March 24, 2023



Fifty/50 — Iowa high school girls’ 6-on-6 basketball still beloved

Fifty/50 — Iowa high school girls’ 6-on-6 basketball still beloved

IN THE WINTER of 2020, just before the pandemic hit, Jan Jensen was rummaging through storage at her home in Coralville, Iowa, when she came upon a folder. It was in an unmarked box that she had packed away in 2015, just after her mother had died.

Jensen opened the folder and found something unexpected. A diary. In three old composition books, a teenager’s life unfolded in faded blue cursive.

March 15: … after practice I could just have cried as it was my last B.B. practice in the Audubon gym for me. It was like saying goodbye to a very dear friend.

Jensen is an associate head coach for the Iowa Hawkeyes, so of course basketball was important in her family. But the diary was written by her grandmother. In 1921.

Dorcas Andersen was about to play in the Iowa state basketball tournament, and she was kind of a big deal. The local newspaper called her “Lottie” because she scored a lot of points. And when her team won the state championship, fans spilled onto the floor and hoisted her on their shoulders.

It was more than a half of a century before Title IX.

They played a brand of basketball called 6-on-6, which eventually would become so popular that more than 15,000 people packed into Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines in the 1950s. A decade later, the tournament was televised in nine states. Long lines of cars following buses containing girls teams would clog rural highways. In a number of towns, girls basketball was a bigger draw than the boys.

Iowa was long ahead of the curve in women’s sports. In 1970, 20% of all girls playing high school sports in the United States were from Iowa, according to the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Title IX, enacted in 1972, obviously changed that. Twenty years later, the groundbreaking legislation inadvertently ended a revered Iowa tradition.

THE GIRLS’ 6-ON-6 game was rooted in rural Iowa. If a farm girl could bale hay, milk cows and put in the same work as the boys, then she could sweat on the basketball court, too. In tiny communities that dotted the state, the sight of a woman sweating on the basketball court did not seem so improper.

But those initial days did meet some resistance, especially from “city” folk. In 1925, at the Iowa State Teachers’ Convention in Des Moines, a group of administrators voted to end girls basketball because it considered it too rough for girls to play.

According to the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union, John W. Agans, a school superintendent in Mystic, Iowa, pushed back. He told the group, “Gentlemen, if you attempt to do away with girls basketball in Iowa, you’ll be standing at the center of the track when the train runs over you!”

Twenty-five men, mostly from rural Iowa schools, held an impromptu meeting. They decided if the boys’ union wouldn’t sponsor the girls, they would start their own union. Today, the IGHSAU is the only girls’ high school athletic union in the country.

So 60 years after Dorcas Andersen starred on the basketball court, she lived to see her granddaughter lead the nation in scoring her senior year (66 PPG), play to crowds so big that fans had to be turned away, and, eventually, become the second family member to enter the Iowa high school Hall of Fame.

That same young woman who wrote about her basketball dreams so many years earlier had just two grandmother complaints: The girls played too rough and that their uniforms showed a little too much skin.

In 6-on-6, each team put six girls on the floor. Three were designated as forwards on one half of the court and three were guards on the other half. Neither could cross half court. The guards played defense, rebounded and passed the ball to the forward court. The forwards did all the scoring. But they could dribble only twice, and guards couldn’t take the ball away outside the lane.

“The beauty of the 6-on-6 game was that it wasn’t the same as anything else,” says Jean Berger, executive director of the IGHSAU. “Our game never got compared to the boys game. It was two dribbles and shoot; it was fast-paced. The best thing about it was that it was ours.”

Like thousands of other girls in Iowa, Berger played 6-on-6 in the late 1970s in a smaller town outside of Des Moines. By then, Title IX had been enacted, the rest of the country was catching up and within a few years three girls would sue the IGHSAU and call 6-on-6 discriminatory because it hindered their chances of playing college basketball. But change was already afoot. In 1984, 26 schools in Iowa, mainly larger schools, switched to 5-on-5, and in less than a decade, the final 6-on-6 game was played in Iowa. (Oklahoma, the last state to play 6-on-6, went to 5-on-5 two years later).

But before the WNBA and Caitlin Clark and Aliyah Boston, before women’s soccer players were winning World Cups and pressing for equal pay, generations of young women in Iowa were elevated on their own stage. In some places, their game was even more revered.

WHEN E. WAYNE COOLEY became executive secretary of the IGHSAU, he had a goal. He never wanted girls basketball to take a backseat to the boys. It was 1954.

“He was part Wall Street banker, that business savvy,” says Tulane athletic director Troy Dannen, who worked alongside Cooley in Dannen’s first job out of college. “But he was also a showman. He had a great sense for turning something from a game into an event, into a show.”

Cooley turned the week of the girls’ state tournament into a festival, with elaborate halftime shows, dance teams and bands. He dubbed the girls’ tournament “the cleanest show in town,” and had boys in tuxedos sweep the floor during intermissions.

Downtown merchants decorated their windows with team signs. Fans with no hometown team in the tournament would still pack the arena, just to see the show. Two years into the job, Cooley also added softball, golf and tennis to the girls’ union.

But the girls’ state basketball tournament was by far the marquee sport. The 6-on-6 game promoted specialization and highlighted high-scoring offenses. In the late 1960s, it helped create a folk-hero hoopster in Denise Long.

Long grew up in Whitten, a tiny central Iowa town of about 200 with not a lot for a young girl to do besides detassel corn, ride her horse and play basketball on a slab of concrete near the fire station. Long would play basketball three or four hours a day while her mom worked as the town’s postmaster general and one of the last switchboard operators in the U.S.

She honed her game playing with boys in the early days, but eventually knew she’d need help. Long had a younger cousin named Cyndy, who was not interested in basketball and wanted to just ride her horse Smoky around. But Long convinced her.

“I remember getting in front of her and saying, ‘If you try to leave this court, I will beat you up,'” Long says.

“You think it’s a joke, but I was serious. I knew it wasn’t right. She just looked at me with a real blank stare and I didn’t know what to do. She still tried to get off the court. I grabbed her arm, swung her and threw her right back on the court and told her, ‘You just keep shooting them until you start making them.’ She never left.”

Long’s persistence paid off. A few years later, in 1968, Union-Whitten was in the state championship game, and her opponent, Everly, was double-teaming her, which meant cousin Cyndy was open. In possibly the most talked-about game in Iowa girls basketball history, Cyndy Long scored 40 points in Union-Whitten’s 113-107 overtime victory.

Denise had 64 points, and would go on to score 111 in a single game her senior year in 1969 and pour in 6,250 for her career, which stood as the national record until 1987 when Ventura’s Lynne Lorenzen broke it with 6,736.

The San Francisco Warriors — now the Golden State Warriors — drafted Long in the 13th round in 1969, but then-NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy voided the pick. (The league didn’t draft players out of high school at the time). She was on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and played 6-on-6 basketball (with unlimited dribbling) in a Bay Area women’s league that Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli built around Long. When Long saw Carson in the hallway of the NBC Studios in New York, he asked what the Warriors were paying her, and she told him a bouquet of flowers. “Well, get the money!” Carson told her.

The Warriors wound up giving her $5,000 spending money, Long says, and paid for her education at the University of San Francisco. But the league was slow to gain traction, and Long became homesick. She returned to the Midwest and enrolled at the University of Northern Iowa. She eventually married, became a pharmacist and watched the women’s game grow to unimaginable levels.

She still misses 6-on-6 basketball.

“I liked the high scoring,” she says. “The crowd just loved it.”

IN 1992, ABOUT two-thirds of schools in Iowa were still playing 6-on-6, but change was coming quickly. At a girls’ union board meeting on Feb. 3, 1993, Dannen delivered data that did not bode well for 6-on-6: In a survey of girls’ conferences, nearly all the schools planned to switch to 5-on-5 within two years.

In a surprising move, Cooley made a recommendation to end the 6-player game with the next state championship. The vote wasn’t on the agenda. In just 30 minutes, the board unanimously decided to end 6-on-6. The final game would be played just a month later.

That night, Cooley and Dannen played cards with friends. Dannen was almost 40 years younger than the people he played cards with, but Cooley’s friends became Dannen’s friends. The whole night, from a steakhouse dinner to cards, they didn’t talk about it at all. At 10 p.m., when the news came on, the end of 6-on-6 was the lead story and everyone at the card table was stunned.

Cooley was clearly hurting — 6-on-6 was his baby. But he knew it was the best decision to move Iowa girls’ basketball forward.

“I don’t think he wanted to see that game struggle for air and die out,” Dannen says. “He wanted it to go out strong and on top.”

The final 6-on-6 game featured small-school Hubbard-Radcliffe vs. big-school Atlantic. Fans picketed outside the arena and passed out buttons that said I (heart) 6-on-6.

Lisa Brinkmeyer, who went on to play college basketball at Drake, was one of the stars of the game, and after her team knocked off Atlantic, it was greeted by fire trucks on its drive home, roughly 14 miles from Hubbard. About 50 cars were lined up behind them. The parade took them from Hubbard to Radcliffe, with more cars joining the party.

The last of the Iowa 6-on-6 alumni are entrenched in their 40s now. But mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers still reminisce about what used to be. There’s a Facebook group called, “I played 6 on 6 basketball in Iowa!!” It has nearly 7,000 members.

“That’s still one of the highlights of my life,” says Brinkmeyer, who now works for the girls’ union. “Of course getting married and having children is really important to me, but I’ll never forget the feeling I had when we won that state championship. It was a big deal.”

JAN JENSEN STILL gets emotional reading through her grandmother’s journals. It’s a glimpse of the woman whose trophies and uniform have been under glass in a display case in her house for about 20 years. But now she can feel everything — her grandmother’s excitement, humility and pride.

“How cool of a moment was that for her?” Jensen says. “Women don’t always get those moments, even now. But in my mind, the moment she had was amazing.”

She wishes she could have one more conversation with her.

The University of Iowa’s coaches try to remind their teams that women didn’t always have scholarships, Nike gear and TV games.

Dorcas Andersen had a scholarship offer from somewhere in Mississippi, but she got married, became a teacher and spent her entire life in southwest Iowa.

Jensen accepted a basketball scholarship to Drake and played in the same gym where her grandmother won a state championship in 1921. Jensen went on to play professionally in Europe and saw the world.

“I could always sense, I don’t know if regret’s the right word,” Jensen says. “I mean, she wouldn’t have changed her life. But she was very much always, when these opportunities were coming my way, pushing me hard. Like, ‘Go. Go. Do. The world’s big.’

“I’ve always kept that in my mind.”