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IT SEEMS PEOPLE GET OVEREXCITED
"This is what I've wanted all my life,"' wailed Denise Long as she accepted the winners' trophy for Union-Whitten. Denise, a junior and 16 when she played in her first Iowa state high school basketball finals last year, looks like a Grant Wood portrait—until she moves. Then she is all swiftness and grace. In a pregame radio show Denise was asked how she would advise a girl who wants to play basketball. "You gotta start shooting baskets," she said, in her flinty truck-driver's voice, "and you gotta like the game. You gotta like it an awful lot."
There are in Iowa 22,000 girls who like the game an awful lot—enough, anyway, to keep Cinderella hours through the winter weekends. Many of the girls, born into farm families, grow up well conditioned for the game's physical demands. They learn to detassel corn and walk beans as soon as they can tie their sneakers, and just as early they are shooting at the homemade baskets they have rigged on barns and in backyards of rural towns like Gowrie, Farragut and Pocahontas. And if they have really practiced they make it to Des Moines, the capital, where the 16 high school teams that have won district titles meet in Veterans Memorial Auditorium amid chaos and exuberance that seem like a state fair and a World Series rolled into one. For hotelmen, florists and other merchants of Des Moines, the week is the biggest of the year.
It certainly is the tensest. One day last March, 11 persons had to be revived in the first-aid station. Captain Blake Walker of the auditorium's fire-rescue squad has one explanation for the frenzy. "Folks are more concerned about girls," he said. "They don't like to see girls picked on...and then it's the way the tournament is put on. Everything builds up right from the start—first with those bands playing when the people come in; then the half time shows. It seems people just get overexcited."
Other people think the reason is simply Wayne Cooley, organizer of the tournament and the John Ringling of girls' basketball in Iowa. Cooley demands that the girls "measure up to high standards of appearance, competition and responsibility." They do, the people come and the boys are all but ignored. "It's kinda sad," said a girl from Parkersburg. "Everybody comes to see the girls play and then leaves when the boys come on."
Although the girls play on only half a court, the action is no less violent or fast than in the boys' game, and it may be more difficult to referee. "You work harder on account of the half-court area," says Referee Charlie O'Brien. "The ball follows through faster than the boys can work it across the center."
The distinction was merely academic last year. The real point was the long-awaited confrontation between the stars of top-seeded Everly and second-seeded Union-Whitten. MISS OLSON, MEET MISS LONG, one newspaper headlined when the two teams made it to the finals. It was like saying, "Mr. Maravich, Meet Mr. Murphy." Jeanette Olson, 18, was playing in her second and last high school state finals. She had averaged 59.4 points in 29 games. Denise Long had averaged 62.7 points in 31 games. Both girls had already set tournament scoring records: Jeanette with 74 points, Denise topping her a day later with 93.
The night of the final game a hush enveloped the arena as the two girls were introduced—to each other. Overcome by the emotion of it all, Jeanette and Denise fell into each other's arms. The game was hardly an anticlimax. Records fell, the scoreboard went out of its mind and so did the crowd as U-W finally pulled ahead in a delirious overtime to upset Everly 113-107. "Jeanette Olson [76 points] won the battle but Denise Long [64 points] won the war...." began the story in next morning's paper.
This month the tournament starts again and, barring a stunning upset, Union-Whitten and Miss Long, who has upped her average to 67.2 points a game, will be back to defend their title.
The boys? They will be watching, along with everybody else.