A century before Caitlin Clark, 6-on-6 basketball players in Iowa were blazing trail for her

Imagine Iowa star Caitlin Clark playing a basketball game where the rules allowed her just two dribbles before she had to pass or shoot and it was illegal for her to cross the half-court line.

For most of the 20th century, this was girls basketball in Clark’s native state of Iowa. The game was 6-on-6, with three girls on one side of the court playing defense and three on the other side playing offense.

The rules might seem archaic now, if not blatantly sexist, but it was popular: Girls high school games filled gyms to capacity in many towns and state tournament tickets were resold at a premium, with the finals televised in nine Midwestern states.

Iowa basketball history: Before Caitlin Clark there was 6-on-6 | weareiowa.com

“Sometimes it was so loud in our little gym that we couldn’t even hear the coach when we were in a huddle,” said Nancy Schmitz, who starred at Elk Horn-Kimballton in the 1960s when her name was Nancy Wolken. “It was really dynamic. A lot of screaming and hollering. And we all loved to play. I should have studied more, but I loved to play. Every game the gym was full.”

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder, associate head coach Jan Jensen and assistant Jenni Fitzgerald grew up playing 6-on-6 and Clark regularly gives a nod to her forebears in the sport.

“When I hear from a lot of people that played basketball, whether it was 6-on-6 however many years ago, I think they’re blown away at where women’s basketball is now and the platform we get to play on,” Clark said. “That doesn’t come if it’s not for the people who came before us.”

How might Clark have fared

With her long-range shooting and nifty passing, Clark has become the face of women’s basketball and is among the most popular athletes in the United States. She has averaged 31.9 points per game this season and passed Pete Maravich as the NCAA Division I all-time leading scorer.

Jensen, one of the state’s all-time high school greats, said Clark would have been just as formidable in the six-girl game. Those shots from the perimeter and thread-the-needle passes would have been part of her game, her snaking drives to the basket not so much because of the two-dribble limit.

“She would have probably rewritten all the scoring records,” Jensen said. “Just scoring and focusing on the shooting aspect, that would have been right up her alley.”

Special rules for 6 vs. 6

Iowa high schools could choose to play 5-on-5 beginning in 1984, but many small schools kept playing 6-on-6 until 1993, only 23 years before Clark’s freshman year at Dowling Catholic High in West Des Moines.

Chuck Offenburger, a retired Des Moines Register columnist and now an author who writes about Iowa news and culture on Offenburger.com, said immigrants from northern Europe who settled in the state in the 19th century believed strongly in physical fitness for both sexes.

Boys and girls worked alongside each other in the farm fields, and basketball was seen as a suitable competitive outlet for all. The caveat was that the sport was considered too strenuous for girls of that era, so special rules were made.

Iowa basketball history: Before Caitlin Clark there was 6-on-6 | weareiowa.com

Even at that, a federal study on physical education in the 1920s put the kibosh on girls basketball in some areas of the state.

“The conclusion was that girls should not be involved in interscholastic and competitive athletics because it could affect their birthing capacity in later life,” Offenburger said. “The larger schools in the larger towns and cities just bought that lock, stock and barrel, and they ended their programs.”

Iowa girls basketball ahead of its time

In 6-on-6, players on the defensive side did not inbound the ball and bring it up after the opponent made a basket. Instead, the referee would throw the ball to half-court, where his partner would give it to a forward to initiate the next sequence of play.

Games could be fast-paced and high-scoring. Jensen averaged just under 66 points per game as a senior in 1987 at Elk Horn-Kimballton, and she went on to become a national scoring leader and All-American at Drake. Jensen’s grandmother, Dorcas Anderson, was MVP of the 1921 state tournament for Audubon and nicknamed “Lotty” because she scored a lot of points.

In 1926, Irene Silka of Maynard became the first girl to score 100 points in a game. Denise Long of Union-Whitten was so dominant that she was drafted by the San Francisco Warriors in 1969 as a publicity stunt. Lynne Lorenzen of Ventura set the still-standing national career scoring record in 1987 (an astonishing 6,736 points).

Schmitz, who lives in La Vista, Nebraska, preceded Jensen by 20 years at Elk Horn and played on the 1967 team that was the school’s first to reach the state tournament. Her black-and-orange No. 35 jersey, white Converse All-Star canvas high-tops and a scrapbook are among the memorabilia she’s kept from her playing days.

“I was disappointed and a little sad when Iowa girls 6-on-6 basketball came to an end,” she said. “The game had a uniqueness all its own.”

Many states didn’t offer girls sports until the 1970s. By then, girls basketball had been ingrained in Iowa’s culture for more than a half-century, so Schmitz said she and her teammates didn’t realize they were ahead of their time.

“I felt very blessed to have competed during that era,” she said, “and many of my teammates and I have known each other since grade school and still maintain those friendships and love to reminisce about our days together on the court.”

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