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 , Correspondent

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.

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."

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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.

"My mom thinks we're not trying hard enough," says Jean Weymiller, 75, of Harpers Ferry. "She says she wants to get the basketball herself and play."

Ms. Weymiller's mom is 96-year-old Muriel Adeline Cooper. She no longer plays. But Ms. Cooper's original 1920s bloomers – locked away for years in a hope chest – were used by a seamstress to design the new outfits.

Granny basketball was unveiled in 2005 – four teams played in a "state tournament." Now, between 80 and 100 women play on eight teams. Games are played at least once a month. Practices are weekly. There are even exhibitions. The grannies have appeared at fundraisers and at half time of women's college games.

Rawson and her sisters play for the Center Point Curvaceous Chicks. Arlene Wear of Center Point is 79, her age matching her number. She's a tough defender, arms raised, sliding side to side.

Marj Baetty, 72, of Atkins, is a demon under the basket, even throwing an elbow to grab a rebound.

"I have a tendency to run and jump," Ms. Baetty says. "Old habits die hard."

Virginia Roths, 71, of Cedar Rapids, plays in the center, tracking the ball with her eyes. Ten years ago, she was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. "Getting together with us girls, having the right medicine, this has been really good for me," Ms. Roths says.

A fifth sister, Bertha Rhinehart, 74, of Coronado, Calif., plays whenever she's in town. "When it stops being fun, we're going to quit," Baetty says.

But fun – and sisterhood – is what this is really all about. At a recent outing in Alburnett, a small town just outside Cedar Rapids, the grannies played in the school's main gym while a girls' volleyball tournament was held in a smaller gymnasium. Throughout the afternoon, teens peeked into the main venue and watched the grannies in three games.

"I guess that's what we'll look like in 25 years," one teen says, snapping a photo.

Before the opening jump ball – actually a coin flip, remember, no jumping – the Cedar Rapids Sizzlers took to the court to the sounds of Richard Gere crooning "Razzle Dazzle" from the musical "Chicago." The Sizzlers strutted and waved plastic necklaces. Des Moines Car-X came out to "Sweet Georgia Brown," the theme for the Harlem Globetrotters.

Dozens of other grannies came down from the bleachers, gathered in a circle and held hands. And then they sang the "granny anthem," which began: "Far Across The Fields and Farmlands, And Our Rivers Blue."

It was sweet. And then, game on.

Cedar Rapids was led by a 72-year-old, white-haired spark named Betty Vieman, who enjoys nothing better than warming up for a game by tossing a watermelon-sized medicine ball.

After caring for her ill husband for seven years – he died in 2003 – she needed something to do, to reengage. Ms. Vieman, of Ellsworth High Class of 1953, went back to playing basketball. She broke her nose during an early practice. But she stuck with it.

"This is a hard game," she says. "In the 1920s, the gyms were a lot smaller."

The fourth quarter ended with Cedar Rapids and Des Moines tied at 17-17. Nobody knew what to do. There had never been an overtime period in granny basketball.

So they made one up. Four minutes. The teams traded baskets.

They were tied at 19-19.

"Let someone else play," Vieman says.

Game over. Cedar Rapids forfeited. And everyone left the court with a smile.

No sore losers around here. These are grannies, after all.

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