By Larry Cotlar
In what was billed as “The Dream Game,” a packed house of more than 15,000 enthusiastic fans filled Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines on March 16, 1968, to watch Everly play Union-Whitten for the Iowa Girls High School State Basketball Tournament title. It was a game for the ages that pitted two of the best girls six-on-six basketball players in Iowa history against one another.
Rarely in sports does a game live up to its hype, but this one did and was arguably the biggest event in Iowa in 1968. Not only did these two teams dominate the girls high school hoops scene all season, finishing first and second in the polls, but they featured the top two scorers in the state in Union-Whitten’s Denise Long (who averaged 69.6 points per game) and Everly’s Jeannette Olson (who averaged 59.5 points per game).
The seesaw game went back and forth between the two evenly matched squads and when the dust settled, Union-Whitten prevailed 113-107 in overtime. Olson established a new single-game tournament scoring record with her 76-point effort, while Long finished with 64 points en route to the championship.
“The Dream Game” in 1968 personified the popularity of girls six-on-six basketball in Iowa. For decades, it was viewed as more than a game as it became the focal point for communities across the state, especially those in rural areas.
Over the years, the sport would garner national media attention. Sports Illustrated published several stories and CBS News reporter Heywood Hale Broun would come to Des Moines donning his familiar plaid suit to introduce the game to people outside the state, as did ESPN, USA Today, Newsday and National Public Radio.
Six-on-six basketball featured three forwards and three guards on the floor per team who were evenly divided by the mid-court line. Each player had to remain on her own side of the floor. Players were limited to two dribbles, which made passing a premium skill. Forwards did all the scoring and guards played defense exclusively.
E. Wayne Cooley, who became the executive secretary of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union in 1954, championed six-on-six girls basketball. He recognized its potential and promoted it as much more than just a game or a tournament. There was the Parade of Champions, in which each of the schools would trot out their players, and bands and dance teams were featured all week, too. In short, the Iowa Girls High School State Basketball Tournament was a weeklong celebration of the “Iowa Girl.”
So where did this unique game come from? Smith College physical educator Senda Berenson first taught her female students the game in 1892. In 1893, girls in Dubuque started playing basketball at the local YWCA.
In Iowa, the game was changed to a six-player format and the first state tournament, sponsored by the Des Moines Register and organized by two of its sportswriters, Jack North and Bert McGrane, was held in 1920. That year, Correctionville High School won the title.
Throughout the years, the game has produced numerous stars. Most prominent was Long, still considered the queen of the six-on six-game. Long tallied 6,250 points from 1965 to 1969. She not only earned recognition in Iowa, but from beyond the state’s borders.