Newswise — Stories of lunchtime practices and camaraderie, of businesses closing early so workers could attend games, of victory parades and bonfires. Photos of high school girls’ basketball players in uniforms that change through the decades. State tournament tickets and programs.

All these elements and more make up an Iowa Women’s Archives exhibit traveling across Iowa. But the exhibit isn’t about high school girls’ basketball as it’s played today. It’s about 6-on-6 basketball, and Iowa’s high school players were queens of the court.

In this version of the game, the court was split in half at a center line, and each team had three guards on one side with three forwards on the other. Players were allowed two dribbles before having to pass the ball to another player, and, after a basket, the ball was given to the opposing team at half court.

Iowa has a rich tradition in high school girls’ basketball. While the first unsanctioned high school girls’ basketball state tournament was held in 1920—the same year the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote—girls in Iowa had been playing 6-on-6 since the turn of the century. Even though 6-on-6 basketball wasn’t unique to Iowa, the state was extraordinary in a few ways.

“Iowa has the longest-running state tournament dedicated to high school girls,” says Jennifer Sterling, a lecturer in sports studies at the University of Iowa. “Iowa is also unique in that organized girls’ sports started so early and were so strongly supported.”

Iowa also was one of the last two states to play 6-on-6 high school basketball. Schools were given the choice of whether to play 6-on-6 or 5-on-5 in 1985, and the last 6-on-6 state tournament in Iowa took place in 1993. Oklahoma followed in 1995.

The 25th anniversary of the end of 6-on-6 basketball in Iowa happened to coincide with the Iowa Women’s Archives (IWA) celebrating 25 years of preserving the history of Iowa women, their families, and their communities. Kären Mason, curator of the IWA, which is housed in the UI’s Main Library, says the two anniversaries presented an opportunity for the IWA to celebrate both by hitting the road with a new exhibit, 6-on-6 Basketball and the Legacy of Girls’ and Women’s Sport in Iowa.

“We’re a resource for the entire state,” Mason says. “We collect the history of women throughout Iowa, women who once lived in Iowa, and women who came to Iowa from elsewhere. We wanted to reach out across Iowa, and what better way than 6-on-6 basketball, which touched all parts of the state?”

As luck would have it, just as the IWA began developing its 6-on-6 exhibit, a group of Iowa towns were planning to host the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum on Main Street Hometown Teams exhibit, which examines the roles sports play in American society.

“The timing couldn’t have been more ideal,” Mason says. “We asked if we could tag along, and they said yes. We are so happy our exhibit can be a part of this larger conversation.”

The 6-on-6 exhibit, curated by the IWA and UI American studies/sports studies faculty, is visiting six Iowa cities with the Hometown Teams exhibit. The tour started in Mount Vernon (March 17 to April 29) and moved to Ottumwa (May 5 to June 17). It will also be in Guthrie Center (June 23 to Aug. 5), Jefferson (Aug. 11 to Sept 23), Ames (Sept. 29 to Nov. 11), and Conrad (Nov. 17 to Jan. 1, 2019).

Mason says along with telling the sports stories of Iowa girls and women, the IWA hopes the exhibit also helps gather more documents and artifacts to add to its collection.

“We have some wonderful collections in the IWA, but there are some sports, geographical areas, and time periods that aren’t covered very well,” Mason says. “I expect we’ll have a much broader representation of girls’ and women’s sports experiences a year from now.”

Along with lectures and Q&As, plans call for each site to host a collection day. It didn’t take long for women to start sharing their stories and memorabilia.

“There were three women waiting for us at the door before the exhibit even opened on the day of the collection event in Mount Vernon,” says Sterling, who played 6-on-6 basketball in high school and helped develop the exhibit. “We heard some amazing stories and saw great photos, newspaper clippings, and pamphlets.”

The exhibit has residents talking before it even reaches their town.

“We have a real 6-on-6 basketball following here,” says Pat Sleister, director of the Mary J. Barnett Memorial Library in Guthrie Center, which will host the exhibit starting June 23. “It’s brought people out of the woodwork, and they are so excited to talk about 6-on-6 basketball.”

Mason and Sterling say they know not everyone wants to donate their items immediately, but they hope women and their families remember the IWA when they are ready. They are able to scan some items on site and have asked women to write down their sports memories, all of which will be included in the archives.

The passion that 6-on-6 basketball still elicits was on full display at Remembering 6-on-6 Girls’ Basketball in Iowa: A Conversation. About 100 people—including former players, coaches, and school officials—attended the May 15 event at the UI Main Library, during which panelists and audience members shared their 6-on-6 experiences and reflected on the impact the game had on their lives.

Panelist Julie Goodrich Blake, who played for Adel High School and Iowa State University in the 1970s, told the audience she feels lucky that she grew up where she did.

“My mother and grandmother played basketball, so I didn’t realize other girls my age in the country didn’t have the chance to play,” Goodrich Blake said. “The whole community was behind us and treated us like royalty. It seemed like the entire town would pile into cars and follow the team to the state tournament. I can’t imagine my life not having played basketball.”

Panelist Lisa Bluder, who played for Linn Mar High School and now is head coach of the Iowa women’s basketball team, remembered watching the state tournament with its flashy halftime shows and festivities honoring the players.

“I loved all the glamour,” Bluder said. “It was packed, and boys in tuxes would clean the floors during halftime. I’m still a bit bitter my team never made the tournament, but I’m proud to have grown up in Iowa and to have witnessed it all.”

Jan Jensen, who led the country with 66 points per game as a senior at Elk Horn-Kimballton High School in 1987 and now is the associate head coach of the Iowa women’s basketball team, brought along items she inherited from her grandmother, who played for Audubon in the 1920 and 1921 state tournaments. Along with showing the audience her grandmother’s uniform and state tournament cup, Jensen read from her grandmother’s diary, which spoke of flags flying and bands playing in every town in which they stopped on the way home.

Mason says preserving these stories and artifacts ensures this history is not lost.

“When we think of sports, too often the focus is on men and men’s sports,” Mason says. “This exhibit is a great way to highlight the importance of women in sports history. It sparks memories and gets people thinking about the meaning of sport in their lives.”

Cindy Hicks, executive director at Main Street Cultural District in Ames, where the exhibit will be featured in late September, says she didn’t know what 6-on-6 basketball was until she moved to Iowa from Kansas. But she quickly learned how important it is to Iowa residents.

“When you talk to women who played 6-on-6, their eyes light up,” Hicks says. “We want to do whatever we can to preserve this history and highlight women’s contributions to sports in our area as well as Iowa as a whole. I hope people leave with a renewed sense of pride in our local sports history.”

Sterling says talking to people who were directly involved in these sports is important for future research.

“Community engagement is important for so many reasons, but from a research perspective, we learn things in the field we just can’t dig up otherwise,” Sterling says. “It’s important to talk to people about the things they give you. How we interpret them can be so different from the meanings they attach to them. We’re able to make more connections and draw more accurate conclusions about these experiences.”

Sterling says some pieces of history may not have documentation, which is why firsthand accounts are crucial.

“We’ve heard about battles with school boards about the right for girls to participate in sports,” Sterling says. “One woman said (during the panel discussion at the Main Library) they’d show up at a meeting and officials would say up front that they weren’t going to talk about girls’ sports and to just go home if that’s what they were there for. Those sorts of things probably aren’t going to show up in the meeting’s minutes.”

Sterling also has incorporated the IWA’s girls’ and women’s sport collections into her UI classroom. During a class that focuses on women, sport, and American culture, students pick artifacts from the collection, study them, and digitize and curate them for a new website focusing on women and sport. Along with introducing UI students to 6-on-6 basketball and the wider involvement of Iowa girls and women in sport, they learn research skills and how to develop a digital exhibit. Sterling and fellow exhibit curator and sport studies faculty member Catriona Parratt also will continue to incorporate the IWA’s expanding sport-focused collections into curriculum for Hawkeye Nation, a class on identity and sport in the Midwest.

Each city hosting the Hometown Teams and 6-on-6 basketball exhibits is planning a variety of events tied to them. In Guthrie Center, along with a performance of Six-On-Six: The Musical and downtown window displays, among other things, a group of high school students videotaped an interview with about a dozen former 6-on-6 players.

“Those ladies just had the best time talking about old times and playing 6-on-6 basketball,” Sleister says. “And the kids learned so much. They had no idea that’s how it used to be.”

Funding for the IWA 6-on-6 basketball traveling exhibit was provided by the State Historical Society, Inc., and the UI Office of Outreach and Engagement.