On super Saturday
night, rockets glare and bombs burst while lasers play on a star-spangled
banner the size of a drive-in movie screen. The Battle Hymn of the Republic
rebounds from the rafters of Des Moines's Veterans Memorial Auditorium,
dribbles behind the bleachers and slips under locker room doors.
In the Dike High
School locker room, coach Tom Murr diagrams plays on the door. His chalk skids
on the polished surface. Murr, who's wearing cowboy boots and a Western-cut
suit that hasn't been cleaned since his team's 12-game winning streak began two
months ago, runs a gnarled hand through his crew cut. "When that buzzer
rings, let's go out there, keep our poise and have fun," he says. He claps
his hands, then remembers his manners: "If anybody has to go to the rest
room, I'll step out now."
relax. Sometimes it's such a pain to have a man in the locker room.
outside the door, watching the finale of the Patriotism Pageant, fingering his
lucky tie. One more win, he thinks, then he can wash the luck out of these
clothes. One more win and his girls, representing a town of just 855 citizens,
will be champions of all Iowa. "Tomorrow we go home and I give the kids
back to their parents," he says. "But we got one more game."
Alone with their
thoughts in the locker room, Murr's Bobcats stretch, primp and exchange weighty
glances. Six-foot-two power forward Darci Graves and 5'6" catalyst Dawn
Meester trade high fives. Darci and Dawn have been neighbors and pals since
they were born 85 hours apart in 1971. As scandalous tykes they streaked
through their tiny hometown with their undies on their heads. They learned to
play basketball together, battling their older brothers under the hoop at
Darci's house. Darci grew up tall and quiet, a willow topped with a sandy perm.
Dawn was smaller, and skittish, a button-nosed spark plug. Dawn's mom calls
them Mutt and Jeff. Tonight—March 12, 1988—Darci and Dawn might get famous
The Battle Hymn
ends. The buzzer summons 30 Iowa girls to the grandest night of their
Iowa girls have
been playing basketball since 1898, when Agnes Martin of Dubuque High
"threw three baskets" and was lauded in the local press for "the
cleverness with which she threw them." In those days girls played by
strange, feminized rules—six players on a side, one dribble—but hamlets like
Lost Nation and Fontanelle adored the game. City girls played in gyms and even
opera houses; farm town teams from Mallard and Mystic and Mingo played outdoors
on God's good dirt—and soon were beating the city girls at their own game.
In 1925, alarmed
that the popularity of girls' basketball might be impeding the growth of the
boys' game, the state athletic association dropped girls' hoops. A few
small-town schoolmen, furious at this big-city power play, formed the Iowa
Girls' High School Athletic Union and began holding their own state tourney in
1926. Today the Girls' Union—the only state high school association in the U.S.
devoted solely to girls' sports—runs a tournament that galvanizes Iowa in late
February and early March. (This year's final in Des Moines will be played March
11.) Farm towns from Correctionville to Buffalo Center transform themselves
into mobile cheering sections. The Girls' Union tournament is televised
statewide, and it fills Veterans Auditorium, often outdrawing the annual boys'
tourney. It bankrolls the lion's share of Girls' Union programs in 10 other
sports and attracts so many fans to Des Moines that Girls' State week ranks
right up there with Christmas as one of the biggest retail weeks of the year in
the capital. And it makes legends. Every year an Iowa girl joins the likes of
Machine Gun Molly Bolin, Denise Long and Lynne Lorenzen on the list of the
state's favorite daughters.
The rules have
changed since the old days, but they are still strange. The one-dribble rule
was replaced by the two-dribble rule—players may bounce the ball only twice
before shooting or passing off. They may hold the ball only three seconds
before dribbling, shooting or passing. The three-second-possession and
two-dribble rules give the game the herky-jerky look of an old newsreel.
Equally quaint is
the two-platoon system. Iowans call the game six-on-six. It is more easily
understood as platoon three-on-three. Offensive players—the three
forwards—cannot enter the defensive half of the floor. Defensive players—the
three guards—cannot enter the offensive half. Guards defend, forwards score.
The forwards even shoot the free throws when their defensive teammates are
fouled. Guards finish their high school careers with a scoring average of 0.00.
Which leads to the question: Why does anyone ever go out for guard? The answer:
civic pride. In Iowa, suiting up in the colors of your hometown team confers
glory that lasts a lifetime. In Iowa, middle-aged husbands sit around the
fireplace reminiscing' about their wives' high school hoops exploits.