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6-on-6 basketball: A beloved Iowa tradition

In this series, Local 5 explores the legacy of female athletes both before and after the passage of Title IX.

IOWA, USA — Six-on-six girls basketball in Iowa dates all the way back to the 1890s. 

"Not long after 1920 is when we held the first girl's state high school tournament here in Iowa and it was the first hosted anywhere in the nation," said Dr. Jennifer Sterling, a lecturer in the department of American Studies at the University of Iowa. 

University of Iowa Associate Head Women's Basketball Coach Jan Jensen has a good idea of what it was like back then.

Her grandmother Dorcas Andersen paints a vivid picture in her diary entries from her playing days. 

"Immediately after the game, two respectable Audubon boys grabbed me and hoisted me up in the air and carried me around the gym. They did it to honor me but I didn't appreciate it that way," Jensen read from her grandmother's journal. "In another minute, the game was won by Audubon. A wonderful pass from Masterson to me to shoot the basket, it saved the day. In this game, I made nine points all in the last half." 

Andersen was a talented basketball player, winning a high school state championship. But most of all, she loved the game. 

"I can be glad however that my last game was well-played as I made 18 of the points scored for Audubon," she said in her journal. "After this game, I cried to think it was my last game. Yes, it was like saying goodbye to my very best friend."

Contrary to the national societal norms at the time, rural Iowa communities encouraged girls to be physically active. 

"Even though there were gendered roles, there was a lot of expectation for women to be active participants in their communities, in their schools, that type of thing," Sterling said.

Playing sports was a way to do that and it's something their communities took great pride in. 

"Luckily in the state of Iowa, we really had good support for girls basketball and they weren't the same games," said Lisa Bluder, head women's basketball coach at the University of Iowa. "The women were playing six on six and the guys were playing five on five so there wasn't a direct comparison between the two.

Leaders like E. Wayne Cooley, who became the executive secretary of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union in 1954, also played a big role in advocating for girls participation in sports. 

"He often talked about his Iowa girl," said Sterling. "It was just this combination of community, activity and academic excellence and sporting excellence, but also like manners and you know, knowing how to be a proper woman or a proper girl. So, he kind of upped this level of excitement for girls basketball."

However, other states didn't share Iowa's love for girl's basketball. 

Athletic and educational opportunities weren't afforded to girls and women the same way they were for men, which led to the historic passing of Title IX in 1972. 

Inadvertently, Title IX marked the beginning of the end for the 6-on-6 game that Iowans loved. 

"You could kind of feel that 6-on-6 was on its way out due to not only lawsuits, girls not getting the opportunity to shoot the ball," Jensen said. "Therefore, they felt that their scholarship opportunities were lessened."

Between legal battles and a growing desire from girls to play 5-on-5, the final 6-on-6 game in Iowa was played in 1993. 

The 6-on-6 era is a shining example of how Iowa was ahead of its time when it came to supporting girl's sports. 

While Title IX was the first federal step towards progress in the fight for gender equality in sports, the groundwork was already laid by women like Dorcas Andersen who dared to defy the status quo, by playing the game she loved. 

"She'd be so proud and so excited about the progress but knowing that we still have work to do," Jensen said.

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