The trophy case in the old Prairie City, Iowa gym was of light pine, shellacked to a deep glaze. It was tucked into an alcove inside the front door, the statues and plaques crowded into it arranged in tiers like a chorus. Stylized halfbacks, forwards and sprinters, perpetually frozen in midstride, midmotion, stared through the glass. The largest trophy was in the center of the second row. Adorned with pennants and a couple of eagles, it stood at least six inches taller than the others, and it was topped with a figurine of a woman raising a basketball, about to go in for a layup. Her uniform had a lot of folds and pleats, and there was a certain timidity about the modeling, which brought to mind old anatomical drawings in health textbooks that fade to pastel blanks in certain areas. But she was clearly female, clearly moving to the basket. The base of the trophy was emblazoned:
GIRLS' DISTRICT CHAMPIONS
PRAIRIE CITY HIGH SCHOOL
No Prairie City team before or after has played its sport as well. Following its 1948 district championship, Prairie City competed in the Iowa High School Girls' State Championship, one of 16 teams from rural villages with populations in the hundreds to do so that year. Prairie City was beaten in the first round by the team that became state champion and, according to enduring local belief, would have been the champion itself if its coach had not stayed with a strategy so plainly wrong that the memory of it still rankles many of those who watched the game.
"He put Mona out front where she couldn't.... Guy's about as smart as a board fence.... Couldn't rebound out there.... Four fouls.... Fellow's brains wouldn't cover the bottom of a coffee cup." That's the sort of thing you hear if you bring the subject up at the co-op filling station when Dick Zaayer or Don Sparks is there.
For those too young to have been witnesses, it has never been clear just what the coach did, beyond losing the championship. But what's important to know is that a powerful feeling about it has survived; that in this remote central Iowa town the idea of girls playing basketball can heat a conversation with emotions free of any condescension. One could grow up in the town in the late 1950s and early '60s, as I did, watching girls' sports without the least notion that there was anything prophetic about a custom that in small Iowa farming towns is as deeply embedded in the psyche as the suspicion of skies and the certainty that a stranger is a Democrat.
Prairie City's girls usually had better seasons than its boys. When I was in grade school and went with my father to watch Janet Wilson release her fluid hook shot, the girls' team nearly always won. The boys, playing afterward, usually lost. And so we drove home with predictable dispatches. Mother, in a cone of reading light in her living-room chair, looked up as we came into the house and said, "Well?"
"Girls won, boys lost."
Girls won, boys lost. Girls won, boys lost. Tuesday and Friday nights. Season after season.
In fact, most nights the boys had their best moment while the girls' game was still being played. Almost all the high school students sat together in a section near the southwest corner of the gym. At the end of the third quarter, those boys who played basketball rose up like suddenly blooming plants. Because the game had stopped, attention was directed to the stir in the bleachers, and the boys played to it for all it was worth, stretching to full height with elaborate indolence. There seemed to be the hard-bitten courage of soldiers in their rising: "Love to stay but the Huns are waiting." They slowly walked in single file the length of the floor, took a right, walked the width of the floor and disappeared into their dressing room.
After the girls' game was over, the boys came out and got beat 68-37. But, Lord, they walked like champions. Naturally, then, my grade school heroes were Janet Wilson; Joellen Wassenaar, a quick, knife-thin girl, her limbs milk-white stems, who faked a jumper and drove to either side; Margaret Morhauser, the powerful guard. I took notice of the way Judy Kutchin folded her sweat socks—down, then up again—so they formed snowy tufts above her shoes, and I resolved to wear, as Joellen did, only one (left) knee pad.