This past July, I went to see “Six-on-Six: The Musical,” which is an homage to girls’ basketball as it used to be played in the state of Iowa.
Playwright and director Robert John Ford witnessed the famed state tournament himself while in high school in Iowa in 1978, and then again in 1987 when the six-on-six game was in its last decade of existence.
The experience of watching a packed arena in Des Moines going crazy over girls’ basketball _ and what that said about community pride in Iowa _ made so strong an impression on him that he was able to overcome his peers’ skepticism to write a musical about the sport.
There is nothing that I am aware of in American sports history that was quite like the phenomenon of Iowa’s six-on-six girls’ basketball tournament. I say that because of the factors involved. This started in Iowa in 1920, and even in what I call the “backlash” decades for girls’ and women’s sports _ the 1950s and ‘60s _ it not only survived, but was in its heyday.
The six-on-six sport was somewhat popular in other states, too, most notably Oklahoma and Tennessee. But nowhere except Iowa has there been a state tournament for girls’ basketball every year since 1920. Nowhere was it so large a part of a state’s historical “quilt” _ a tournament that lured entire towns (small-town pride was the very essence of this event) to empty out and head to Des Moines each March, even in blizzards.
Imagine it: Something that could be wildly popular in one state … but was like that ONLY in that state. For instance, girls growing up in the 1930s-60s in the six states that border Iowa may have lived mere minutes away from a place that could have given them a chance at a completely different athletic experience in high school. Yet for so many years, their states still did not offer it to them.
Although for that matter, basketball wasn’t available even to all the girls in the state of Iowa. The larger schools, for the most part, stopped girls’ basketball in the 1920s (it had existed in many places since the turn of the century) and then did not bring it back until the late 1960s or early 1970s.
Janice A. Beran, in her book, “From Six-on-Six to Full Court Press” explains some of the factors for this. Among them were that in larger schools, boys’ basketball coaches had more power and also tended not to also coach girls, as was the case at smaller schools. So the boys’ coaches, for the most part, did not want to share gym time.
Beran also points out that, ironically, there were many women involved in physical education that actually fought against competitive sports for girls. There were the old stereotypes about how girls might be “hurt” by too much exertion or that they would adopt “non-ladylike” behavior through competition.
But also, the phys-ed women of that day tended to think they had to choose between providing resources for all girls to participate in athletics in some way or limiting the resources for all by giving most to the girls who were actually competitive. They generally favored the first option, and sadly it took some of them a long time to realize they should insist on both. It was mostly a small group of influential men involved in Iowa high school athletics that fostered and championed girls’ competitive sports.
Girls’ basketball in Iowa in small towns took root and didn’t wither. It provided these communities with entertainment and something to rally around. Also, the idea of physical activity getting too “strenuous” for girls was obviously an absurd concept in places where daughters were raised doing heavy labor the same as sons on family farms.
Iowa introduced a state five-on-five tournament for girls in 1985 (letting schools pick which style they wanted), and that existed along with six-on-six until 1993, when the old style was fully abandoned. While total five-on-five for girls was inevitable and obviously the right thing to do, there are still Iowans who mourn the loss of six-on-six. Which is a mindset that the musical sympathizes with.
So why am I bringing up all this stuff? Well, I never get tired of talking about Iowa’s six-on-six history and all the fascinating social factors that went into its success and its eventual end. Which parallel, among other things, the tragic demise of the family farm and a way of life. But I do have a more specific and timely reason in this case, which is …
Sitting there, side by side at Big 12 media day this past week were Alison Lacey and Kelsey Bolte, the two returning starters from Iowa State’s Sweet 16 team of last season.
And I really love such juxtapositions of life stories. Lacey is a native Australian, from Canberra, that nation’s capital city. Bolte is from Ida Grove, Iowa, about two hours northwest of Ames.
Ida Grove is a bit south of Correctionville, which won the very first official Iowa high school state title in girls’ basketball in 1920. Ida Grove itself won the six-on-six title three times: in 1924 (when it “tied” – and no, I don’t know exactly how that happened _ with Aplington) and in 1928 and ’29.
So in Bolte, you have a true small-town Iowa girl, the kind who for decades played basketball in the state, albeit for much of that time not the full-court version that Bolte excels at now.
She’s a 6-foot-1 junior guard who averaged 9.4 points last season and is expected to do even more this year as she and Lacey will have a lot on their shoulders with a team that doesn’t have many experienced players. There are five newcomers, four of them freshmen.
I asked Bolte when she knew she wanted to go to Iowa State.
“I think I always knew,” she said. “My dad has had season tickets to Iowa State games for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been a Cyclone fan; my dad graduated from there.
“I remember watching Stacey Frese … and Megan Taylor was my favorite player. And Angie Welle, with the way she ran the floor. I’d watch them, thinking about what it would be like to play there.”
But while Bolte was growing up in western Iowa envisioning being an Iowa State Cyclone, Lacey was in eastern Australia with absolutely no idea there even was such a thing.
“It is unbelievable,” Lacey said. “Five years ago, I never thought I’d be living in the United States by myself without my parents. And it’s been the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve grown up, I’ve learned so much, and I love Iowa State.”
Lacey came to the Iowa to finish out high school, along with her twin brother, Mark, and they lived with host families. She went to Ballard High in the greater Ames area, and has transitioned into a player who perfectly fits Cyclone coach Bill Fennelly’s system.
Last year as a junior, the 6-0 Lacey averaged 11.2 ppg and also did a blog for the New York Times that provided insight into being an Australian living in the middle of Iowa. This season, the senior guard is unquestionably the head honcho among the Cyclone players.
“We have a lot of new faces and they are going to have to play,” Lacey said. “It’s Kelsey’s and my job to make sure they’re ready to go. The biggest thing is helping them understand the pace of the game. We tell them, ‘You have to pick it up.’ We have to get them on a fast-track pace.”
The Cyclones had quite an NCAA Tournament run last season until they encountered the buzzsaw of Stanford. But what they did to get into the game – an amazing rally to top Michigan State in the Sweet 16 – is what they’ll remember most from 2009.
Iowa State was down 68-61 with just over a minute left against the Spartans and … here’s how Lacey describes what happened then.
“Seriously, we thought we’d lost it,” she acknowledged. “It was a lot to come back from. But we thought, ‘Why not press? Give it our best effort.’ And then Heather (Ezell) banks in a 3, we get a quick steal, our press – that we never run – works. We hit key shots … everything fell into place.”
Yep, that’s pretty much what happened. Except Lacey neglected to mention she made a 3-pointer in that 8-0 at the end of the game, which Iowa State won 69-68. Lacey, in fact, had a game-high 29 points that evening in Berkeley, Calif. But she didn’t talk about that … as I wrote about in an ESPN.com story during the WNBA Finals about Penny Taylor and Tully Bevilaqua, Aussies are not big on chatting about their individual play, but they love discussing their team.
However, Lacey’s individual talent is indeed worth talking about.
“I think if Alison is completely healthy for a year, she’s as good as any player in this league,” Fennelly said. “I really believe that. She’s our best player. She’s our point guard. She’s the leader of this team. It’s her team. And she wants it to be her team.”
Indeed, when I asked them who did most of the “yelling” at the freshmen in practice, Bolte smiled and looked at Lacey, who said, “Oh, I do. It’s my job, so if they need it, I’ll do it.”
Even though she’s not an “Iowa girl,” Lacey fits in so well on that timeline that goes back 11 decades for females playing basketball in that state.
Oh, and one last cool “connection:” sitting a little ways down from the Iowa State duo on media day was the Nebraska contingent. Huskers coach Connie Yori won the six-on-six state championship as a star player at Ankeny High in Iowa in 1980, then lost the title game on a buzzer-beater in 1981.
Just another piece from the remarkable puzzle of girls’ basketball’s history in Iowa.