Roman Mars [00:00:00] This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. When producer Ellie Gordon-Moershel was growing up, she played baseball, tennis, soccer.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:00:11] Ice hockey, field hockey, flag, football.
Roman Mars [00:00:14] Volleyball, field lacrosse… box lacrosse? I don’t even know what that one is.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:00:19] Basically, I played whatever I could find. If there’s a team, a moving object, and points to be had, I’m probably pretty good at it.
Roman Mars [00:00:27] Ellie is an only child, and she didn’t really think of her parents as sports people.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:00:33] To be fair, my dad sometimes went out for runs but in short shorts I found very embarrassing, so I blocked it out.
Roman Mars [00:00:40] You have to take care of yourself in this world.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:00:42] Still, for years, I thought I was the only one in my family that truly understood the appeal of the sweat, blood, and tears of sport. That is, until I came across my mom’s high school yearbooks. So, you guys were called the Rockettes?
Ellie’s Mom [00:01:00] Yes. And the boys were called the Rockets.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:01:06] Oh. I was going to say, “the Rocks,” but, yeah, that makes more sense. This is me talking to my mom a few years ago. We were poring over memories from her time on the high school basketball team, back in the 1960s.
Ellie’s Mom [00:01:19] Yeah, here you can see the team ended the season with a 9 – 16 record.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:01:24] In one photo, all the girls are sitting straight legged on the gym floor. They’re in sort of a semicircle around a basketball, showing off their striped socks. There’s also photos of the team goofing around, which I love. But my favorite picture of my mom is her at practice leaping up to defend a player she still remembers.
Ellie’s Mom [00:01:43] This is Donna Kraus, who was, like, the star on the team. She’s shooting a basket, and you can tell there’s no way I’m going to block her shot.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:01:53] In the practice photos, everyone looks so cool and athletic with their white sneakers and socks. But in the game photos, some things looked off. The uniforms, for example…
Ellie’s Mom [00:02:05] The tops–they were kind of crop tops, so that when you, you know, shot a basket or moved your arms up, you could actually see your stomach.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:02:17] Yeah, her entire midriff is exposed. And I remember looking at these when I was a teenager and such a tomboy, I was horrified. Yeah, horrified because when I saw the uniforms, I could not imagine playing any sport at that age in a satiny shirt that barely covered my stomach. And that wasn’t the only thing my mom told me that sounded weird about her days playing basketball. There were also the rules.
Roman Mars [00:02:46] Ellie’s mom played basketball, but not the five-on-five basketball we know today.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:02:51] She played six-on-six Iowa girls’ basketball.
Ellie’s Mom [00:02:56] There were three forwards and three guards. So as the three guards, you guarded the other team’s three forwards.
Roman Mars [00:03:05] In six-on-six basketball, the three forwards only play offense, and the three guards only play defense. No one is allowed to leave their assigned half of the court.
Ellie’s Mom [00:03:16] I was a guard, so I never shot any baskets. All I did was try to prevent people from shooting baskets.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:03:22] Six-on-six still uses the full length of a basketball court, but in a different way than five-on-five. In six-player, three forwards from one team and three guards from the opposing team play at one end of the court. Meanwhile, their teammates wait at the half court line. So as a guard, my big role was to get the ball and get it down to the other half court so it would be in the hands of our forwards.
Roman Mars [00:03:49] If the team playing offense makes a basket, the ref throws the ball back to the opposing team’s forwards, and now they have a chance to score at the other end of the court.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:03:59] Another way to think about it–it’s like two games of three-on-three with the same ball being tossed back and forth.
Ellie’s Mom [00:04:05] And then the other thing that was kind of peculiar is you could only dribble the ball twice and then you had to do something with it.
Roman Mars [00:04:15] At the same time Ellie’s mom was playing six-on-six, the boys in her high school were playing five-on-five.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:04:20] Just what was your perception of the rules when you started playing, or did you have any
Ellie’s Mom [00:04:26] My perception was there were rules for the girls, there were rules for the boys, and they were different. And I don’t have the memory of feeling like, “Oh, I wish we could play the boys rules.” It was just kind of like those were our rules.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:04:41] I was 13 when I first found my mom’s yearbook. And to my teenage ears, this sport sounded confusing and so boring. When the ball is not in your end of the court, do you–what–just stand there? What’s fun about being a guard if you can never shoot? Not to mention, the rules reeked of sexism–as if Iowans felt they needed to invent a less rigorous version of basketball made just for the girls.
Roman Mars [00:05:08] But even so, Ellie’s mom insisted that girls’ six-on-six basketball was extremely popular–not just at her high school, but all over Iowa.
Ellie’s Mom [00:05:17] My memory is the stands being filled. My mother–she was always there. And I think most times she brought her knitting because she would get nervous and then she would be knitting away.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:05:30] At the girls’ games, the gyms in Iowa would be packed. And not just with knitting mothers. Entire towns would come out to cheer for their team. In fact, it wasn’t until my mom left Iowa that she realized this kind of enthusiasm for a girls’ sport was rare.
Ellie’s Mom [00:05:47] That it was regarded as important as boys’ basketball I didn’t think was unusual. I thought that that was just the way the world worked.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:06:02] My whole life, women’s and girls’ sports have been on the defensive–always put in a position to prove its worth. So, I truly could not comprehend what my mom was describing. A girls’ sport with weird sexist rules having just as much, if not more success than the boys’? So, for years I wrote the sport off until, well, now because the more I looked into it, the more I realized that my mom wasn’t just some six-on-six fanatic. The game and its rules were popular in Iowa for nearly a century. But the sport would ultimately be upended by a federal law designed to end gender discrimination.
Roman Mars [00:06:47] The story of the rise and fall of Iowa girls’ six-on-six starts with the establishment of women’s basketball in 1892.
Pamela Grundy [00:06:56] Women’s basketball is the most fascinating sport because women started playing it almost at exactly the same time men started playing it. And they started playing it at a time when the rules were shifting very quickly.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:07:10] This is basketball historian Pamela Grundy. She says even back when James Naismith invented basketball, the rules were still in flux.
Pamela Grundy [00:07:19] Dribbling didn’t exist at first; that had to get invented. Free throws didn’t exist at first; those had to get invented. And what happened with women–the fact that the game was very unshaped at the beginning meant that they could shape it in a way that was acceptable for women to play.
Roman Mars [00:07:38] A phys ed teacher from Smith College named Senda Berenson is credited with being the mother of women’s basketball. She learned of Naismith’s new game invented just miles down the road and thought it would be a good fit for her all-women’s gym class, even though team sports for women were practically unheard of in the late 1800s.
Pamela Grundy [00:07:56] Basketball was something that allowed women to play on a team, to run around, to really be vigorous in a way that traditional women’s physical activity didn’t allow women to do. So, it was a revelation. They just loved it. You look at the pictures and you listen to what women said about playing basketball back in those early days, and it was just the most amazing thing.
Roman Mars [00:08:21] Women’s colleges promoted exercise for their students, but they also stressed that physical education should not interfere with Christian ideals of womanhood, such as purity, obedience, and domesticity.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:08:32] Even Berenson, a true evangelist for women’s physical movement, was deeply concerned that women’s basketball never veer outside friendly play. She wanted her rules to favor civility over competition.
Pamela Grundy [00:08:46] Initially, Senda Berenson made rules that made the women’s game a little bit different–made rules that made the game seem a little more sedate, have a little less physical contact.
Roman Mars [00:08:59] In this early iteration of women’s basketball, the court was divided into three zones. Nine players on each team, passing the ball from zone to zone, attempting to score a basket. There was no grabbing at the ball, no more than three dribbles, and the winning team had to host a dinner for the defeated team.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:09:17] Berenson continued to refine the rules at the turn of the century. But by then, women’s basketball had already spread throughout the country.
Roman Mars [00:09:25] And one of the places it found a foothold was rural Iowa.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:09:32] Basketball was a good fit for rural Iowa. It needed limited equipment and could be played indoors in the winter. It was an easy activity for these tiny towns to rally around.
Max McElwain [00:09:42] Little towns of 200, 300 people–they played basketball. Not so in the cities. The cities in Iowa did not play any kind of sports until after the mid-century.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:09:56] This is Max McElwain, an academic, former sports reporter, and native Iowan. Max told me that while people in the city were debating whether sports were appropriate for girls, that just wasn’t a concern in small town Iowa.
Max McElwain [00:10:11] They were likely farm girls. They were likely having to do all sorts of physical chores on their farms. And there wasn’t that sort of bifurcation between being an athlete and being feminine.
Roman Mars [00:10:24] In the first few decades of Iowa girls’ basketball, the rules could differ from county to county. Some were six-player, some eight or nine.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:10:33] All the iterations were inspired by Senda Berenson’s sedate rules, but with one big exception.
Roman Mars [00:10:39] Iowans wanted their teams to win. They wanted the girls to compete just like the boys.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:10:48] In 1920, the Des Moines Register, the largest newspaper in the state, sponsored the first Iowa girls’ high school basketball tournament. And despite the event being hosted in the big city, only teams from tiny rural towns were invited. Other states also launched similar tournaments around this time.
Roman Mars [00:11:07] College educated PE teachers in the mold of Senda Berenson saw this increase in girls’ competition, and they were alarmed. To them, girls’ basketball was supposed to be fun and active but never motivated by winning and certainly not played in front of audiences.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:11:23] They looked around at the competition in men’s sports, saw these intense rivalries and violence, and wanted something different for women. So as a result, at the same time basketball was gaining popularity around the country, there was a major backlash–a counter movement of people like Berenson that lobbied school administrators and athletic organizers to keep competition out of girls’ sports.
Pamela Grundy [00:11:51] There start to be conflict between these physical educators and these sort of local communities who’ve started these tournaments. And physical educators really push to eliminate girls’ tournaments and to tamp down competition for girls. And so, you’ll have these statewide battles over this.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:12:14] And in many cases, the people pushing to end competition for girls–they win.
Pamela Grundy [00:12:19] So there are states where the girls’ state tournaments and girls’ competition in general just gets eliminated. Physical educators influence the legislatures to say, “No, we will not have this. We’ll have a boys’ tournament; we’re not going to have a girls’ tournament.”
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:12:33] And so in 1925, there was this big meeting in Iowa with the high school administrators about ending girls’ basketball. Cities like Des Moines were easily persuaded to shut down their programs.
Roman Mars [00:12:45] But farm country was not having it.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:12:48] Iowa’s small towns were fiercely protective of girls’ basketball. They resented this kind of outside interference. So, in that big meeting that decided the fate of the sport, a group of educators and coaches dissented. It’s hard to do much research on this without coming across a famous quote from the meeting.
Roman Mars [00:13:09] “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 you over.”
Pamela Grundy [00:13:17] So you have this group of rebels who really support girls’ basketball, and they say, “You know, we’re just not going to stand for this. We will leave, we’re going to start our own association, and we’re going to have our own tournament.” That’s what happens. And that’s the beginning of the real, you know, flowering of Iowa high school girls’ basketball–when they win a battle that supporters of girls’ basketball in many, many, many states across the country lose.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:13:45] The rebels who supported girls’ basketball started the first girls’ athletic union in the country. It was run by a group of men who relaunched the state tournament. And by 1934, the union codified a set of rules for the girls’ game.
Roman Mars [00:13:59] The six-on-six rules Ellie’s mom grew up with. Only forwards shoot, guards only played defense, and everyone has to stay on their assigned half of the court.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:14:09] There were also no tie-ups outside the key, which basically means no wrestling for the ball except under the basket. And this all might make the game sound stilted, but when I finally watched some of the archives, I was like, “Damn, this is fun.”
Pamela Grundy [00:14:25] If you see the game–I mean, it’s very fast, it’s very rhythmic, it’s quite impressive.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:14:32] It does have a nice flow. Bounce, bounce, pass. Bounce, bounce, shoot. The restrictions actually have a strange way of encouraging movement and opening up space.
Lisa Bluder [00:14:42] Man, the good high school players can learn how to get from half court to the basket in two dribbles.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:14:47] This is Lisa Bluder. Today, she’s head coach of the women’s basketball team at the University of Iowa, a top 25 program in the whole country. And she got her start playing high school six-on-six. Lisa says the rules helped generate a lot of offense.
Lisa Bluder [00:15:04] The floor was so spread out, you know, with only six players instead of ten players being around the basket.
Roman Mars [00:15:11] In a regular five-on-five game, as many as ten players can be in one half of the court at the same time. That makes it harder to find space to get off a clean shot or a layup.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:15:20] But in six-on-six there are fewer defenders and fewer shooters playing against each other. That gives offensive minded players more chances to score, more points under more favorable conditions.
Jan Jensen [00:15:31] I think I scored 104, 105 in a game.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:15:35] This is Jan Jensen, Lisa’s associate coach at the University of Iowa, who also played six-on-six back in her high school. She was one of the great offensive stars of her era.
Jan Jensen [00:15:46] I averaged, I think, 66 points a game. And all my friends were like, “How did you score that many points? And you weren’t a ball hog?” And I said, “I can’t explain it to you.” It’s just kind of how the six-on-six was. That was my role.
Roman Mars [00:16:00] These high scoring affairs were the stuff of legend. Even Jan Jensen’s grandmother, who also played back in the 1920s, earned herself an all-time nickname.
Jan Jensen [00:16:09] She was Dorcas Anderson. Dorcas is a biblical name. But they nicknamed her “Lottie” because she scored a lot of points.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:16:16] When I visited Jan, I got to see the hundred-year-old leather basketball her grandmother used.
Jan Jensen [00:16:21] When I touch the ball, it just makes me feel a little bit closer. It just is kind of a neat history that we shared.
Roman Mars [00:16:28] One of the reasons this form of girls’ basketball worked so well for these small towns is that the game supported more opportunities for specialization. If you were sturdy, you could play guard. If you were a natural shooter, you could play forward. You didn’t have to be talented in all the different parts of the game. You could simply play offense or defense.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:16:49] I have a real soft spot for the guards. They didn’t get the glory of setting points records. But mostly I’m fond of them because I totally would have been a guard. This was really solidified for me when I talked to Angie Looney, who played in the 1970s.
Angie Looney [00:17:06] I was a forward until my sister came up. And she was a freshman, and she took my spot. And so, I went to the guards. And I was like, “Well, why didn’t I do this earlier?” Because it was way more fun–because it was way more physical. It took the pressure off. I didn’t have to score and could just really go out and just be tough and rough and anticipate.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:17:32] Anticipation is such an important skill in sports, and it has nothing to do with your body type. It’s all about how you strategize for a game. And by the way, in case you haven’t already noticed, in the process of reporting this story, six-on-six totally won me over. I’m convinced that in another life I would have been in these small-town gyms, right alongside the women I spoke to.
Emilie Hoppe [00:17:58] I remember playing at Deep River Millersburg, a little town.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:18:04] This is Emilie Hoppe. She’s actually from my mom’s town, Amana, Iowa. I asked Emily to describe the most memorable crammed gym she played in.
Emilie Hoppe [00:18:13] That gym was so small that the baseline was actually the wall. And then the whole other side was where the fans sat. And it was possible on an inbound throw to stand there and have people touch you. And there might be 300 people because people really came to those games. Oh my gosh. That was the social thing to do.
Roman Mars [00:18:35] For many schools, the girls’ team wasn’t just some warmup act before the boys’ game. They were the show. Here’s Max McElwain.
Max McElwain [00:18:42] It just went without saying that the best basketball that you were going to see–and the most exciting–was the girls’. And it was no joke that people sometimes left after girls’ games.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:18:56] And just a quick footnote here, but I feel like it’s worth mentioning that Iowa wasn’t the only place with this hidden history of playing girls’ basketball. Working women played in the Southern Textile Mill League. A bunch of Catholic schools fielded teams. So did many Black high schools and colleges. Even Texas and Oklahoma had a history of playing six-on-six.
Roman Mars [00:19:17] But nowhere had a rich, unbroken tradition of competitive girls’ basketball like Iowa.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:19:25] All of the games in these small-town gyms mattered because everyone wanted to qualify for the state tournament.
State Tournament Clip [00:19:32] A tournament which has drawn a total of close to 75,000 fans for its five-day run. Small wonder that Iowa has earned itself the title of Queen state of girls’ high school basketball.
Lisa Bluder [00:19:44] We made it one game from state, but it still bothers me that I never made it to the state tournament. I mean, that was just, like, a dream.
Jan Jensen [00:19:52] If you made it to the state tournament, it was like–wow–you hit the pinnacle.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:19:58] At the state tournament, stars of the game were born, and legends were honored. Everyone I spoke to had extremely fond memories of this big event in Des Moines. And they all attended games in the era of E. Wayne Cooley.
Max McElwain [00:20:14] Cooley was, as I describe, a sort of the Ringling Brothers sort of character. He was a great showman. And he realized that, using television and other public relations tools, he could make the state basketball tournament into something unparalleled, which he did.
Roman Mars [00:20:34] Cooley was hired by the Iowa Girls’ Athletic Union in 1954 and played a huge role expanding the television broadcast of the tournament. By the late 1960s, the state finals were drawing 5 million viewers from nine states. He aimed to transform the tournament into a spectacle not only for viewers but for attendees.
Max McElwain [00:20:52] There would be almost 200,000 people there over the course of a week. Just incredible. Unheard of.
Jan Jensen [00:20:59] It was the old Vets auditorium. Vets auditorium was the hottest ticket. I mean, I would see the same people at the state tournament always. They had the same state tournament tickets for 40, 50 years.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:21:10] There were fancy programs, marching bands. And Cooley even started a tradition everybody remembers.
Announcer [00:21:17] Now, ladies and gentlemen, the cleanest show in town.
Emilie Hoppe [00:21:23] There’d be a whole group of boys, and they would sweep the floor with these broad janitorial brooms in sync. And they all dressed alike. One year I remember, they were all wearing tuxedos. And the boys, I was told, volunteered and kind of vied to do this.
Jan Jensen [00:21:40] What a concept. They’re sweeping the floor and making it pristine for women. I mean, isn’t that a big shift?
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:21:49] Cooley didn’t only pay attention to the sport during the big tournament. He was committed to the sport’s maintenance and integrity year-round. That sort of stewardship helped usher in a golden era for girls’ basketball in Iowa. But here’s the thing about Cooley–he was a showman, and so he was obsessed with image. And he held some regressive ideas about what kind of girls get to represent the sport.
Roman Mars [00:22:16] When Cooley was first elected to lead the union, he instituted a rule that prohibited girls who were married or had children from playing high school basketball. For him, quote, “Husbands and homes were the first obligation of wives.”
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:22:30] In other words, no teen moms. It actually took a lawsuit in 1971 to persuade Cooley and the union to repeal the sexist rule.
Roman Mars [00:22:41] And one short year later, a landmark piece of legislation would change Cooley’s grip over the sport and the very existence of six-on-six.
Pamela Grundy [00:22:50] Title IX comes in, which says that educational institutions must provide equal opportunity for women in everything.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:22:59] Title IX is a federal civil rights law passed in 1972. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program or activity that receives federal financial assistance.
Roman Mars [00:23:12] It was motivated by explicit discrimination in colleges–such as women being barred from certain programs and courses, as well as the mistreatment of female faculty members. People weren’t even thinking of sports when Title IX was passed because the disparity was so taken for granted.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:23:28] Regardless, it ended up being a big win for women and girls’ sports across the country. And initially, that was the case for Iowa, too. The law encouraged Iowa cities to finally support competitive girls’ basketball after giving it up in the 1920s.
Deb Hazelton Wretman [00:23:45] And that, I think, is part of the story that doesn’t get very much attention but is the last chapter before six-on-six stopped being six-on-six.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:23:58] Deb Wretman attended high school in Cedar Rapids in the early ’70s. She grew up in Iowa watching the state tournament on TV, but her school didn’t have a girls’ basketball program. Fortunately for her, the momentum of Title IX and the women’s movement finally brought six-on-six to her city. What she remembers most is driving out into farm country to play against some of the teams she grew up admiring.
Deb Hazelton Wretman [00:24:22] I will never forget riding the bus all the way up to Northeast Goose Lake. And they just pounded us, of course–just pounded us. And the people in the stands were cheering them on. And I was thinking, “Gosh, how cool is this? I mean, we’re totally losing.” But what those small schools and those women did was teach us.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:24:45] I love this. Getting creamed, but still being excited to be a part of things.
Roman Mars [00:24:53] But while Deb was enjoying her introduction to six-on-six, the standard basketball game in the rest of the country, and particularly at the collegiate level, was heading in the other direction–towards five-on-five.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:25:06] Suddenly, if you were a school administrator in Iowa with a girls’ basketball program, you have to decide what rules to use. Six-on-six–the legacy sport of the state, the sport that supported generations of girls in Iowa. Or five-on-five–a sport that now represents equality between men and women.
Roman Mars [00:25:26] All over the country, high schools were choosing five-on-five because that’s what the colleges had chosen to play. And college sports means opportunities for college scholarships. Here’s Pamela Grundy.
Pamela Grundy [00:25:38] That’s when in Iowa, it just becomes more difficult because if you’re a young woman and you would like a basketball scholarship to college, you would like to play basketball in college, or maybe you’d like to go play basketball in the Olympics someday–because, of course, 1976, you get the first women’s Olympic basketball team–but you’ve grown up playing a very different game, you can’t just switch easily from one to the other. And so, you’re at a tremendous disadvantage.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:26:10] But the allure of playing college ball didn’t carry the same weight in rural Iowa, in part because they already had a prestigious sport. Six-player had this huge infrastructure behind it. And besides, if you were good enough, some six-on-six girls were getting recruited to play five-on-five for colleges anyway, including Lisa Bluder, the women’s head coach at the University of Iowa.
Lisa Bluder [00:26:33] I remember on the forum when they asked you what position you played, I was like, “I’m not sure.” You know, I didn’t really know what the five-on-five game– You know, I knew I was a forward in high school in the six-and-six games, so I wrote down “forward.”
Ruth Beyerhelm [00:26:47] I had been a good high school player, and I got recruited. I was sort of surprised by that because I played six-on-six and they would have no idea whether I could really transition well.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:26:59] This is Ruth Beyerhelm. She’s from Mediapolis, a small town that qualified for the state tournament more times than any other. Ruth was able to transition into five-player, but there was one big problem.
Ruth Beyerhelm [00:27:12] I did not enjoy five-on-five basketball at all.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:27:16] So tell me about that.
Ruth Beyerhelm [00:27:18] There’s too many damn people in the way. You know what I mean? In five-on-five there’s just too many.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:27:26] Title IX forced the birth of tons of women’s basketball programs, but it didn’t necessarily mean that the women’s game was treated with the same weight as the men’s. Ruth, for her part, was shocked at the drop in status.
Ruth Beyerhelm [00:27:41] The university was terrible. I mean, just as an example, the women’s team got one pair of shoes at the beginning of the year. That’s it. The men’s team? They could have unlimited numbers of shoes they wanted. And so, a lot of them, who thought they were big stars, would have these games, and then they would take their shoes off at the end of the game and give it to some kid–a fan. You know, it’s like, “Dude, you scored two points and had a rebound. Nobody wants your shoes.”
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:28:09] And for Jan Jensen, she noticed the drop in attendance.
Jan Jensen [00:28:12] It wasn’t until I went to college that I understood the necessity of Title IX. In high school, I mean, the crowds were standing room only for our girls’ games.
Roman Mars [00:28:26] Ruth, Jan, and Lisa were able to transition to five-player. But many top-level high school six-on-six players and their families wanted to eliminate any roadblocks on the path to these new athletic scholarships. So, in 1983, a lawsuit was filed arguing that Iowa six-on0six basketball violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:28:48] Iowa girls’ basketball was under a ton of pressure to assimilate. In a last-ditch effort to preserve six-on-six, the union allowed schools to choose whether they play five-player or six-player. Iowa’s small towns held on to their game for as long as they could before it simply became too complicated.
Max McElwain [00:29:07] People saw the writing on the wall. Everybody knew that sort of way of life was over.
Commentator [00:29:14] Well, certainly times do change. They move on, whether some people like it or not.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:29:19] The last six-on-six state tournament was held in 1993.
Commentator [00:29:23] The shot hit in and out. No good. Two seconds. One second. And that will be the buzzer. And the ballgame.
Jan Jensen [00:29:38] I just think that six-on-six was so different that anybody who got to play it has an incredible sense of pride. You know, now that it’s been over for a couple of decades or whatever–I think those of us that got to play it were even more grateful because it was unique. We look back on it, and I just feel like it was a really special era.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:30:01] For a long time I didn’t take six-on-six seriously. And what it really boils down to is that I didn’t think it was real basketball. Real basketball–real sports–are what the boys play. I knew this because when I was little, I played pickup baseball and football with the neighborhood boys but never in organized leagues because there were none for girls. This early experience made it really easy for me to assume that feminism is just about getting what the boys get. Learning about six-on-six showed me how contrived these sports hierarchies really are. Small town Iowa girls didn’t yearn to play the boys rules because they already had a culture where girls’ basketball was valued. Places like where my mom grew up saw the potential in girls’ basketball and chose to care about it–chose to put money and maintenance into it. They didn’t expect it to erupt from the soil fully formed. Our sports culture, how inclusive it is–how prestigious–is a collective choice? A choice that Iowa reminded me is ours to make.
Roman Mars [00:31:15] After the break, the stars of six-on-six and the game of the century. As a business-to-business marketer, your needs are unique. B2B buying cycles are long, and your customers face incredibly complex decisions. Isn’t it time you had a marketing platform built specifically for you? LinkedIn Ads empowers marketers with solutions for you and your customers. LinkedIn Ads allows you to build the right relationships, drive results, and reach your customers in a respectful environment. You have direct access to and build relationships with decision makers. 875 million members, 180 million senior level executives, and 10 million C-level executives. You’ll be able to drive results with targeting and measurement tools built specifically for B2B. Make B2B marketing everything it can be, and get $100 credit on your next campaign. Go to linkedin.com/invisible to claim your credit. That’s linkedin.com/invisible. Terms and conditions apply. Many of today’s occupations didn’t really exist a decade ago. Driverless car engineers, cryptocurrency analysts, podcasters–if I’m being honest. From Etsy seller to emoji translator, new opportunities to build a career are popping up every day. And Squarespace is the ultimate tool for professionals to build a site to market their brand and sell anything. Features like Squarespace Analytics allow you to use insights to grow your business. The appointment scheduling feature allows you to add online booking and scheduling to your Squarespace website. With the video studio app feature, you can create and share Pro-Level videos. Squarespace even offers a member area feature, where you can sell access to gated content, like videos, online courses, or newsletters. All the modern tools you need for the new jobs of today. Head to squarespace.com/invisible for a free trial, and when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. I’ve also picked out some of my favorite episodes of 99% Invisible to share, and the audio is conveniently embedded even on mobile. Try it yourself. Go to squarespace.com/invisible for a free trial. And when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. Is the New Year making you want a new look for your space? Article is the easiest way to make your space beautiful. Their team of designers focuses on beautifully crafted pieces, quality materials, and durable construction. When I moved into my new place, I wanted new, quality furniture. I was tired of a poorly made hodgepodge of stuff that I’d collected over the years. So, I bought Article everything. My big dining room table. The Zola black leather dining chairs–which are simply the best dining chairs and existence–I have eight of them. My sofa, coffee table, end table, media unit sideboard–I basically have an Article showroom in my rented house. I go for the walnut mid-century styles, but whether you’re mid-century modern, industrial, or traditionalist, you’ll be able to find something at a fair price. And this is because Article cuts out the middleman. There are no showrooms–except for the one in my house–no salespeople, and no retail markups. Article is offering our listeners $50 off their first purchase of $100 or more to claim. Visit article.com/99, and the discount will be automatically applied at checkout. That’s article.com/99. Get $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more. 99% Invisible is supported by BetterHelp online counseling. I’m sure you, like me, know a lot of people in counseling or are in need of counseling. All right. We’re back with Ellie Gordon-Moershel. And I hear you have something more to tell us about Iowa six-on-six.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:35:21] Yes. I fear there will be an uprising if I don’t at least highlight some of the superstars of the game.
Roman Mars [00:35:27] Well, I mean, we met one of them during the course of the story, Jan Jensen, who scored, like, 105 points during a game.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:35:34] Yes. Yes, she did. And Roman, I hope you don’t mind if I take a moment to point out something kind of frivolous, but a bunch of the six-on-six legends I’m about to go through have the coolest alliterative names.
Roman Mars [00:35:48] Okay, tell me more.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:35:49] So we have our pal, Jen Jensen, of course. But there’s also Lynn Lorenzen. She was the all-time leading scorer in the whole state. And there is Heather Heddens.
Heather Heddens [00:36:01] If you follow girls’ basketball at all, people kind of knew my name.
Commentator [00:36:09] Heather Heddens, she’s the tournament queen.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:36:13] So I actually got to speak with Heather, who played in Mediapolis, that dynasty basketball town I mentioned in the piece. And Heather was a forward on the Mediapolis team that won the state tournament in 1973.
Roman Mars [00:36:25] I mean, while we’re on the subject of names, Mediapolis is a top tier small town name. I mean, that is fantastic.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:36:32] I know. It’s so good. It sounds like it’s from The Phantom Tollbooth–you know, Digitopolis, Dictionopolis. Anyway, after her playing days, Heather went on to be a dentist. And she told me this funny story about meeting a patient’s daughter who actually named her child after her.
Heather Heddens [00:36:49] And her name was Heather Harris. “I wanted a musical name like Heather Heddens, and so we named her Heather Harris.”
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:36:55] Oh, my God. You can hear how excited I am by this in the interview. And now whenever I’m around someone who’s looking for a new name for, like, a pet, a car, or something, I always suggest a famous six-on-six player. And very recently, I just convinced my friend in the Yukon to name her porcupine puppet Deb Coates.
Roman Mars [00:37:19] Okay, so who’s Deb Coates?
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:37:20] So Deb Coates–she actually played with Heather Heddens.
Heather Heddens [00:37:24] Probably the most outstanding player we’d ever had in my time was Deb Coates.
Commentator [00:37:30] Four straight field goals for amazing Debbie Coates. She’s the tournament-scoring leader with 173 points in three games so far.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:37:38] So something we didn’t get to talk about in the piece was how much of a role newspapers–like The Des Moines Register–played in supporting the game. Girls grew up reading about Deb Coates, and that’s just something former players told me a lot–just how nice it was for them to have role models that were girls from other small towns.
Roman Mars [00:37:57] Yeah, it’s a huge deal–especially the attention from the media. That’s amazing.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:38:01] And as you know, the sport went on for generations, and so there’s a ton of players we could talk about. But the very last person I need you to know about is Denise Long because she was the first woman to ever be drafted to the NBA.
Roman Mars [00:38:16] Whoa. Like the NBA NBA? Not the WNBA? The NBA?
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:38:19] The NBA NBA. This was 1969. She was selected in the 13th round by the then San Francisco Warriors. It was mostly a publicity stunt in that the owner of the Warriors had no intention of her playing with the men. He just wanted to start a professional women’s basketball league with Denise Long as the star.
Roman Mars [00:38:40] So how did he know about a high schooler who played six-on-six in Iowa?
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:38:43] Yeah, I know. Well, so here’s the thing. National news outlets started covering the Iowa girls’ basketball phenomenon actually as far back as the ’40s. Though, I will say, a lot of the coverage was kind of weird and sexist. But Denise once scored 111 points, which means she shares the record for the most points scored ever in a six-on-six game. And you know what? That, like, really stuck out to people.
Roman Mars [00:39:09] Yeah, I would imagine so. I mean, it’s such a notable part of the six-on-six history that several people have scored 100 points or more in a game. At least in the NBA, that would be just unheard of. I mean, only Wilt Chamberlain did it back in the early 1960s.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:39:21] Yeah. Denise even met him once. She remembers him telling her, “Aren’t you the young lady who broke my record?”
Roman Mars [00:39:29] That’s so good. It’s nice of him to recognize that.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:39:31] Yeah. So, there are all kinds of stories about Denise, who even ended up being a guest on Johnny Carson because of all of this. But the Denise story I want to end on is the 1968 state tournament finals. And I’ve seen it called “The Game of the Century.”
Commentator [00:39:49] Now the big moment has arrived. The championship game between Everly and Union-Whitton, a meeting that’s been brewing for four months of the regular season and now has reached a boiling point in this tournament.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:40:00] Denise was on Union-Whitton. So was her cousin, Cindy, who was also a very impressive player. It was their school’s first time at state. Denise is only 16 years old at the time, but she’s already won over the entire state of Iowa.
Commentator [00:40:14] Denise Long is the girl who has electrified this tournament like no other player in its 42-year history.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:40:21] The media was also really excited about this face off because Everly–the other team–they also had a star player.
Commentator [00:40:28] In the forward court, the veteran is Jeanette Olson, the great jump shot specialist who led her team to the state title two years ago as a sophomore and now is back better than ever.
Roman Mars [00:40:39] So what happened in this game?
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:40:40] I’m glad you asked because I watched the entire game on YouTube. And the first thing I want to reiterate is just how fun the sport is to watch. And I realize that the pace actually reminds me of hockey because there’s, like, this constant movement of the ball from one end to the next. But it’s funny though–because of the six-on-six rules, Denise and Jeanette didn’t ever face off directly against each other.
Roman Mars [00:41:05] Oh, right because they’re both forwards, so they stay on their half of the course. They never actually come into contact.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:41:11] Yeah. And what that means is that when the ball wasn’t on their side of the court, they could just watch the other person play. And they kind of built up this mutual admiration.
Roman Mars [00:41:21] That’s so amazing. So how did the game of the century shake out?
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:41:25] Well, it’s a super tight game. And with 45 seconds to go, it’s 101 to 95. And it seems like Denise Long’s team, Union-Whitton, is going to be able to hold out for the win. But then Jeanette Olsen nails two shots. Now they’re only two points behind. And then with three seconds to go, Olsen gets fouled.
Commentator [00:41:49] A foul called!
Roman Mars [00:41:52] So she has two free throws. And if she makes them, she can tie the game.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:41:55] Yeah. Can you imagine that pressure?
Roman Mars [00:41:57] I cannot.
Commentator [00:42:05] Jeanette Olsen, with the weight of the world on her shoulders–a pressure ball player–goes to the line. Let’s watch her…
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:42:06] What do you think happens?
Roman Mars [00:42:08] I mean, for it to be the game of the century, I think she has to make the shots.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:42:12] Yeah, she’s super confident and sinks them both.
Commentator [00:42:16] It’s up. It’s good. The score is tied!
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:42:18] So she makes the shots, but there’s still three seconds left. There’s a turnover, she gets one more shot, and she misses. And I literally gasped at this moment, even though I knew what was happening because the score was on the title of the YouTube. It goes into overtime. Union-Whitton takes a four-point lead, and they just hold on to it. And so, the very end of the game, it’s 113 to 107.
Commentator [00:42:44] The Union-Whitton crowd is going crazy, and you can’t tell the winners from the losers because they’re all crying. Tremendous ball game. Greatest finish we’ve ever seen.
Roman Mars [00:42:56] Wow. That’s so great.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:42:57] It was a wild ride. And I have one last thing to share with you. There’s this book about the history of the jump shot called Rise and Fire, and there’s a whole chapter actually dedicated to this game. The author visited both Denise and Jeanette in 2014, and Jeanette showed him a letter she got from Denise just a few days after the 1968 title game. And I just want to read you a little excerpt from it. Remember, she would have been 16 years old when she wrote this.
Roman Mars [00:43:24] Okay.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:43:25] “I think you’re the best B.B. player I’ve ever seen, and I mean that. There will never be a player like you. Never. Just because you didn’t win the state championship, it didn’t take any points away from you being the greatest player because you are. I just felt privileged to be able to stand beside you on the all-tournament team.”
Roman Mars [00:43:46] That is so sweet. That makes me so happy. Well, thank you for sharing, Ellie. I really appreciate it.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:43:51] Thank you.
Roman Mars [00:43:56] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Ellie Gordon Moershel. Edited by Jayson De Leon. Original music by Swan Real. Sound mix by Casey Holford. Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Delaney Hall is our Senior Editor. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Emmett FitzGerald, Christopher Johnson, Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado Medina, Kelly Prime, Joe Rosenberg, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. Special thanks this week to Max McElwain whose book The Only Dance in Iowa: A History of Six-Player Girls’ Basketball was crucial to the research for this story. As well as Shattering the Glass: The Remarkable History of Women’s Basketball by Pamela Grundy and Susan Shackelford. Additional thanks to the Iowa Women’s Archives and a special shout out for all the enthusiastic support from the “I Played 6-on-6 basketball in Iowa!!” Facebook group. Ellie also has a super fun podcast about the film Dirty Dancing–a scene-by-scene breakdown of Dirty Dancing–called Butt Out, Baby! which you should definitely check out. 99% Invisible is part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram, Reddit, and TikTok too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at 99pi.org.
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