It’s 1966, early winter, on a desolate stretch of Western highway. Ben Overman thinks it’s time for “roadwork.” He pulls the white limousine to the shoulder. Seven doors open in near unison, as seven young women — all willowy redheads — groan at the first blast of icy air. They fall into line, some of them kneeling to tighten the laces of sneakers that seem incongruous with the slacks, blouses and sweaters they wear. The cold is so sharp that each inhalation pierces their lungs.
Overman waves out the window and the limousine begins to move, slowly now, as the women jog, puffing tiny clouds of hot breath. The few passing vehicles slow down, both out of courtesy and so the occupants can gawk. It’s not everyday that you see a parade of redheaded women crunching through snow, exercising in street clothes with teased hair and full make-up. Overman accompanies them for a bit, just to make sure everyone’s OK, and then he drives a few miles ahead, parks and waits. Once the women reach him, the day’s training is over. They can relax on the ride to the next high school, YMCA or junior college gym, where they will paint their eyelids blue and their lips cherry-red, toss their henna-dyed hair under florescent lights and play basketball.
The women are members of the All American Red Heads. They barnstorm the country, playing up to 220 games a year and performing circus-style halftime shows. Since the team’s beginnings in 1936, the Red Heads have played entirely against men, by men’s rules. Forty-six years from now, they’ll become the first women’s professional basketball team to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. But at the moment, they’re just trying to get through this run.
One of the joggers is Judy Cameron — 19, 5’10”, all legs and an auburn bob. She comes from a farming family in Parkers Chapel, a Union County speck too small for any map. The Red Heads are her escape from eleven siblings and an alcoholic father. She was hired midseason last year, sight unseen, on the strength of her high school reputation. When she got the contract in the mail, she immediately dropped out of Southern State College. Her father didn’t think women should go to college anyhow.
Another jogger, Pat Overman, nee Rimer, joined the team four years ago, as an 18-year-old with naturally fiery locks. An expert shooter and soft-spoken diplomat, she’d been a basketball star in her hometown of Edina, Mo. Now Red Head comedienne, she has the toughest position — pulling gags and engaging the crowd, while playing better ball than anyone. It took Pat a few years to make comedienne but only a few months to make the coach her husband. The summer after the team’s first season on the road, Ben Overman showed up at Pat Rimer’s family’s home. He had hidden his feelings, but was under the gun — they had three months off, and if he didn’t move fast, he’d have to pretend that he was only interested in Pat’s basketball skills for all of the following season.
That summer, the two courted for a month, married at a Methodist church in Edina, bought a starter home in Ben’s Craighead County hometown of Caraway, and then reported for training.
The Red Heads traveled in DeSotos, station wagons and later, limousines, playing daily or even twice a day. Mostly they played fundraisers, splitting the door with whatever civic club or high school student council hosted them. Their opponents were former varsity athletes turned town leaders, and their toughest games were on army bases, against robust young soldiers. Sometimes they played professional athletes, like the Boston Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs, who had off-season basketball teams, and once, in Long Island, they played a team that included Julius Erving. The Red Heads sprinkled their games with jokes, such as covering their opponents’ eyes, bouncing passes beneath legs and leaving a big lipstick smudge on a referee’s bald head. But the Red Heads played to win, and about 70 percent of the time, they did.
At 83, Willa Faye Mason, is one of the oldest living Red Heads. She joined the team in 1949, and in 1956, switched to coaching the Famous Red Heads, a sister team whose players sometimes fed the Red Heads line-up. Once she left the road, she earned a Ph.D. in education and eventually became the women’s athletic director at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla.
When Mason was a senior in high school at Siloam Springs, the Red Heads came through town and her entire basketball team attended the game. Later, team owner Olson returned to Siloam Springs and hired her and the team’s two other forwards.
Growing up, Mason was more athletic than her brothers. She describes her parents as “hardworking with normal values,” but they always supported their children’s ventures — even when that meant their 19-year-old daughter wanted to live in motel rooms and face-off against random men each night. “For my mother, the only thing about it was the traveling. At first she was wary, but she got to thinking about it and knew I was seeing the U.S.A., playing a game I loved and getting paid. So she thought it was all right, if that’s what I wanted to do,” Mason said.
In 1950, in an attempt to stave off trip boredom, Mason penned the lyrics to the Red Heads theme song. It began, “We are the Red Heads, pretty and trim / we’ve come to your town to play ball and win.” It was sometimes accompanied by a banjo and always accompanied by giggles.
On the road, Mason didn’t have much privacy. The Red Heads were lucky if they snagged a moment to do laundry someplace other than the bathroom sink. But there were group outings to state Capitols, museums and university campuses. Mason remembers her favorite places — Catalina Island off California, the redwood forests and Jackson Hole, Wyo. In 1956, the Red Heads became the first women’s basketball team to play in the territory of Alaska. In between their 20-game tour, Mason and her teammates went bobsled riding.
In 1946, Hazel Walker, 32, an All-American athlete and successful AAU player, joined the Red Heads. During halftime, she challenged anyone in the audience to a free-throw contest. She would start the contest sitting down, then throw a few shots from her knees before ending on her feet. Legend has it, she never missed. Walker was the only daughter of a part-Cherokee couple from outside of Ashdown. She was beautiful, vain, independent and smart. Olson assigned her the role of team captain and road manager.
But Walker grew frustrated with the Red Heads. She refused to dye her coal-black hair and instead wore a wig. She hated the comedienne’s flirty antics and wanted to play guileless basketball. In a letter to Elva Bishop, who featured Walker in her documentary “Women’s Basketball,” Walker wrote, “The thing that bothered me about the Red Heads was they wanted a setup. They didn’t want the men to fast break, and they didn’t want the referees to call fouls too closely on us.” Perhaps the final straw, according to Little Rock’s Gary Newton, who authored a screenplay on Walker, was that she wanted to buy the Red Heads. Olson was looking to sell, but he didn’t want to sell to a player. So in 1949, Walker became the first woman to start her own professional basketball team, the Arkansas Travelers. She accepted an initial loan from a boyfriend, but other than that, there were no men involved. (Walker’s husband died when she was 26. She never remarried.)
“Hazel didn’t feel like she needed a man,” said Francies Garroutte, 77, of Cabot, who played for the Travelers all 16 years of the team’s existence. Garroutte and Walker took turns driving, booking games and handling business, carting their portable typewriter everywhere. According to Garroutte, the Travelers were too focused on basketball to be bothered with roadside attractions. “We had to get to the games, and we had to be on time,” she said.
Walker couldn’t entirely escape her era, and maybe she didn’t want to. Like the Red Heads, the Travelers “did not go out in public unless you were dressed right, hair and make-up fixed,” Garroutte said. “Hazel was a high class lady. She believed you could look like a woman, act like a woman, and play ball like a man.”
But the Travelers weren’t hired exactly like men. “I selected my players for morals, character, neatness, looks and most of all ability,” Walker told the Arkansas Democrat in 1950. “We stress good basketball. You’ve got to if you want to go back next year. … We do pull stunts. We mix one into each quarter, and it takes only a few seconds.” Newton explains this as Hazel “understanding her times. She knew that ultimately, they were an entertainment entity. They were charting new territory. There had never been a professional basketball team owned by a woman, traveling alone, without men.” Walker didn’t want the Travelers to play without her, so in 1965 at age 51, she dissolved the team. She lived in Little Rock until she died in 1990.
In 1954 Olson finally sold the team to his favorite Red Heads coach, a ginger-haired man from Caraway. Orwell Moore, the team’s second and final owner, was born in 1917 and had been a teen-age baseball star with aspirations of joining the St. Louis Cardinals. But after two bouts of tuberculosis, he channeled his passion into teaching at a one-room school in Hancock (Craighead County). When he was 26, he ended up falling in love with a sassy 14-year-old student named Lorene. They moved to Cotter, where the high school didn’t allow married students and it certainly didn’t allow them to play ball. But Lorene was an extraordinary athlete, and Moore threatened to resign if she was banned from classes or basketball. After Lorene graduated high school, the couple joined the Red Heads — Moore as a coach and Lorene as a player. Lorene played for 12 years, scoring more than 35,000 points and becoming the team’s greatest all-time scorer.
In 1959, they had a daughter. “I was born into the Red Heads,” Tammy Moore Harrison said. “I just thought everybody had a whole bunch of girls hanging around all the time that played ball and stayed at your house.” When she was too young for school, she traveled in the team station wagon. She considered the players her older sisters, only better, because they were celebrities. When they pulled up to the evening’s venue, people would crowd the vehicle to meet them.
Much later, in the ’70s, the Red Heads trained at Camp Courage — 350 acres of forest in Holly Springs, Miss., with two lakes, cabins and a mess hall. Moore bought the camp and poured concrete over an area larger than a football field, put up goals and created multiple basketball courts. The Red Heads also coached the young campers, girls from 10 to 18 who came from all over the country to spend a few weeks learning basketball. Sometimes college-aged women came as well, in the hopes that they would be hired as Red Heads.
But before Camp Courage, the Red Heads’ two-week summer training session was held in the Caraway High School gym, and the players would sleep at the Moores’ house. “Sometimes there were a dozen people around. We put beds everywhere,” Harrison remembers. “For me it was a big slumber party. There was a lot of short-sheeting or someone coming around a corner, shrieking like they were grabbed from behind … of course, I thought somebody was really getting them.”
Moore could be strict and patronizing with his players. “We prefer getting our girls young, fresh out of school. They are easier to coach, easier to fit the Red Head way when they are young,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1974. But he was also a playful and optimistic man. He liked to call the Red Heads “the All American Matrimonial Bureau,” because he believed that association with the team made women so appealing, they often quit to get married.
Moore had a solid, if somewhat ethically dubious, business philosophy. Players were only given their schedule a few weeks in advance, and they were sworn to secrecy. He thought any leak might invite another attraction to set up in town a day or so before the Red Heads, competing for limited disposable income. And the players never knew exactly when their season would end, since Moore kept them on the road till he turned a profit. He would show up at Red Heads games unannounced, just to check that things were on par. “They always made sure that they had that hair especially dyed if they knew my dad was coming. He was real big on them having red hair and making sure they looked like ladies,” Harrison said. “He wanted them to wear dresses or skirts in the car, but I think in the later years, like the ’80s, he even allowed them to wear jeans. I guess he had to change some with the times — not that he liked it.”
From her Sherwood kitchen, Judy Cameron, 67, recites the rules: “If you smoked when you got on the team, you could still smoke, but you couldn’t smoke in uniform. And you couldn’t take up the habit after you got on the team. There was no drinking. We couldn’t date anybody but the guys we played against, and of course, they couldn’t be married. And it had to be two of us to go out, it couldn’t be just one guy and a girl. We were pretty tough, we could protect ourselves, but those were the rules.” They also rotated roommates because Moore didn’t want any cliques, and he never wanted one player to outshine the others. If someone was scoring too much, she was encouraged to pass more and shoot less.
To this day, Cameron hates blue eye shadow.
Pat and Ben Overman were both with the Red Heads until 1973. Now they live in a sprawling brick house at the end of a shady cul-de-sac in Jonesboro.
Last summer they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. These days, Pat does something she rarely had to do as a Red Head — dyes her hair red. She still can’t say, exactly, why she agreed to marry the coach. The best she can manage is, “We both loved the same thing. We loved the Red Heads.” She was 18.
After their wedding, she thought she had to be the best, so that no one could accuse Ben of favoritism. She spent long hours practicing in summers, when most of the girls took a break from basketball. As comedienne, she had to pull double-duty on court. “You always had someone on the local team that was a showboat or the people in town loved him. You try to figure those things out going in. He’s the one you’re going to pick on,” Pat said.
Her teammate, Cameron, loved the pinch act. “Pat would back up against somebody and scream, ‘he pinched me.’ We were playing the professors at College of William and Mary — most of them could stand under my arm. We would pat them on the arm, play with their hair,” she said. “And when Pat leaned into that guy and screamed, he ran out of the building and never came back, he was so embarrassed.”
Cameron only spent three seasons with the Red Heads before having back surgery for ruptured disks. “Before the Red Heads, I was just a scared little girl. I couldn’t have talked to anybody. Now I’ll get up in front of everybody. I found out one thing — if you don’t think enough of yourself, no one else is going to,” she said. When she left the Red Heads, she became the first female salesperson ever hired by Little Rock’s D.A. Sparks Inc. She traveled the East Coast representing the company.
In the 50 years of the Red Heads’ existence, what it meant to be a woman in America changed more than what it meant to be an All American Red Head. According to John Molina, a women’s basketball historian, “When the Red Heads first started, they would pull into town and find that church organizations had covered up their legs on the posters.”
The ’70s brought changes for ambitious women athletes, and many women found freedom, a college degree and an individual identity more appealing than living by someone else’s rules. But the Red Heads remained mostly in the past. “We’re no part of Women’s Lib, and if any of the girls were to get involved in it — well, they better not let me know about it. I don’t want the All American Red Heads tied to any causes,” Moore was quoted in Sports Illustrated.
The Red Heads were antiquated in other ways, too. They played plenty of integrated men’s teams, but in their entire history, no one remembers a black Red Head. According to Ben Overman, no black player ever approached the Red Heads, and the Red Heads never recruited them. “That just wasn’t that time,” he said. Moore told Sports Illustrated that, “We’ve had girls of all persuasions — a Mormon, Indian girls, one Jewish, and I believe there was even one Red Head who did not go along with the existence of the Lord, know what I mean?”
For two years in the mid-’70s, Moore had three Red Head teams on the road simultaneously, and one of them was made up entirely of former college players. But by the end of the decade, Camp Courage was sold and the Red Heads were something akin to kitsch — more wholesome than risque, more of a throwback than a phenomenon. When Moore retired the Red Heads in 1986, they had the notoriety of being the first women’s barnstorming basketball team and the last standing. They’d appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” “House Party” with Art Linkletter and the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.
The players were paid about $500 a month. At 40-hour weeks, this would have fallen at least $40 short of minimum wage. In 1997 the WNBA debuted a new era of women’s basketball — one that is lipstick free and champions MVPs, slam-dunks and players measuring nearly 7 feet. The All American Red Heads were a relic, revered as pioneers by scholars and the players they influenced but long-removed from America’s household vernacular.
When the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame opened in Knoxville in 1999, it included a Red Heads exhibit, complete with the team’s trademark white limousine. But the Red Heads didn’t truly rediscover the limelight until historian John Molina found a photo of his grandmother’s 1934 J.B. Williams soap factory team, became fascinated with women’s basketball and took up the Red Heads’ cause. He has amassed the largest collection of Red Heads memorabilia, and shows it all over the country, including the NCAA championships. He first nominated the Red Heads for Naismith in 2006, but it took until 2012 for the team to make it. Molina didn’t mind that he had to apply six times. “Considering how little information there was on the All American Red Heads just 10 years ago, to have gone from relative obscurity to the pinnacle of the basketball world is amazing,” he said. Shortly after the induction ceremony in Springfield, Mass., the New York Times published an article on the Red Heads.
And make-up or not, in the footage that exists, the Red Heads play as a mechanically precise unit. They dart around opponents, pop the ball off hips and forearms, pass behind their back more often than not and shoot with dead accuracy. Their tricks are so clean that by the time the other team realizes what’s happened, the Red Heads are on to the next play.
Vivian Stringer, the Rutgers women’s basketball coach, was on the Naismith selection committee. “They were so skilled, and at a time when so many people thought we as women couldn’t handle the ball without passing out. … We all owe them our gratitude for paving the way for us,” she said.
Another of Moore’s favorite sayings: “If you can’t play good basketball, you better stay home.”
Sept. 7, 2012. About 80 Red Heads and a few coaches crowd the Springfield stage inside the giant silver dome, stacking three deep. Most of them are gray-headed and modestly dressed in black or royal blue, but several reddish-orange Clairol-heads bob among the gray.
In the crowd, Coach Stringer snaps dozens of pictures. Right now, she’s not just the coach with the third highest number of wins in women’s basketball history, she’s an excited fan, overcome with the gravity of legacy.
A middle-aged blonde woman in a strapless blue gown steps away from the pack. She slides down the reading glasses perched atop her head and speaks into the mic. She’s nervous, thanking the class of 2002 rather than 2012. Her voice wavers and she loses her place a few times, but behind her, award presenter Julius Erving and her extended family of Red Heads stand patiently. Only once does Tammy Harrison Moore’s face nearly crumple. “My father never gave up on the idea that the All American Red Heads would someday reach his goal of being enshrined into the Naismith Hall of Fame. He knew this was the definitive honor in the game of basketball,” she read. She presses her lips together tightly, holding back the rush of emotion — her father had died in 2009, three years before the nomination stuck. Then, as quickly as a Red Head on the court, she regains her composure. “We thank you for recognizing the work of the All American Red Heads and celebrating our part in the great game of basketball,” she finishes. Behind her, there are a lot of fast blinkers.
Meanwhile, Willa Faye Mason has penned a new verse for the Red Heads to sing at all their reunions. “Yes, we were the redheads who traveled afar / who showed our country / that girls could play ball / we showed our tricks and fancy routines / but the passing and shooting / was the heart of our schemes / The many miles that we traveled / and any fame that we gained / simply showed our love / for the basketball game.”