Everything you’ve always wanted to know about six-on-six, but were afraid to ask…
As if those of us over age 30 need yet another reminder of our advancing years, consider this: very few – if any – of the Iowa girls who currently play high school basketball have any recollection of the game of six-on-six. To try to fully and accurately explain the origin and evolution of this phenomenon to today’s generation of young people is no simple task, especially in this age of political correctness and gender sensitivity. But for those individuals who have a deeper understanding of its rich and sometimes controversial history, particularly the hundreds of thousands of girls who played the game, six-on-six was instrumental in both the development of young women and the proliferation of girls’ athletics across the country.
In the 1890s, when the still-new game of five-player basketball was gaining popularity throughout the country, a separate six-player game was created for girls because, among other reasons, it was feared that the five-player version would foster such things as excessive muscle growth, masculine traits and even infertility in the young women who played it. And so, for the “benefit” of the girls, the basketball court was divided into three smaller sections – with two shooting forwards in one end section, two defending guards in the other end section, and two centers (one jumping, one a running or side center) in the middle section – and rules were established that essentially prohibited the “weaker sex” from exhaustive activities such as jumping, running and dribbling the ball excessively (never mind that most girls were accustomed to long and hard work on the farm and at home!).
While this version of the game was played throughout the United States for several decades in the early part of the century, nowhere was it more popular than in Iowa. But by the 1920s, even six-on-six was beginning to be viewed unfavorably by some, as a new philosophy about girls' athletics was sweeping the country – competition was good for boys, but participation was what was best for girls. Within the next ten years, almost all competitive girls’ sports began to be relegated to physical education classes, and in many cases they disappeared completely.
When the Iowa High School Athletic Association also adopted this philosophy, a group of dissenting school administrators (all male) who favored competitive girls' sports decided to form a separate athletic union exclusively for girls in 1927 – the first of its kind in the nation. From that point on, Iowa became permanently linked to girls’ high school athletics of the highest quality, with six-on-six becoming the grand dame of them all. In 1935, the game was switched from a three-court version to a two-court version (eliminating the center positions), and over the years other rules and modifications designed to improve the game (such as a change in the size of the court and the addition of a three-point line) were occasionally implemented. With each new generation of players, the pace, strategy and scoring of the game dramatically increased.
By the 1960s, only Iowa and a handful of other states were still playing competitive six-on-six girls’ basketball at the high school level. While five-player girls’ basketball had slowly begun to establish roots in other states, Iowans had no interest in change. And why should they? Six-on-six drew more participants and fans per capita than any other high school sport (including boys’ sports) in the nation, its state tournament was consistently sold out and was regularly televised to a multi-state region, and the fabled 1968 championship game in which Denise Long’s Union-Whitten team defeated Jeanette Olson’s Everly team by the score of 113-107 in overtime had vaulted the sport to international prominence. It seemed nothing could stop six-on-six in Iowa.
But even though the game remained immensely popular and continued to be favored by a majority of Iowans, the winds of change were beginning to blow. Following the 1972 enactment of the landmark Title IX rule that sought to bring about parity in men’s and women’s athletics, six-on-six began to stir controversy – some celebrated it as the shining example of an established and successful sports program; others vilified it as an antiquated relic based on the sexist beliefs and practices of another era. The federal government threatened a lawsuit against the Iowa Girls’ High School Athletic Union, claiming the game was discriminatory to girls because it did not allow them “equal opportunity” to develop complete basketball skills. In 1984, three girls (urged on by their parents) threatened another lawsuit, claiming playing six-on-six denied them equal consideration for college athletic scholarships. This argument proliferated and proved to have some merit, whether or not one agreed with the premise that the main purpose of high school sports is to prepare young people to compete at the college level and beyond.
With the debate and the threat of lawsuits ceasing to abate, the IGHSAU offered a compromise in 1984 by giving schools the option to play either version of the game and creating a separate five-player tournament. While some suggested that this move had been made mainly to appease a small but vocal minority of “big schools” (most of which had only joined the IGHSAU in the 1970s and were located in urban and more populated areas of the state more inclined to oppose six-on-six), many believed that six-on-six would survive, as it had always been a game primarily embraced by small-town Iowa. But as more and more schools made the switch every year thereafter, it became clear that it was simply a matter of time before six-on-six – the unique game that had thrived for nearly a century – would soon exist only in the memory of the girls who had played it and the fans who loved it. The writing was on the wall, and the end of an era officially came in 1993, when the final six-on-six girls’ state championship game was held.
When I originally conceived the idea for a theatrical work about six-on-six girls’ basketball shortly before the game’s demise, I quickly discovered that writing the script and composing the music would be much easier tasks than convincing my theatre colleagues that a play about this unusual subject was not only necessary but warranted serious consideration for production. More often than not, when describing this project to which I was enthusiastically dedicating a great deal of my time and energy, I would be greeted with a polite but dismissive response: “Is the subject of six-on-six girls’ basketball truly best suited for a play – let alone a musical?” they would inquire, as if I had broken some well-known rule of never mixing sports with the dramatic arts. .
If you’re asking yourself the same question at this very moment, it may be that you are simply unfamiliar with the game or had a strong dislike of it…and therefore likely never had the opportunity to experience a game and in particular the state tournament in person (a radio could never completely capture the real magic and intensity of the game). For if you had, you would have a greater understanding of why the stage is the ideal place for six-on-six to be resurrected. Its fascinating history…its rich traditions…its colorful characters…its pageantry and music…and its drama both on and off the court – all of these elements make for great theatre.
On two different occasions I had the pleasure of attending the state tournament – first, as a sophomore at Fort Dodge St. Edmond High School in 1978 when the Gaelettes pulled several upsets to become the Cinderella team that year, and second, as a non-partisan “observer” in 1987 when Lynn Lorenzen – the holder of the all-time national scoring record in high school basketball – and her teammates from Ventura were vying for the championship. Like thousands of fans of teams from across the state (from the smallest to the largest high schools, as there were no class divisions at that time making it a true state championship), I descended upon Des Moines for a week in March, not fully prepared for the electrifying environment that awaited me.
And what an environment it was. Every seat to the rafters of Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium (affectionately known as “the big barn”) was filled with fans dressed in the colors of their favorite teams…cheerleaders and mascots and rows and rows of media representatives surrounded the court…a giant illuminated map of Iowa indicated the location of those schools still alive in the tournament…the aroma of popcorn and cotton candy and hot dogs wafted through the arena…the sounds of announcers and pep bands and screaming fans and scoreboard buzzers and referee whistles and bouncing basketballs and squeaking tennis shoes pierced the ears…all of this complemented the outstanding athleticism and intensity and sportsmanship displayed by the players on the court. It was an incredible spectacle with no comparison.
Yet when I began to consider it as a theatrical piece, I knew I would have to do far more than simply attempt to duplicate on stage all that I had personally experienced and all that I had discovered through extensive research. As any playwright must do, I had to face the challenge of making the subject more symbolically “universal” and creating interesting characters, compelling situations, and plausible dramatic conflict…all with the beloved yet controversial game of six-on-six girls’ basketball serving as the backdrop (or the main character, depending upon how you prefer to view it). It soon became clear to me that my story had to be fictional, but still it would be heavily inspired by real people, real situations and real events.
The character of JoLynn Hanrahan is a composite of the greatest Iowa players, including Denise Long, Deb Coates and Lynne Lorenzen. Sam Koffman bears some similarities to E. Wayne Cooley, the man largely credited for making Iowa high school girls’ sports the best in the nation. Rusty Divine resembles many of the colorful media personalities who played a major role in elevating the game’s exposure and popularity. The exaggerated characters of Sarah Singleton, Loretta LaVelle and Gloria LaVelle represent all those who wanted to bring an end to the game, while Gregory Green and the loveable yet buffoonish BAGI men represent those who believe it was an institution worth preserving (in reality, more women supported six-on-six then men, but I chose to draw a distinct line between the genders to add more humor, irony and depth to the characters…and I tried to present each side of the argument equally).
I also took some liberty with timelines. Events depicted as occurring simultaneously or over a period of a few short months (even hours!) may have, in reality, occurred independently in different chronological order over the course of many years. Furthermore, I chose not to include a few facts that some may argue are an essential part of the history of the game (for instance, there is no mention that five-player girls’ basketball was offered as an option during the last ten years of six-on-six’s existence). And the need to ensure a reasonable running time for the play required me to cut a large number of the wonderful and seemingly endless personal stories and anecdotes about the game that I wanted to include (some of which have been transferred to these notes!).
Thus, six-on-six purists who read/attend this play expecting a historically and chronologically-accurate documentary-like approach to the subject may be appalled by my “manipulation” or “exclusion” of facts – to them, I will happily suggest any of the many books, articles and videos that exist on the subject. But I strongly believe most Iowans and fans of basketball will greatly enjoy it, as it was my goal to create an entertaining theatre piece that conveys and celebrates the true essence of the game, gives the audience an opportunity to actually experience it with all the senses, and introduces it to the current high school generation and preserves it for future generations. I believe I have succeeded.
Robert John Ford
Playwright, Composer & Lyricist