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This is the best women's basketball team in North America. That can be said unequivocally, and you do not even know their names—the player-coach, Jolene Ammons; the superstar, Karen Logan; the sparkplug, Donna (Spanky) Losier; the captain, Cheryl Clark; the twins, Lynette and Lynnea Sjoquist; the rookie, Paula Haverstick.
If they were men, they would be famous. They would be rich. They would be on a first-name basis with Cosell, Schenkel, Whitaker and Gifford, perhaps even Cavett and Carson. They would have played before hundreds of thousands in the Garden, the Spectrum, the Forum, the Astrodome—tens of millions on television.
On this dark night January rain is falling in the town of Barlow, Ky. Yet the lights are blazing at the high school gymnasium and cars gleam in the rain in the parking lot. Tonight the best women's basketball team on the continent is performing in Barlow and the proceeds from the gate will be split with the Ballard Memorial High School student council, which is planning to use the money to buy, among other things, a new water cooler. All the women on the team have blazing red hair, ranging in hue from near-tangerine to deep cinnamon. They are called the All American Red Heads. They are wearing red, white and blue uniforms, stars, stripes, etc. Tonight, as they do 200-plus nights each year, the All American Red Heads are going to play a man's team, the High School alumni. As always, the men are an assortment of sizes, shapes and basketball skills, a fair cross section of American manhood. Some are still willowy and lithe. Others have soft paunches and fat arms; they will soon be gasping like beached fish, their jowls slick and sweaty. They are dressed in motley clothes, a variety of sneakers. One is wearing black anklets. They are not basketball players anymore; they are barbers, bartenders, teachers, truck drivers, and they play the game from memory. They would be home watching Maude on television if they were not here playing basketball.
On this night, as before all of their games, the All American Red Heads spend a little time wandering through the crowd in their uniforms, selling programs for a dollar apiece. At the same time, the student council is selling homemade brownies and cookies and coffee. The money made this way is not split between Red Heads and the student council; each group keeps what it makes. The Red Heads program is red, white, blue and silvery. Large block letters shout 35TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION! This is not quite accurate, for the All American Red Heads were founded in 1936, but it does not really matter. There is a drawing of a lovely smiling Red Head wearing a tiara, sneakers and knee guards, perched saucily on a globe of the world, spinning a basketball on one finger. There is a series of star-marked blurbs on the program that describe the Red Heads: THRILLING BASKETBALL...RATED FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT...CLEVER...BRILLIANT...POWERFUL ACTION...and so on.
The gymnasium is not full. There are about 1,400 people and the student council will not get as much money as it hoped for; neither will the All American Red Heads. Possibly the winter rain is the cause of the mediocre turnout. No, says the student council adviser in his soft Kentucky drawl, that is not the case. "We had the Red Heads here five years ago and they sure filled up this gym. We cleared $1,100, a record. I think the reason they aren't drawing so well is that five years ago we had a preliminary basketball game with women—housewives, mothers—from P.T.A.'s all over the county. They really drew 'em because people turn out to see their kinfolk perform, now don't they? The Red Heads themselves couldn't have got that big a crowd in Barlow."
The game begins after flowery introductions of the Red Heads: "...and here she is, the Magic Passer! Miss Basketball! The World's Greatest Ball Handler! A 20,000-point champion! Miss Everything...Player-Coach Jolene Ammons!" The Ballard High School alumni score quickly; the men are taller and can jump higher than any of the women. But the Red Heads are slick ball handlers and their passes snap with precision. Many are thrown behind the back, perfectly. The women are wearing bright red lipstick and blue eyeshadow, as if they were going to the theater. But here they are, perspiring like mad and playing basketball like demons. They drive swiftly down the court. They shoot with deadly accuracy. They shout at each other, shrilly, crying out play patterns. Sometimes they shriek jokes at the men. Their precision dazzles the crowd and, even though they are playing against butchers and insurance men and car salesmen, the All American Red Heads are plainly a splendid basketball machine. Sometimes they stop the action to clown, doing ball-spinning tricks, crawling between their opponents' legs, taking shots piggyback, offering such guffaw gags as "The Pinch"—a routine in which the Red Head comic, Spanky Losier, pretends that a man has pinched her behind and insists that a personal foul, "a very personal foul," be called. The crowd loves it. Small boys fairly roll on the floor at such funny stuff.
At the end, the All American Red Heads have won 79-69, and at this point in late January their season's record is 104 victories, 17 losses. The money is counted and the gate is split—$800 to the student council, $1,200 to the Red Heads—and the Red Heads, dressed in bright warmup suits, file out of the gymnasium into the rain.
Outside, a strange white limousine awaits them, a Toronado 28 feet long, emblazoned with huge red letters saying ALL AMERICAN RED HEADS across the four doors on each side. The women climb inside. Rain drums on the roof and the grand white vehicle rolls hissing over the wet parking lot and out onto Route 60. The seven heads of red hair can be seen, but barely, through the streaming windows. The All American Red Heads are sealed inside the car they call "Big Whitey," insulated from the outside world as if in some kind of rolling space capsule. Here is where they spend far more of their lives than they do on a basketball court. Tonight they will stay in Paducah, 25 miles away. In the morning darkness they will rise and drive 400 miles, nine hours, across much of Kentucky and most of Tennessee to still another town where they will play another high school alumni team that night.
A man from Arkansas named Orwell Moore owns the All American Red Heads. He is essentially a man of small-town hopes and minimal dreams. He likes to call the Red Heads' home office in Caraway, Ark. "The General Store" and, at times, Orwell Moore does look as if he should be wearing a bib apron behind a cracker barrel, ready to slice a slab of rat cheese off the wheel on the meat counter. Ordinarily, Orwell Moore stays home in Caraway to mind the office. This season he has two troupes of Red Heads on the road, the team touring the border states in January being by far the better. It is not a simple job, laying out an itinerary and calendar for the Red Heads: each unit travels some 60,000 miles a season and plays in more than 200 hamlets, villages and various wide spots along the road. Moore's wife, his brother Jack and a secretary are usually engrossed in booking phone calls, sending out endless mailings of Red Head publicity and posters, as well as trying somehow to link a game for the Lions Club in Waseca, Minn. on Dec. 12 with one for the Kiwanis in Joliet, Ill. on Dec. 14 and one in Sioux Falls, S. Dak. on Dec. 13. It is a Chinese puzzle at times, and Moore does not always solve it so neatly. When the Red Heads played in Barlow and then stayed in Paducah, they drove 400 miles to Morristown, Tenn., then turned around and drove 390 miles back to Murray, Ky., which is a mere 40 miles from—yes—Paducah.