The All American Red Heads began their odyssey on Oct. 4, in Mantachie, Miss. They have no idea, just now, where or when the journey will end. They don't know where because Orwell Moore, in his careful way, never allows the Red Heads to know their itinerary more than a month in advance. He says, "We have to give them their routes so their folks can write to 'em, but we never tell 'em beyond each month and they are generally sworn to secrecy about the schedule. If they told some reporter where they're playin', he might print the whole schedule in his paper and then some other attraction—donkey basketball, Gospel singers, some other basketball team—could see it and set up a date in the same town a week or two ahead of the Red Heads. That would kill us dead. There's only so much entertainment money around, know what I mean?"
The Red Heads don't know when their season will end because Moore doesn't know when the accumulation of gate receipts will be enough to show a profit. He says, "It's clearly understood that the girls are to play as long as I want them to play. We got to make ends meet at the store. Now the energy crisis cost five, six games canceled in Virginia in December. We got to make them up somewhere, so we'll be playin' into May this year. We've never got into June yet, but that's not sayin' it won't happen."
And so Big Whitey purrs along. At the wheel, firm and responsible, her normally dark hair now the color of burnt ginger, is Jolene Ammons, 32, born in Homerville, Ga., an All American Red Head for 11 years. Jolene is now player-coach, den mother, money collector, road accountant and chief chauffeur. On the court she is the playmaker. She is a lithe, handsome woman, though there is weariness in her face. There is nothing she does not do for her little coterie. She drives constantly and says she often sees ribbons of highway center lines streaming endlessly through her mind late at night. Over the years, both knees have been wrenched and twisted time and again, and many nights they throb with so much pain that she cannot sleep. Her coaching is sharp; a tough word here, a pointed question there gets rid of mistakes on the spot. Last year her Red Head team had a 188-13 record. Jolene's passes are hard and flat and she is deceptively fast; she has scored more than 21,000 points. She can spin basketballs on both hands at once, and does clowning exhibitions during halftime. Jolene Ammons would probably be a star on any woman's national team in the world, despite her age. The Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. has asked to display her jersey along with the uniforms of such male stars as Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West. So far, Moore has not sent along Jolene's jersey; he has never been one to emphasize any individual stars on his teams, feeling he might inflame jealousies.
One of Ammons' nightly duties is to telephone reports to Caraway of money earned and individual points scored; if one woman is consistently rolling up too many baskets, Moore tells Jolene to make the offender cool off in order to keep peace. She is a gentle woman and her face often softens in laughter. She is pretty when she smiles. "I started playing basketball in the fourth grade," she says, "and the girl next door took dancing lessons. Every afternoon she'd walk off her front porch with her tutu and I'd walk off mine with my basketball. She got to be Miss Georgia and I got to be a Red Head." Jolene admits, however, that she was her high school homecoming queen, replacing Miss Georgia the year after she graduated.
There is an Orwell Moore rule among the Red Heads that they must switch roommates each night and take different seats in Big Whitey each day to avoid cliques. So on this day Spanky Losier, 24, a former brunette of Gorham, N.H., whose hair is now dark red, is sitting in the seat behind Jolene. Spanky is fairly short (5'5"), almost tubby, a born comedienne and entertainer who burbles jokes while the Red Heads drive or helps pass the miles by singing in a sweet, clear voice accompanied by her guitar. She is given to spurts of laughter and frequent exuberant I-love-life eruptions about her role as a Red Head. "Hey, it's wonderful...I put my sneakers on and I'm raring to go. I love the game. Where else can you eat and breathe basketball 24 hours a day? I'm never bored. I'd never touch a drug, I'm too high on basketball...." At first it sounds phony, like Moore's evangelistic salesmanship. But it is true: Donna Losier is in a constant state of delight. She knows the words to 200 songs, can do imitations of everyone from Jonathan Winters to Richard Nixon, often snaps up out of a sound sleep giggling and tossing out lines like, "Hey, they say fish is brain food. Let's have a whale for lunch." She does the major comic routines at games, including the Big Pinch, and carries what she calls her "Crazy Kit," which contains, among other things, a top hat, a sequin covered whistle and a giant powderpuff, for her acts. As a serious basketball player, she is a polished ball handler and dribbler, a fine outside shot, an accurate and notably unselfish passer. This is Losier's seventh year as a Red Head, and every slab of homemade meat loaf still tastes like Christmas dinner to her.
In the next seat is the Red Head captain, Cheryl Clark, 24, formerly brown-haired, from Wetmore, Mich., six feet tall and exceedingly graceful. Her shoulder-length hair is chestnut now, and she wears tinted spectacles and looks almost scholarly. She is soft-spoken, the daughter of a schoolteacher, a writer of many letters during the long periods in the limousine. She says quietly, "I love basketball because I like the feel of running, the constant motion, the instantaneous decisions. Your mind stays active and that is stimulating." Cheryl glides so smoothly when she plays that her game seems almost gentle. She has perfected a driving shot from beyond the free-throw line that opponents never block, and which she seldom misses. This is her fifth season with the Red Heads; last year she performed with the other unit and it won 96 games in a row and finished the year with a 199-6 record.
The Sjoquist twins are sitting together today, large laughing girls with light strawberry hair. They seem almost coltish although each is 6'1" and weighs close to 190 pounds. Lynette and Lynnea, 20, are from a 400-acre farm near Cannon Falls, Minn. They alternate in the pivot for the Red Heads, and sometimes alternate sentences when they talk. "We are from the farm, all right," says Lynette. "We'd eat our big meal—dinner—at noon and then Dad would have a nap," says Lynnea. "...and we'd go out with our three brothers and play basketball on a concrete court behind the barn," finishes Lynette. Both starred at a small Lutheran junior college and found it difficult adjusting to the Red Heads. "The hardest thing was getting used to the fact we're not the best anymore...." "Or even second best...." "But you have to go all out because people are paying to see us play...." "And you have to have a professional attitude." Both girls are strong under the basket. But this is their first season with the team and they tend to drop some of the veterans' swift, precise passes.
Another rookie is sleeping in the back of the limousine. She is Paula Haverstick, just 18, from the village of Sturgeon, Mo. She spends her days dozing, perhaps because she is by far the youngest on the team and shy to the point of pain. She almost never speaks, but when she puts on her Red Head uniform she suddenly comes alive. She usually substitutes for Jolene, and though Paula shoots well the team seems rudderless when Jolene is out of the game.
The finest athlete among the Red Heads is Karen Logan, 24, of Fortuna, Calif., a rangy woman with orange hair, who is perhaps not very far below the unmatchable Babe Didrikson in natural abilities. She probably would have made the 1968 Olympic team as a 400-meter runner except for a pulled tendon. In 1967 she won a California junior tennis championship, defeating Sharon Walsh who went on to be the U.S. junior champion in 1969. Logan drifted away from tennis because of a lack of confidence, but at Pepperdine University the men's basketball coach saw her play, encouraged her to perfect her game and urged her to get in touch with Orwell Moore. Karen has been riding the roads with the Red Heads since 1970, and is easily the best of them, averaging 23 points a game and playing always with a fierce intensity. Yet she is bitterly frustrated. For one thing, she would like to regain amateur status so she could try out for the 1976 U.S. Women's Olympic basketball team (this will be the first time the women's game has Olympic status). At the moment, that seems impossible. Beyond that, Karen is deeply troubled that there is really no way for the Red Heads to display their skill to the world, no way to prove that they are one of the best women's basketball teams on earth. "I'd give anything to play the Chinese team or the Russians," she says. "I'd love to have a chance at the AAU champions or any women's team anywhere. We could beat anyone in the world. I'm sure of it. But we'll never know. No one will ever know because we never play anyone but has-been men."
Seeing Karen play, even against once-upon-a-time high school stars, is like seeing a work of art. Her moves remind one of Pete Maravich. Her concentration during a game is almost fanatic; she plays with her shirttail flapping, her hair soaking wet, refusing to take a man's helping hand when she has been thumped to the floor, then, quick as a cobra, flicking the ball away from him at the next opportunity. Karen, too, was asked for a game uniform by the Basketball Hall of Fame. When she heard that only two other women (not counting Jolene Ammons) had ever been so honored. Karen instantly demanded to know where they live. She wanted to challenge them to games of one-on-one.