No matter where life has steered Rodney Dietrich, basketball is his universal language.
Whether strengthening the bonds with his older brother, reaching the at-risk youth population or building relationships in his current role as integrated services specialist and aging social worker at the Chatham County Council on Aging, every shot taken by the Buffalo, New York, native has been steeped in purpose.
Given Dietrich’s position in the “50 or better” category — those who are eligible for Chatham County Senior Games — he was quickly approached by an interested party upon beginning work at the Council in January of last year.
It was Liz Lahti, manager of the Eastern Chatham Senior Center and co-coordinator for the Games, which set a participation record 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 that they had different categories. I said I liked the basketball, so I said I’ll sign up for basketball.”
While Dietrich never played on an organized team, he could be found putting shots up with his older brother constantly in the Buffalo driveway. The Harlem Globetrotters were frequent visitors to the area, allowing opportunities to see someone other than the hapless Washington Generals. From 1970-1978, the Buffalo Braves called the city home as an NBA franchise before ultimately becoming what are the modern-day Los Angeles Clippers.
“I was always fascinated by the way they handled the basketball,” Dietrich said of the Globetrotters. “I could never do anything like that!”
The many hours of shooting in the driveway — albeit with more misses than makes for the younger Dietrich — paid off in his first Chatham County Senior Games experience. He won a gold medal in his age group for basketball shooting, which follows the “around the world” format from different areas on the court.
“It’s around the world, but I’ll tell you I didn’t shoot it too well,” Dietrich said.
On that day, it didn’t matter. Dietrich, a military veteran, was busy forming relationships — something that has served him well throughout his professional career. At least one long trip was undertaken to see a competitor.
“The whole thing is doing it together with other people,” Dietrich assured. “There was a lady who was doing it as well with me, 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 the games, but my older brother, he played. I looked up to my brother a lot growing up; he was a great guy.”
Despite that, the younger Dietrich would never sneak a one-on-one victory from his brother, the pride of Buffalo’s Kensington High School. Every time there was a one-on-one battle, Dietrich would be the one retrieving the basketball after it swished through the net.
“Every time I played against him, he would never miss a shot,” Dietrich said of his brother. “People, they do things, and it reminds them of something they did, the good times that they had. Whenever I watch basketball or play basketball, it just reminds me of my time with my brother.”
While Dietrich was growing up in Buffalo in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the city was undergoing a background of change. The son of a Black father and white mother, Dietrich’s class was one of the first groups to go into an integrated school. His father was a bus driver for the city, and happened to be the driver for his son’s first day of integration.
It was admittedly different for the multiracial Dietrich, but his family still experienced some of the pushback to integration in the schools.
“My father was Black, but my mother was white,” Dietrich said. “So it was a little different for me, but being in their family, I suffered the same things they had to go through. It was tough sometimes, but people were together and families were together.”
Before arriving at the Council on Aging, Dietrich served as a facility director for at-risk teens. He was a unicorn in this particular field.
The turnover rate was high, with many unable to cope with the aggressiveness of youth just one step away from the prison system. But Dietrich, despite being punched and spat upon in the course of his duties, became indispensable to operations and remained for 12 years.
Indeed, basketball became a primary vehicle for communication. Dietrich oversaw what was known as a Level 3 facility, which meant the next escalation involved lockup in a detention center.
The kids were quickly running out of time — and options. Some were kicked out of seven different schools and brought back report cards of all failing grades.
Via basketball, Dietrich intervened and turned failing students into A/B honor roll recipients. They would then be allowed to play for their middle school and high school basketball teams.
“I think I got more out of them than a lot of the therapists did,” Dietrich said. “In therapy, they’re just sitting there across from somebody. But when you’re playing a sport like basketball one-on-one or just shooting Around the World, you’re playing and their minds are more at ease. They are more open to tell you things.”
Dietrich interacted with a diverse population, and it was a ball and basket, plus the on-court antics, that de-escalated many situations.
“You talk about traveling, I used to have one kid that would just run around the whole court,” Dietrich recalled. “He’d just hold the ball and start running. And then, he’d go and shoot it up and think that was it. None of the kids said anything to him, they just laughed.”
Once Dietrich was discharged from the military, he had to spend some time in a VA hospital. His brother visited, and they went outside to a basketball court on site.
“We went out there, and we’re still shooting, playing basketball,” Dietrich said.
Years later, the elder Dietrich never missed a shot.