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These grannies take it to the hoop

In a throwback to the 1920s, a senior basketball league flourishes in Iowa. It's all about fun, fitness, and the bond of sisterhood.

By Bill GlauberCorrespondent / April 3, 2007

Alburnett, Iowa

Henry Uthoff's daughters loved basketball, played it in the days when kids rushed from chores on the farm to hoops on the hardwood. But on Nov. 20, 1950, their love of the game gave way to tragedy. Mr. Uthoff, a hard-working farmer, collapsed and died in a gym while watching two of his daughters play.

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One by one, the Uthoff sisters gave up the game, got married, raised families, and doted on grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Yet, even as their hair grew gray and more than a half-century rolled by, somewhere, tucked away, their love of basketball remained.

And now, four of the Uthoff sisters are back on the court playing "granny basketball" in Iowa. "If our dad is looking down, he'd be so pleased," says Delores Rawson, 81, the oldest of the sisters. "He was so proud of his girls."

Iowa's Granny Basketball League is a far cry from college basketball's Final Four or the NBA's long postseason playoff run.

It's a throwback to the 1920s, a reminder that girls' basketball runs deep in Iowa, even if the girls are now grannies and if the rules have changed. They used to play six-on-six basketball around here years after the rest of the country let the girls play five-on-five just like the guys. In the girls' game, there were three players on offense, three on defense, and the half-court line divided the game into two.

Long before Title IX helped girls and women gain equal opportunity in organized scholastic and collegiate sports, before soccer moms ferried their daughters to practices, Iowa girls were encouraged to play basketball.

"We all think we're 16," says Barb McPherson, 62, a retired psychiatric nurse from Lansing who dreamed up the league.

That's the beauty of this game. Years roll away. Dreams are renewed. There is an only-in-Iowa aspect to this, too. Pull into almost any town square, wander into a cafe, and you'll usually find seniors gathered around tables, sipping coffee in the morning or eating lunch, remaining social.

Granny basketball fits right in, only instead of carrying coffee cups, the players are bouncing basketballs. Ms. McPherson, a spark-plug with a deft shooting touch, wanted to get some exercise and have some fun. She consulted a memoir that her father, a basketball coach, wrote, in which he described the "3-court game" of the 1920s.

"They didn't move much," she says. "I could do that."

The 1920 rules are perfect for 21st-century grannies. You've got to be at least 50 years old to play. No exceptions.

"I have a sister-in-law who is 47. She wants to get a fake ID and play with us," says Rita Leitzinger, 52, of Norwalk.

The game is six-a-side on a court divided into thirds: The teams each put two players on offense, two on defense, and two in the middle. And the players have to stay in their zones.

There is no running, no jumping, and no physical contact. And players can only dribble the ball twice. There are four quarters, eight minutes each, and the clock runs continuously, even during free throws. Timeouts are allowed.

And then there is the dress code – strictly early 1920s. The players wear bloomers, midi-blouses, and long socks. Head bands are optional: One team favors lime green numbers adorned with red fabric roses.

Flout the dress code – show skin – and you get a technical foul.

It all looks a little like a dance or a 1920s tea party. But don't be deceived. The game may be played below the rim and barely above the floor, but it is filled with heart and passion.