Six-on-Six: The Beautiful Game
By BRANDON HURLEY
The curious intrigue quickly wore off and blossomed into one of the country’s most-cherished spectacles.
Though 25-years have passed, the glory days of six-on-six girls’ basketball in the state of Iowa seems like yesterday, for many fans, players and coaches.
Heck, even media members relish those spectacular days, as several books and movies have been generated since its inception in the early 1900s.
When hardly a bad word can be spoken of it, you know you had something special. When it sent communities into a frenzy with increased regularity, that’s when a place in history is cemented forever.
The six-on-six game was so beloved by many and often sold out the famous Veteran’s Auditorium in Des Moines. It created ghost towns out of even the most vibrant communities as they flocked to central Iowa for the state tournament.
The 70-plus year history of six-on-six basketball produced some of the most well-known athletes in the state’s history, earning them several Division I scholarships along the way while those same athletes brought dozens of rural schools their only championship glory.
The sport was much more than just a novelty, it held the attention of nearly every basketball fan, as scores routinely reached the 80s and 90s and occasionally cracked the century mark. The sport grew so fast the girls’ games were often played AFTER the boys’ during the regular double-headers.
Coon Rapids-native and legendary administrator E. Wayne Cooley helped grow and promote the game for almost 50 years while former Audubon coaching legend M.M. McIntyre was regarded as one of the founding fathers of the now nearly 100-year old Iowa Girls’ High School Athletic Union.
Iowa was one of the few states to offer girls basketball in the 1920s and it eventually blossomed in popularity, as the state tournament began airing on television in 1951. The sport drew attention from several national media outlets and even piqued the interest of the “Wide World of Sports” on ABC, though Cooley turned the contract down because it would move the championship game out of prime time.
The six-on-six game differed from five-on-five in more ways than just an extra player. The court was split into two, three-on-three halves. Defenders were never allowed to cross the half court line, exclusively used for rebounding and never shot.
Each player could only dribble twice and could not hold the ball for more than three seconds. After each made basket, the ball was in-bounded at the half court line, which sped the game up.
With only six total players on each half of the court, it freed up space for offensive players to maneuver, as girls notoriously averaged more than 50 points per game despite the two-dribble rule.
The game was an art form to many, including East Greene legend Pam Slock, who led the state in scoring (51 points per game) in 1961, even creating her own signature move, the two-handed, behind-the-head ‘Slock Shot.’ To this day, despite one of the purest shots in state history and a Hall of Fame induction, the pain of never making the state tournament lingers.
“It had a design to it,” Slock, now Sanders said. “The plays, the positioning. It was like a religion. Every gym was packed.”
The beauty of six-on-six gave way to an excitement level that is tough to match in today’s five-on-five game, Lake View-Auburn legend Gloria (Olberding) Jones said. She was a member of back-to-back title teams in the 1970s and played four consecutive years in the state tournament, never placing worse than third.
“In my opinion, six on six has more action. It had to have more teamwork than five-on-five,” Jones said in a recent phone interview.
When the tip-off of a new season rolled around, everyone had the same goal, to end the season on the court of the magical Veteran’s Auditorium in downtown Des Moines. With a capacity of nearly 15,000 people, tickets were ordered far in advance. As the fans filled the seats and began to cheer, the atmosphere produced an electric feel.
Cathy (Proctor) Krieger was a rebounding machine for the Jefferson-Scranton Rams, helping lead the school to its first-ever state tournament back in 1988. She later played basketball at the University of Kentucky, but didn’t find anything that compared to the electricity that the “Barn” created.
“It was fun, you were nervous because it was state, but it was a neat and powerful experience,” she said in an interview last fall. “I remember walking through the tunnel with our Walkmans. The energy of the crowd, it got you excited. There were no nerves. It was a neat thing to be apart of.”
Vicki (Weant) Lautner recalled her playing days at the state tournament more than 50 years ago for Paton-Churdan in 1967. She led the Rockets to an undefeated regular season record, but remembers vividly the enormity of it all.
“The intimidation (came from) playing in ‘The Barn,’” she said in a 2017 interview. “The place was huge, the crowds were huge and it was packed up to the roof. We were really in awe when we stepped on to the court.
“We lived for it,” Lautner added. “It was a great feeling. We had worked so hard to get there. We wanted to go to state so bad, it was ingrained in us (from day one).”
Olberding was heartbroken and frustrated by the decision to go to five-on-five in 1993. Though the transition was inevitable, it didn’t sit well for many people like Jones. It ruined the uniqueness Iowa built up.
“They killed the game. You stop and look at the attendance now, the people they drew in from other counties and states, they don’t have that now,” Jones said. “You’re not the best of the best anymore. We were best of the best.”
The state record-holder for most tournament games played (16), Olberding now lives in Georgia with her family. She still struggles to adapt as a fan, even 25 years after the transition.
“It has no appeal to me, even men’s,” she said. “We only had two dribbles. We didn’t have the full court. You had to be a team to play well. You couldn’t have one person be the star.”
Legendary Lake View-Auburn and Panorama coach Louis “Bud” McCrea, who won 500 games and two state titles, was a big supporter of keeping the six-on-six legacy alive. He coached Jones during the 1970s, using discipline and a defensive mind to produce one of the more remarkable careers in history. The six-on-six game was – and still is – his life. The 80-year old lives in Des Moines and was recently honored for his 1993 state-tournament Panorama team, which donned “Save six-on-six” buttons 25 years ago at Veteran’s Auditorium. The players chanted “We love six-on-six” throughout the week-long event.
Sharon Schafer (1987-91) was not a member of that ’93 team but starred as an all-state guard for coach McCrea a few years earlier. She understood the impact of the game and why “Bud” loved it so much.
“Communities felt a sense of pride stemming from the success of a team, and the girls felt it and it fed their confidence,” Schafer said. “Six-on-six was a different game and beloved in Iowa. (Bud McCrea) knew you could reach more girls with the six-on-six game and felt it was more exciting to watch.
(It was) higher scoring (and required) different strategies with the center line and switch of scenery – like a separate game on each end of the floor,” Schafer continued. “He knew it had a huge fan base and was nostalgically loved by so many girls who played over the decades.”
Jason Eslinger, now an assistant director with the Iowa Girls’ High School Athletic Union, has witnessed the six-on-six game shape his career. He was a young adult as the sport came to its end in the early 90s, but has fought passionately to keep the memory alive.
Eslinger has resurrected every state six-on-six state championship game dating back to 1947 on Youtube, with a strong majority shown in their entirety. He’s also created an in-depth records archives on the athletic association’s website (ighsau.org), complete with results of every state tournament, all-time leading scorers (well beyond the top 15), best averages, most rebounds, most free throws and more. It’s a plethora of information that will stand the test of time and is a treasure trove for any six-on-six nerd.
To him, there was no other choice but to help preserve a game that’s meant so much to hundreds of thousands of people.
“As a native Iowan, I grew up with the girls’ state tournament,” he said. “My family always watched the six-on-six finals on TV and I was fortunate enough to see my school (Grundy Center) qualify my senior year and experience the tournament in person. The girls’ state basketball tournament is truly a showcase of Iowa and the Iowa Girl. I’m proud to have a small part in it.”
Through stories, videos, pictures and various ceremonies, the six-on-six game lives on, even 25 years after the fact. But, for some, records are all they’ve ever known, having never seen a live, six-on-six game.
For that, it’s up to the former players, fans and coaches to show the new generations what they missed out on.
SOURCES: • E. Wayne Cooley and the Iowa Girl: A Celebration of the nation’s best high school sports program, Chuck Offenburger
• “The History of the IGHSAU”, Iowa Girls High School Athletics Union, Jason Eslinger
• From Six-on-Six to Full Court Press: A Century of Iowa Girls’ Basketball, Janice A. Beran