tuesday.

Big deal? Yes. Eaton’s 80 years old. Again, baller.

Kathleen Eaton (left) waves her arms to block the ball during a scrimmage on May 3. (Mollie Rotmensch/MEDILL)

She plays on the Chicago North Stars, a women’s team comprising various senior age groups, and they scrimmage pickup games at the Levy Senior Center in Evanston. Eaton’s endorphins probably soar practicing pick-and-roll, but nothing screams adrenaline like the chance to compete in the National Senior Games.

The largest multisport event for those 50 and over happens every other year. Since COVID-19 put the kibosh on the 2021 games, they were rescheduled for May 2022, making this year the first even-numbered one they occurred. Was that a telltale sign of luck for Eaton? Grounds for superstition? Who could say? Basketballs aren’t magic eight balls. Either way, the tournament was back, and so was Eaton, who had qualified in-state with her teammates for the competition in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Eaton returned from the games with no wins but that’s neither here nor there. COVID-19 still exists, even if its toll on daily life is less than it was in 2020, and Eaton’s age puts her in a category of adults with a higher chance of severe illness from the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But over the last year, people have gradually returned to a sense of normalcy in which the seemingly never-ending cycle of variants and sub-variants doesn’t interfere with everyday activity. Eaton and some of her teammates decided they were ready to travel and compete, chancing COVID-19 out of love for basketball and camaraderie.

Eaton is swift on the court, but at 5-foot-5, she said she’s not as fast as the taller players. Modesty is reflexive for Kathy Scissorhands, the nickname Rochelle Corso, 60, gave her friend and teammate of 15 years. “She is a wild woman,” Corso said. “Her hands are all over. She is grabbing at that ball. She’s whacking you (but) not on purpose. And she’s never thinking, ‘Oh, these fingers, I need to preserve them.’ She’s all in.”

It’s true that Eaton doesn’t worry about basketball affecting her ability to create art. “Jammed fingers — they still function,” she said. “They just hurt.”

The Chicago native actually entertained a career playing baseball, her “main sport” as a child. “It never occurred to me there weren’t women baseball players,” Eaton said. Childhood innocence seemed to shield Eaton from antiquated societal attitudes toward women in sports until she joined the Girls’ Athletic Association in high school during the late 1950s. In the years before Title IX, that game-changing piece of legislation passed in 1972, the now-defunct national organization offered high school girls the opportunity to play collegiate sports — but not competitively. The restriction did not keep Eaton from basketball, baseball, field hockey and soccer, although she noticed a lack of women in professional basketball as she started to excel at the sport.

Eaton Plays
Kathleen Eaton has played basketball for decades. (Mollie Rotmensch/MEDILL)

In hindsight, she sees how “primitive” her high school basketball days were. “You could only dribble three times,” she said. “I assume they thought girls were just too exhausted (to) run the whole court. It was so silly.” Eaton recalled no umpires or referees in the association. Girls self-monitored court behavior and even kept their own score. Eaton, who played defense, didn’t necessarily keep count, though. “We were playing for the love of the game,” she said.

Basketball wasn’t Eaton’s only outlet growing up. Sports ran parallel to art for much of her life. Brushstrokes, however, came first. “I probably painted on the walls (as) a toddler,” she said. Eaton’s parents enrolled her in art lessons at an elementary school teacher’s suggestion, and she continued her formal training in high school and college. After Eaton graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she turned her art degree into a career painting night scenes of architectural spaces in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. Much of her work captures the city’s iconic bungalows and two-story flats.

Art and sports are simpatico for Eaton. While developing her artistic style, she studied many illustrators also with a knack for sports, such as Frank Frazetta, who turned down an offer to play professional baseball with the New York Giants in 1948, before the team relocated and became the San Francisco Giants in 1957. Eaton said painting and basketball share a physical connection: hand-eye coordination. But basketball started to fade as her art career progressed.

Her return to basketball in 2007 was serendipitous. She came across an article in The Daily Herald announcing tryouts for a newly formed women’s senior league, Granny Ball, at the Homan Square Community Center. “If you were breathing, they would be glad to get you,” she said. In Granny Ball, women were not allowed to run full-court, a rule Eaton found strange but not enough to quit. “The companionship with other women who were interested in basketball, and meeting people from all over the city, was great,” Eaton said. She met Corso there, and the two pivoted to 3-on-3 half-court at the Levy Senior Center after Granny Ball folded.

Eaton’s pickup scrimmages have led her to qualify for and compete in the National Senior Games since 2011. She would have liked to win this year, but after the COVID-19-induced hiatus, she cared more to just enjoy the games again. That’s been her attitude over the years, anyway. “It’s really nice to be together with women although you’re competing against them,” she said. “It’s a very supportive community.”

Mollie Rotmensch is a magazine graduate student at Medill. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

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