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Women's basketball legends hoop up to help small Kansas town

My wife always knows what's coming whenever her hometown of Cuba, Kansas comes up in conversation.* She always knows I'm going to tell the story of the first time I went there with her. We've been married for more than 11 years, so we're now in that early stage of finishing each other's stories. And I suspect that the "first time I went to Cuba" story has been told more than most.

*This happens more than you might think.

At first she thought I was poking fun at the size of her hometown -- Cuba, Kansas, pop. 220 or so, -- but I think over time she has come to realize that while, yes, I am poking fun at the size of her hometown, I am also in wonder about the place. Cuba is really small. It had a brief burst of national (and perhaps even international) fame because a wonderful National Geographic photographer named Jim Richardson twice published Cuba, Kansas pictorials in the magazine.* But to be honest about it, that has not given the place much lasting glory. I've talked to people who live in towns barely 45 minutes away who have never heard of Cuba, Kansas.

*And I have long said that someone could make some money by rolling cigars there. Cuban Cigars from Kansas. It's gold, Jerry.

To get to Cuba from Kansas City, you drive along Highway 36, a pleasant two-lane highway that was once part of the Pony Express. I call it pleasant, and it is when you're actually moving ... but like so many two-lane country roads it can be excruciating to drive. You can and will get stuck behind slow-moving cars, trucks, tractors, burros or one of the Molina brothers for hours at a time. I'm fairly certain that the Pony Express' failed in large part because the riders would get so frustrated after getting stuck behind a particularly slow truck on Highway 36. It's like they finally said, "Forget this."

Anyway, I knew Cuba was small before I ever went there. The first thing I remember Margo telling me was that she was in a graduating class of 12*.

*Which led to my critical second question: "Were you valedictorian?" I am not an education slob by any stretch of the imagination -- I was a pitiful student -- but for whatever reason this seemed important to me at the time. Turns out, she was valedictorian.

But it was that first drive that made me understand. We were driving along, farmland on both sides of the road, when suddenly she said to me: "Slow down." I look at the speedometer ... I'm doing the speed limit.

"I'm not speeding," I said

"No," she said. "Slow down. It's coming up here on the left."

I am not exaggerating: I was looking around and I saw nothing. NOTHING. I didn't even see a farmhouse, much less a town. She said again, only more insistently, "slow down!" And then she pointed at ... the only way I could describe her target was "a driveway." A driveway leading to nowhere. In memory, I recall the driveway to Cuba being dirt or maybe gravel, but in our return trips I have noticed that it is actually paved. I always ask, "Did they pave that road," to which Margo -- pretty persuasively, I must admit -- suggests that they haven't paved a road in Cuba in quite some time.

"There's my school," she said, as and she pointed out the window, and once again I saw nothing but trees. It occurred to me then that maybe Cuba was like one of those Magic Eye pictures where everyone else can see the beautiful woman in the boat or the flying Unicorn, and I see nothing at all. But then we went around a bend and sure enough, there was a school. And then there were a few houses, a few small streets, and some real dirt roads. This was Cuba. This was where my wife-to-be had grown up.

And I was mesmerized. Still am. I grew up in cities. I never thought I grew up in particularly big cities -- in fact, it was hammered in my head that the places I have lived are considered small markets by Major League Baseball -- but the places where I lived were unquestionably cities with neighborhoods and traffic and McDonalds and Baskin Robbins and malls and all those other things. When I lived in Cleveland, I thought of Akron as a small town. When I lived in Charlotte, I thought of Greensboro as a small town. Even when I lived in Augusta, which I had considered a small town, I thought of Aiken as even smaller.

But none of these are small in the way that Cuba is small, in the way that little places in the Heartland are small. There is quite a lot of this in Joe Drape's wonderful book Our Boys about the football team in Smith Center (which is also along Highway 36), but Cuba is significantly smaller than Smith Center. In Cuba, the high school played eight-man football ... when the town had a high school. Sometimes, when trying to get my mind around Cuba, I would ask Margo where was the closest movie theater (30 minute drive) or McDonald's (45 minute drive) or supermarket (45 minute drive). I found these things interesting, but I still couldn't quite place myself there.

This, I suppose, is why the story of Ashland, Kansas and women's basketball has me so enthralled. Ashland is a lot like Cuba. It's bigger in some ways (There are about 800 people there -- and it is the Clark County seat) and smaller in others (it's out in the Western part of the state, which is more desolate than Cuba's North Central Kansas). But it more ways, they are alike. For good and for bad, everything feels far away.

Among the bad is this: The closest mammogram machine to Ashland is two and a half hours away, in Wichita. Mammogram machines, you know, are used to detect the early stages of breast cancer -- the No. 1 form of cancer for women in the United States. The numbers are pretty staggering: The most commonly recited statistic I hear is that one in eight women in the U.S. will develop breast cancer at some point in their lives.

Well, at some point a young guy in Ashland named Joe LaBelle lost his grandmother to breast cancer. This inspired him to want to do something -- you know that feeling. You want to do ... SOMETHING. LaBelle worked at Ashland Health Center at the time, and he was riding in a car with the hospital's CEO Benjamin Anderson. LaBelle suggested playing some sort of high school basketball game to raise enough money to bring a mammogram machine to Ashland periodically. Anderson loved the idea -- he had grown to like women's basketball when he was a student at Southwest Missouri State (now just Missouri State). When he was there, the school had an electrifying player named Jackie Stiles -- the female version of Pistol Pete Maravich. She is the NCAA's all-time leading scorer, and in her senior year she became something of a sensation by carrying Southwest Missouri to the Final Four. Anderson was enthralled.

So, Anderson started to make all the requisite calls to set up a charity high school girls basketball game ... and he found what almost everyone who tries such things finds: The rules are against it. Apparently Anderson was allowed to set up a game, but by State Association rules only three high school players on each team were allowed to play in it. Or some such thing. The idea died before it even was born ...

Only this: Benjamin Anderson is not really the sort of guy who lets ideas die. He is pretty relentless. And so, he decided to go right to the person who sparked his mind about women's basketball in the first place. He calledJackie Stiles' family going on the American philosophy that has launched a million great ideas -- the worst thing they could say was no. Jackie is also from a small Kansas town. She grew up in Claflin. And she is a wonderful person. When Jackie found out about the game -- which, of course, wasn't a game at all yet -- she immediately said she would help out. People from small Kansas towns have a connection.

What followed -- all the calls and people who volunteered to help -- is the same story as the ending of It's A Wonderful Life, when all those people rushing into George Bailey's living room with money to offer. Friday, they played a women's basketball game in Ashland, Kansas. Jackie Stiles coached one team along with Cynthia Cooper -- the all-time leading scorers in the NCAA and WNBA respectively. Ruth Riley, a current WNBA player, coached the other team along with Kristi Leeper-Meis who led Fort Hays State to a Division II National Championship. Shalee Lehning, a WNBA starter, showed up even though she had a dislocated shoulder and could not play. Many former Kansas and Kansas State basketball players came to play. And so on.

The Kansas and Kansas State cheerleaders were there. The Kansas State pep band was there. A halftime dunk team was there. A couple of opera singers were there to perform the national anthem and God Bless America. Fox Sports Net was there taping the game -- they will rebroadcast it several times. And it is something to say they were all there because there is no easy way to get to Ashland -- you can get to Wichita and drive about three hours or you can take a tiny plane in Dodge City and drive an hour. Jackie Stiles did the latter and ended up bouncing in the Kansas wind on a six-seat plane. Not to say too much ... but Amelia Earhart is also from a small Kansas town.

I wanted to make it there myself, but I was pulled away to bigger cities for the World Series. I did write a short bit about it for Sports Illustrated this week. I'm told the gym was packed, and the town was very much alive. Benjamin Anderson said that he wanted and hoped to raise $100,000 to make those mammogram screenings available monthly and to provide other tests and cancer preventative education. Last I heard, they had not determined if they reached their goal, but you can help by donating at theHoops for Home Web site.

I often wonder why the George Bailey scene in It's A Wonderful Life has made so many people cry happily through the years. I'm sure that Mister Potter (and his bitter Twitter equivalent @HenryFPotter) would say it's sentimental hogwash, but I think it's because many people want to believe that, deep down, we do want to help each other, and because many want to believe that in our moment of crisis people want to help us. There are plenty of moments in our lives when it's hard to buy into any of that. But, every now and again, people will find their way to a small town in Kansas to help out because ... well, just because. And it's just enough to make you believe again.