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Posting Up with Granny Basketball
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa—The women who play Granny Basketball rarely get called for traveling.
They keep one foot planted in a youthful past.
The ladies are between the ages of 50 and 87. The Grannies play by 1923 rules. There are only two dribbles per possession per player. They play six on six and if there are any issues with that, players refer to their 58-page “Joy of Six” handbook.
They trash talk about quilting.
A double dribble is something they see with their grandchildren…….
…..Iowa is to Granny Basketball what Indiana is to Men’s basketball. Liz Taylor trumps Chuck Taylor.
On a recent Saturday morning at Trinity Lutheran School in Cedar Rapids, a double header includes the Dubuque Courtside Cuties and the Cedar Rapids Late Bloomers. The games are free and open to the public, charity donations accepted at the door. Teams will play at 10 a.m. Feb. 23 at the 26,000-square feet Courtside Sports Bar and Grill, 2095 Holiday Dr. in Dubuque. There are three full size basketball courts within the 145-seat restaurant.
Dubuque is the closest the Granny basketball movement has come to Chicago. The 17-team league began in 2005.
The world of Granny Basketball does not permit bare flesh (neck to toes)–so you cannot see their tattoos. The uniforms replicate original girl’s basketball uniforms of the 1920s with black bloomers, striped socks and middy blouses. Dustcaps, flowers and bows are optional. But the vibe is lively. Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” and Kenny Loggins’ “Footlose” are played during time outs.
Here is Jon Sall’s tender video-doc of the athletes in action:
Barb Alexander plays center for the Courtside Cuties.
She is a 1960 graduate of Senn High School in Chicago. The 5’6″ Alexander did not play basketball at Senn because the sport was not offered to most girls before Title IX was enacted in 1972.
Her father Harold “Shep” Shapiro was regarded as the first Jewish basketball player at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The 5’10″ Shapiro played for the Fighting Illni from 1939-41 before joining the semipro Rochester Seagrams.
Alexander, 69, wears a starched white dress shirt when she plays.
The shirt belonged to her husband Richard Alexander. The well known Chicago patent lawyer died last summer at the age of 87.
“This league has saved me,” Alexander says in a post-game interview. “My husband had about 12 of these shirts. This is so much fun. None of us knew each other before this started. The center’s job really is to get from the guards on one side to the forwards on the other. I didn’t mess up today. Once you get the ball in the center, you can’t move your feet. I have a tendency to move my feet and get called for traveling.”
The Alexanders moved to Galena from Chicago in 1992. “This sport was always big in Iowa,” she says. “People went to the games.” Rural pride gave women’s basketball it’s legs in Iowa. In 1968 Sports Illustrated devoted five pages to the sport as it covered the 1968 state championship game when Union-Whitten beat the Everly Cattle Feeders 113-107 in overtime.
Alexander says, “We’re hoping to start a team in Galena. You can see what good athletes some of these women are. This just wasn’t offered to us growing up. If you weren’t a cheerleader, you didn’t do anything. People don’t realize that.”
Alexander grew up in a two-flat in the Lakewood-Balmoral neighborhood. Her father worked as a manufacturer’s representative for the since-closed Brody Seating Co. in Chicago. Shapiro died in 1999 at the age of 83. Alexander is the retired president (1986-90) of the Illinois Society for Clinical Social Work.
While Alexander is a center of distribution, Grannies Marjorie Beatty, Arlene Wear and Dolores Rawson are the original triangle offense.
The sisters are members of the Center Point Junque Ford Model T’s. They all started for the Norway (Ia.) High School girls basketball team. Norway is about 20 miles southwest of Cedar Rapids.
Rawson, 87, is the oldest player in the 12-team league. She is a center.
Rawson was a sophomore when Norway started a girl’s team in 1939.
Wear, a center, is 85 and Beatty is 78. Beatty, at 5’5″ is sort of like a sixth woman, switching between forward, guard and center. She even dives for a loose ball during a game at Trinity. All the Grannies on the floor shout, “GRANNY DOWN!” A fourth sister, Virginia Roths, 77, a center, no longer plays because of Parkinson’s Disease.
Last year the sisters were discovered by “The Doctors” syndicated television show. Beatty and Wear flew to Los Angeles for the taping. They shot free throws with former NBA star Kiki Vandeweghe.
During the late 1990s Beatty’s son Mike was advertising director at the Chicago Sun-Times and is now the publisher of the Joplin (Mo.) Globe. In August, 2010 he wrote the tender column “My Mom is an Inspiration on the Basketball Court” when his mother appeared in the National Granny League Tournament in Branson, Mo. The tournament featured the Basketball Funatics and the Lake Charles (La.) Hot Flashes.
His mother says, “My Dad died at a heart attack at my game in 1950. I was on the bench. Virginia was out on the court. I heard ‘Is there a doctor in the house? And our Dad was laying on the floor. People held me back. I didn’t play my last year. I wasn’t interested much in the game. I didn’t play again until 2007 when Arlene told me about this league.” Henry Uthoff was a grain farmer in Norway who died at age 56.
Wear recalls, “My Dad set up a basketball net at home. We played there, then I played four years at Norway High School. I played for (the now-defunct Cedar Rapids ) Wilson Packing House for a while. Beatty jumps in, “I’d love to play like the men. They won’t let us be that aggressive.” The league deems physical play too hard on older people.
Rawson adds, “When I was 81 I thought maybe I could play a year or two. And here I am, I’ll be 88 in August.”
Kind of like the Bulls’ Nazr Mohammed.
Jane Suiter is the National Director of Granny Basketball. “I didn’t play in high school,” says Suiter, 64, of Marion, Ia. “I was at a small Catholic high school in Iowa. We didn’t have girls sports. I’m 5’10.” I was taller than most of the boys at the time. It was frustrating because you would watch the state tournament on TV and not have the opportunity to play.” Suiter’s first teaching job was at Don Bosco High School in Gilbertville, the same high school she attended. In 1970 she started the first ever girl’s program at her high school.
1970 is not so long ago.
The office of Civil Rights began banning six on six girls basketball in 1958. The last two states to accept equality were Iowa in 1993 and Oklahoma in 1995. The history of the game is examined in the 1993 book “From Six-on-Six ro Full Court Press (A Century of Iowa Girl’s Basketball)” by Janice A. Beran [University of Iowa Press].
“A lot of us are frustrated athletes because we didn’t get that chance in high school,” Suiter continues. Wear didn’t start playing Granny basketball until age 79. She sighs, “You’re not supposed to be able to jump or run or hover. The rules are much stricter than they were when we played. It’s hard not to run. It’s hard not to jump.
“Old habits die hard.”