IT SEEMS PEOPLEGET OVEREXCITED
"This is whatI've wanted all my life,"' wailed Denise Long as she accepted the winners'trophy for Union-Whitten. Denise, a junior and 16 when she played in her firstIowa state high school basketball finals last year, looks like a Grant Woodportrait—until she moves. Then she is all swiftness and grace. In a pregameradio show Denise was asked how she would advise a girl who wants to playbasketball. "You gotta start shooting baskets," she said, in her flintytruck-driver's voice, "and you gotta like the game. You gotta like it anawful lot."
There are in Iowa22,000 girls who like the game an awful lot—enough, anyway, to keep Cinderellahours through the winter weekends. Many of the girls, born into farm families,grow up well conditioned for the game's physical demands. They learn todetassel corn and walk beans as soon as they can tie their sneakers, and justas early they are shooting at the homemade baskets they have rigged on barnsand in backyards of rural towns like Gowrie, Farragut and Pocahontas. And ifthey have really practiced they make it to Des Moines, the capital, where the16 high school teams that have won district titles meet in Veterans MemorialAuditorium amid chaos and exuberance that seem like a state fair and a WorldSeries rolled into one. For hotelmen, florists and other merchants of DesMoines, the week is the biggest of the year.
It certainly isthe tensest. One day last March, 11 persons had to be revived in the first-aidstation. Captain Blake Walker of the auditorium's fire-rescue squad has oneexplanation for the frenzy. "Folks are more concerned about girls," hesaid. "They don't like to see girls picked on...and then it's the way thetournament is put on. Everything builds up right from the start—first withthose bands playing when the people come in; then the half time shows. It seemspeople just get overexcited."
Other people thinkthe reason is simply Wayne Cooley, organizer of the tournament and the JohnRingling of girls' basketball in Iowa. Cooley demands that the girls"measure up to high standards of appearance, competition andresponsibility." They do, the people come and the boys are all but ignored."It's kinda sad," said a girl from Parkersburg. "Everybody comes tosee the girls play and then leaves when the boys come on."
Although the girlsplay on only half a court, the action is no less violent or fast than in theboys' game, and it may be more difficult to referee. "You work harder onaccount of the half-court area," says Referee Charlie O'Brien. "Theball follows through faster than the boys can work it across thecenter."
The distinctionwas merely academic last year. The real point was the long-awaitedconfrontation between the stars of top-seeded Everly and second-seededUnion-Whitten. MISS OLSON, MEET MISS LONG, one newspaper headlined when the twoteams made it to the finals. It was like saying, "Mr. Maravich, Meet Mr.Murphy." Jeanette Olson, 18, was playing in her second and last high schoolstate finals. She had averaged 59.4 points in 29 games. Denise Long hadaveraged 62.7 points in 31 games. Both girls had already set tournament scoringrecords: Jeanette with 74 points, Denise topping her a day later with 93.
The night of thefinal game a hush enveloped the arena as the two girls were introduced—to eachother. Overcome by the emotion of it all, Jeanette and Denise fell into eachother's arms. The game was hardly an anticlimax. Records fell, the scoreboardwent out of its mind and so did the crowd as U-W finally pulled ahead in adelirious overtime to upset Everly 113-107. "Jeanette Olson [76 points] wonthe battle but Denise Long [64 points] won the war...." began the story innext morning's paper.
This month thetournament starts again and, barring a stunning upset, Union-Whitten and MissLong, who has upped her average to 67.2 points a game, will be back to defendtheir title.
The boys? Theywill be watching, along with everybody else.