Iowa girls

For nearly a century, girls’ high school basketball was the number one spectator sport in the state of Iowa, captivating fans and making heroes and celebrities of the young women who played it. Here is a piece of basketball history written by women. 

Words  DONNA R. REYES | Images via the Iowa Girls’ High School Athletic Union

It’s Friday, and dusk settles on this sleepy Iowa town. The streets are practically empty, and the only activity is at the tiny gymnasium, abuzz with spectators. Both men and women are jostling for a seat, with a resourceful few finding space in the rafters, just as their home team takes the floor. Soon enough, the whistle blows and action begins, and the cheering is loud and relentless. And when the final buzzer sounds, the crowd files out and heads home, already looking ahead to the next home game.

Only a handful stay on to watch the next team—the boys’ team—play.

It sounds like a bad pitch for a movie, a high school basketball version of A League of Their Own. But once upon a time, nights like this were common in a part of the American heartland. For nearly a century, girls’ high school basketball was the number one spectator sport in the state of Iowa, captivating fans and making heroes and celebrities of the young women who played it. From Wiota to Wellsburg, from Van Horne to Ventura, small-town folk rallied behind their girls, who played a special game called six-on-six.

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Six-on-six basketball spread like wildfire, adopted by schools like Cedar Valley and Kamrar High. Image courtesy of IGHSAU.

PEACH BASKETS AND PRESTIGE

Senda Berenson was a teacher at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, just down the road from where James Naismith invented the sport of basketball. Ms. Berenson had once been frail and sickly, but her condition greatly improved after learning gymnastics. Her experience made her a fierce advocate of physical education, and she lobbied to make it mandatory at the university. The students however found the exercises boring, prompting Ms. Berenson to look for alternatives. She found one in Mr. Naismith’s new game. Conventions at the time prohibited women from engaging in what were thought to be strenuous activities. Ms. Berenson modified the rules to make it easier for girls to play and to make the game more socially acceptable. In 1892, less than a year after men first played with a ball and two peach baskets, the sport of women’s basketball was born.

“Those games were a far cry from what they are today,” says Dr. Janice Beran, basketball historian and author of From Six-on-Six to Full Court Press: A Century of Iowa Girls’ Basketball. “The girls had never handled a big round ball, so they had a hard time controlling it when they dribbled, and there was a lot of passing back and forth.”

Needless to say, the games weren’t high scoring. “The first men’s game ended 1-0. And the first girls’ games were about that too. After a while, they learned to shoot a little better.”

Over the succeeding decades, rules were modified and refined, and Ms. Berenson’s original game evolved into six-player basketball. In six-on-six, the court is divided into two halves, with three forwards on one side and three guards on the other. Guards defended the basket while only forwards could shoot the ball. Each player was allowed a maximum of two dribbles. The game spread like wildfire, adopted by schools both in and outside Massachusetts, eventually making its way to the Midwest.

At the time, there was widespread opposition to women participating in competitive sports. The belief, held even by some physicians, was that it was damaging to their health. In 1925, school principals and superintendents in Iowa convened to discuss whether or not the state should continue to support girls’ athletics. During the heated debate, Mystic superintendent John Agans chastised those who opposed women in sports by saying: “Gentlemen, if you attempt to do away with girls’ basketball in Iowa, you’ll be standing in the center of the track when the train runs over you!” He and 24 other school officials decided that if the athletic union was unwilling to fund girls’ basketball, they would form their own group and do it themselves. To this day, the Iowa Girls’ High School Athletic Union (IGHSAU) is the only organization devoted solely to female high school athletes. And it was by the efforts of these progressive men that six-on-six not only continued but flourished.

Its heart was in Iowa’s farming communities, woven into the fabric of pastoral life. “Iowa’s known for corn. Detasseling corn, that’s all pretty much we did. In the summer time, all there was in the little towns was a basket,” says Cyndy Long, who played forward for the Union-Whitten Cobras in the 1960s.

Lisa Brinkmeyer, who starred for Hubbard-Radcliffe three decades later, echoes the sentiment. “In small communities, there wasn’t as much to do as far as entertainment. That was the thing to do—you get dressed up and you go to the ball game. Plus these communities had an interest in all these girls. They were the neighbor girl, they were their niece, they were their daughter.”

Elsewhere, they were thought of as the weaker sex. But small-town folk knew this wasn’t true, as women often toiled side by side with the men. “In contrast to the city, playing basketball wasn’t that demanding for these country girls who’d worked in the fields and had very physically demanding lives,” explains Ms. Beran. The idea that sports was harmful for young girls simply never occurred to them. Fathers thought nothing of putting up a basket on the side of the barn for their daughter to practice on, and it wasn’t uncommon to find boys shooting hoops in the park with the girls.

As popular as six-on-six was, the game surged to even greater heights in the 1950s, when E. Wayne Cooley signed on as executive secretary of the IGHSAU. Mr. Cooley was born in Missouri, but moved to Iowa as a young boy and never left. He had other plans for his career, and had accepted the job under the condition that his term would last only five years. “That five years expired and I had some programs started that needed my nurture and care. So I said, ‘I’ll stay another year or two.’ That another year or two became 48 years.”

Under Mr. Cooley’s leadership, the union expanded its athletic program and began offering other sports. But his greatest contribution was his reverence for what he called the “Iowa Girl.” “I was very insistent from the first day that I walked into that office that the Iowa Girl must be treated with prestige and dignity. If you surround her with prestige and dignity, she in turn will give you the finest program that that competition will allow.”

Female athletes, already accepted by Iowans, were celebrated more than ever. “To be an Iowa Girl is a unique experience,” says Everly’s Jeanette Olson, one of the game’s most prolific scorers. “When I was growing up, I was kind of shy. But when I was on the basketball court I felt very at home, and it gave me a lot of confidence and poise.”

“He’s a grand, grand man,” says Carolyn Heckman, a member of the Oakland Jackets in the 1950s. “We always felt we were almost queenly.”

“The Iowa Girl has been built up and presented as an icon,” adds Ms. Brinkmeyer. “We had been put on a pedestal and been told, ‘There’s nothing you can’t do. Just go out and do it.’”

Nowhere was this more evident than at the pinnacle of high school competition, the Iowa state tournament. It was here that their talent and skills were showcased for the entire state—and even other parts of the country—to see. The tournament was one of the first sports to be televised in the U.S., picked up by stations in eight different states, and it was heavily covered by radio and print media.

The game itself was of course the main attraction, but Mr. Cooley made sure it was packaged into an entertaining show. The pomp and pageantry of the state tournament—musical performances, elaborate production numbers, even floor sweepers in costume—was unparalleled and unheard of, especially for girls’ sports. It was good television, and it drew audiences beyond state borders, many of whom had never seen female athletes treated with such respect and fanfare.

Going to “state” was the ultimate goal for every Iowa Girl. And for the lucky few that qualified for the Sweet Sixteen, making the trip to the capital was a dream come true. There they received the red-carpet treatment, attending dinners, meeting VIPs and signing autographs for fans during their weeklong stay. Thelma Ross played for Wellsburg in north central Iowa just as the country was emerging from the Great Depression. “We didn’t come from wealthy families, and we hadn’t had a lot of experience with staying in hotels and eating in restaurants. So going to Des Moines was a big treat for us.”

“You feel really special,” says Ms. Brinkmeyer. “It’s a magical week because it’s nothing you’ve ever experienced. And you feel like a celebrity, just because you’re good at basketball.”

Though rural teams were used to avid fans, they played in tiny community gyms. Veterans Memorial Stadium, the long-time home of the state tournament, had a capacity of 15,000 people. Stepping onto the hardwood at Vets for the first time was awe-inspiring and overwhelming.

“Have you ever seen the movie The Hoosiers, when they walk into the gym and go, ‘Oh no’? I always compare it to that because that’s exactly what it was like,” says Long. “We’d never seen a big gym like that ever. Des Moines was a big city to us. We never went to Des Moines, that was like going to LA to us!”

Fans came in droves and games were often sold out weeks in advance. If a town’s team qualified for the tournament, making the trip to support the hometown girls was a must, no matter how far Des Moines was. “The crowds coming to see the games were tremendous,” recalls Ms. Beran. “The stores would close, and there would be nobody in town on the days that their teams were playing.”

They followed their teams to state and back, and often the journey home was just as memorable as their time in Des Moines. Champion teams were accompanied by a caravan of cars that stretched for miles, and fans lined the streets to cheer them on as they passed. When Wellsburg won the title in 1949, Ms. Ross remembers that even those in neighboring large cities wanted a glimpse of the newly crowned champions. “Wellsburg is 30 miles north of Marshalltown. They had asked that our bus stop at their courthouse, and the square was filled with people. It was amazing to walk through the crowd with our trophy.”

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Fans came in droves and games were often sold out weeks in advance. Image courtesy of IGHSAU.

‘THE GREATEST FINISH’

When Iowans reminisce about the most memorable games in six-on-six history, one match always comes up. The 1968 championship was called the dream game, and the hype leading up to it was immense. The Everly Cattlefeeders from northwest Iowa were perennial contenders and had won the title in 1966. Their main weapon, Jeanette Olson, was one of the most feared shooters in the game. On the other hand, the Union-Whitten Cobras were appearing at state for the first time, riding on the record-breaking shooting of junior Denise Long.

Ms. Long’s hometown is less than a square mile in area, with a population of only 149 people. Just like any other small community, Whitten was crazy about girls’ basketball. Ms. Long’s older sisters had played six-on-six, and she and her cousin Cyndy, who was just a year younger, spent hours together shooting baskets. Once, in preparation for a game, their high school coach said to the team, “I want you camping out at the park.” The Long cousins took his advice literally, dragging a mattress down the street and spending the night at the outdoor court.

The two girls had the same passion for basketball, but their personalities couldn’t have been more different. Cyndy was an entertainer, composing funny poems and reading them aloud during bus trips to away games. Denise was much more reserved, and despite her obvious talent, still felt nervous before games.

Union-Whitten had had a series of heartbreaking seasons, falling just short of qualifying for state. The Cobras finally broke the curse in 1968, averaging over 100 points a game as they steamrolled opponents. But Ms. Olson and the more experienced Everly squad were still the tournament favorite.

Ms. Long knew of her rival even before they faced off at state. “I remember as a freshman going to see her play at the state tournament. She was kind of a hero of mine. I really loved to watch her play.”

“We were rated number one the whole time, but ratings don’t mean anything,” says Ms. Olson. “We knew Union-Whitten was a really good team. On any given night, anybody can beat you so you have to be on your toes.”

Denise Long, whose scoring prowess was now known across the state, was hounded all game long by Everly’s guards. Cyndy took the pressure off her shoulders by taking the lead on offense. “They had three people on Denise; it was like they had a fence around her. So I just got the ball and started shooting. I said, ‘I’ve done this at the park a million times.’”

The score see-sawed between both sides, and with seconds left on the clock and Everly up two, Mary Hamill fouled Ms. Olson, putting her at the line for the one-and-one. Ms. Olson, ever so composed, swished both, sending the game into overtime. Ms. Hamill was despondent over the foul, but Ms. Long reassured her. “I remember telling her, “Mary, you don’t have to feel bad because we’re gonna win anyway.’ I just got a surge of confidence and I knew we were gonna win.”

And that they did. Despite a 76-point effort from Ms. Olson, Union-Whitten came away with the victory in extra time, giving the school its first and only state title. Jim Zabel, a long-time play-by-play announcer and the voice of Iowa sports, breathlessly called it “the greatest finish we’ve ever seen.”

A year after that historic game, the San Francisco Warriors selected Denise Long in the 13th round of the 1969 rookie draft, making her the first woman drafted in the National Basketball Association. Unfortunately, she never got to play. The commissioner voided the pick as a publicity stunt, despite the protests of Warriors owner Frank Mieuli. Stunt or not, her selection made headlines nationwide, leading to appearances on programs such as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. She spent several years traveling overseas with an exhibition team before settling down to raise a family. Not much has changed in Whitten since the time she and her cousin Cyndy lived there, except for one thing—the court where the girls once camped out under the stars has been named Denise Long Park.

‘PLAY LIKE  THE BOYS PLAY’

In 1972, a landmark piece of legislation called Title IX was passed. It stated: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” It had a dramatic effect on athletics, as schools that received federal funding were now required to make sports available to both boys and girls. The door that had long been closed to women had been kicked wide open. The impact of Title IX was felt across the nation, but initially it did little for rural Iowa, where women had been playing competitive sports for over 70 years. Little did people know that Title IX sparked the beginning of the end for six-on-six.

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Image courtesy of IGHSAU.

For the next decade, the rest of the United States caught up with Iowa as girls’ participation in sports grew by leaps and bounds. In 1983, three girls sued the IGHSAU and demanded that six-player basketball be dropped in favor of the modern five-player game. “Title IX was supposed to open up opportunities but because they played six-on-six, it limited their chances of getting college scholarships for basketball,” explains Ms. Beran.

Mr. Cooley found a way around the problem. “I walked into the athletic union’s lawyer’s office and said, ‘I think I have a way we can handle this. We’ll have two state tournaments at the same time—one five-on-five and one six-on-six.” Beginning in 1985, high schools were allowed to choose between five-player and six-player basketball. It was a tense period for both fans and players. Just as there were many Iowa girls who longed to play ball like the boys did, there were also those whose loyalty was with the game of six-on-six.

The sloppy play seen in the early years of five-on-five didn’t help, especially compared to the finesse and fast pace of the six-player format. “I thought it was the worst thing that could ever happen,” Ms. Heckman says of this transition phase. “I really thought this is never going to work.”

The state tournament highlighted the divide between the game’s two factions. “We would have no more than two or three hundred people for the five-on-five game,” recalls Mr. Cooley. “By the time the six-on-six game was to start there would be 15,000. That just intensified the feeling between the two groups.”

But the next eight years saw more schools opting for five-player basketball, as athletic scholarships became more and more available to women. In 1993, the IGHSAU finally decided it was time to bid farewell to six-on-six. “Why? It wasn’t because of the media, the parents, the superintendents or principals, or the coaches. It was because of the girls themselves. They had turned and said, ‘We want to play like the boys play.” Mr. Cooley, as he had always done throughout his tenure, honored their wishes. “It goes back to the feeling I’ve always had about the Iowa Girl. If you treat her with prestige and dignity, she will lead you. She led us into this one, and I could not deny her.”

With the end of six-on-six looming, supporters staged demonstrations during the 1993 state tournament. Chants of “Just Say No!” could be heard outside Vets, and “I Love Six-on-Six!” buttons were handed out to anyone who would take them. “There were a lot of harsh words that were said because it was such an important part of community life and they were afraid it was lost,” says Ms. Beran.

Ms. Brinkmeyer’s Hubbard-Radcliffe was the very last team to win a title in six-player basketball. “There was some animosity with the end of six-on-six, and we knew there were people protesting outside,” she remembers. “But they were far overshadowed by the people who loved the sport and were there to watch the last six-on-six game.”

Still, for many it was difficult to let go of the game that had made the Iowa Girl stand out for nearly a century. “Iowa lost the uniqueness. It became like every other state,” says Ms. Beran. “There wasn’t quite the same community attachment and pride in Iowa girls’ basketball.”

The fans who used to travel hundreds of miles to watch the girls play at state, stopped coming. “I don’t know if it’s just a sign of the times that people are busy and have other things to do, or if it’s the game itself,” wonders Ms. Olson. “But it’s sad to see that that fan base is not there.”

“The six-player game was the glory years,” Denise Long says with a sigh. “That was an end of an era.”

Sad as they are about the age of six-on-six coming to a close, Iowa Girls from different generations continue to speak fondly of this special time, and their eyes light up when asked about this extraordinary part of their history. Ms. Brinkmeyer, who now works at the IGHSAU, hopes that the game and its legacy will not fade from memory.

“It had such an impact on so many people’s lives. Even though we no longer play it, it’s kept alive through the books and the documentaries that are out there and are still being made. The fact that we’re talking about it years after the last state tournament speaks volumes about what the six-on-six game and the Iowa Girl represent.”

E. Wayne Cooley, the trailblazer who championed girls’ sports, passed away in 2013. His death reverberated throughout the sporting community and the thousands of women whose lives he touched.

The union continues to uphold his ideals, and today offers an annual college scholarship in his honor for outstanding female student-athletes. “I had a wonderful romance with the Iowa Girl,” Mr. Cooley said in an interview, five years before his death. “I did my best to treat her with dignity and respect and she gave me all the memories in the world to take with me.”