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, 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’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.