Without the All American Red Heads, there would be no WNBA
The Arkansas-rooted professional team showed the world that women belong in basketball.
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.