The old photo in the album showed a scrawny girl, with shoes too large and saggy socks. Even the basketball looked too big for her.
“This is you?” I asked. No, it couldn’t be my mother.
“Yes, my freshman year.” Mom looked away. “I had never even seen a game, but the coach put me in instead of an older girl.”
“You look too young to even be in high school.”
“Maybe so, but I’d played keep-away at home with my older brothers. And I was a lefty.”
Playing basketball was a godsend for a teenager growing up in the small town of Dexter, Iowa, during the Great Depression. Doris Wilson seemed to be a natural at it, and she beat out five sophomores.
Doris and others usually rode to out-of-town games with Supt. Clampitt, which meant coming home in the last car to leave. Her older brothers, Delbert and Donald (seniors), rode with friends and got home earlier than their little sister. Their parents worried that maybe something had happened, but when she finally got home, Doris overheard one of the brothers telling their folks that she had actually played in the game.
In fact, she’d been a starter!
Girls play full-court basketball these days, but during the 1930s they played three-court basketball. Each team had six players on the court at the same time–two forwards, two guards, and two centers–a running center and a jumping center. Doris was the running center who passed the ball from one court to the other. The ball had to go through the center court each time it went down the floor, the game was slow, designed to be not too strenuous for girls.
Two-Court Girls’ Basketball
Toward the end of Doris’s freshman year, Dexter began playing the new two-court game. No longer restricted to one-third of the court, the three forwards played on the half, the goal being to put the ball through the net on their end. Three guards on the opposite end guarded the opponents’ forwards.
Doris was a forward. When she was a sophomore, Coach Clampitt tried to get her to pass the ball less and shoot at the basket more. He even said he’d give her a nickel for each score she made. She made three at the next game. The coach brought her 15 cents at the next practice, but Doris was disgusted at the bribe and refused to take it.
But, she’d gotten braver, and she’d enjoyed making those baskets.
Shortly before tournaments started that year, the senior forward had surgery for an appendicitis, so Doris made lots of points.
Dexter’s newest coach, a woman, hadn’t had much experience. One visiting team even had been coached in set plays, which were called out by number. During a time out, the Dexter girls decided they’d do it too, to the delight of their coach. Doris was unanimously elected captain of the team.
When she heard “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy,” sponsored by Wheaties, begin on the big console radio, Doris knew it was time to begin her walk to the Community Building to get suited up for a home game. She had so many butterflies in her stomach that she couldn’t eat supper.
When they played at the towns farther away–Adel, Casey, Van Meter–she’d feel sick during the first half of the game. She thought it was carsickness or else whatever they put in the radiators during the wintertime, but she was probably nervous as well.
Those older brothers joined the Navy in early 1934, leaving Doris, her sister Darlene, and younger brothers, Dale, Danny, and Junior. There were no electronic timers and games scorers in those days. Dale and his pals got to post the scores as the scoring table handed them the number cards.
The girls’ games were played first. Doris started climbing bleachers to watch the boys’ game once after she’d showered, and someone caught her attention, saying, “You’ve got quite a cheering section there,” and pointed to her younger brothers and their friends sitting along the stage.
She started making most of Dexter’s score in the games. Brother Dale wrote the Navy boys that the girls had been beat 51-31, but that Doris had made 21 of Dexter’s points. Another time, sister Darlene wrote them that her older sister had made 25 of 29 points.
Being left-handed was considered an asset for basketball players. Because most people are right handed, the guards were used to practicing with them. After becoming accustomed to guarding a forward’s shooting arm on the right, one shooting with their left would throw them off, at least temporarily, giving the lefty an advantage.
One time Dexter hosted Guthrie Center, a county seat town, and Dexter won! The Guthrie coach, a large woman who took her meals at Parrish’s Cafe in Guthrie, came in the day after that game. She talked about being embarrassed by losing to such a small town, and that Dexter had a little forward who was really good.
“Was she left-handed?” Cora Parrish asked her.
“Was her name Wilson?”
“She’s my niece!”
The next week Dexter played Guthrie on Guthrie’s big new court. A huge crowd turned out to see the little team that beat theirs. Dexter got beat badly.
Doris loved the game so much that when she sprained an ankle in a game, she didn’t want to sit on the bench one minute. At a time-out. she told a teammate to hang onto her thigh and another to yank on her foot as hard as she could. The ankle popped back into place with the second pull, and she painlessly played the rest of the game.
Mar. 5, 1936, The Sentinel. “Some Kind Words. Cage Chatter in the Perry Chief of Fri. & Sat. had some nice things to say about Les Bebout & Vic Zike. But nicest of all, we think, were these words about–well, read it: Doris Wilson, Dexter cager, as averaged 14 points per game for the last two years at the Gold & White institution. She also has established quite an enviable SCHOLASTIC record, with a 94 [percent] average. To top it all, Doris is Dexter’s entrant for the Queen’s throne!”
Same date, “Girls’ Sports: You will no doubt recall the class tournaments that the senior class sponsored some time ago. The winning class was to receive a cup and a medal was to be presented to the one displaying the best sportsmanship. Last week the cup was awarded to the senior class. The medal was presented to Doris Wilson.”
Superintendent Clampitt announced that Doris had only missed one game and one practice during all four years of high school. (Her mother Leora wouldn’t let her go one time saying, “You’ll have pneumonia.”) I don’t think either of Doris’s parents ever saw her play in a game.
Same date as above: [Senior feature] “The next senior is the one who made herself famous by her basketball career. Doris Wilson was born Aug. 30, 1918, south of Guthrie Center. At the age of five she and her parents moved to Dexter where Doris began her schooling. The Dexter schools have been glad to claim her during her twelve years of attendance. When in high school Doris participated in all outside activities except declamatory. In basketball she was especially good and her place will be mighty hard to fill. Doris says her future is uncertain but it has been said that she will probably get a position on either the A.I.B. basketball team or the Tulsa Stenos.”
Mar. 11, 1936, Dallas Co. News – “Redfield had a hard time in disposing of a scrappy Dexter team as Wilson, one of the outstanding tournament stars, hooked shots from all angles. The two left-handed forwards proved to be almost too much for Redfield and until the last quarter succeeded in keeping the Dexter team in the lead. First all-tournament team: McLaughlin – Adel, Harper – Redfield, Wilson – Dexter, Ross – Dexter, Mabbitt – Redfield, Nevitt – Stuart.”
American Institute of Business
A.I.B. in Des Moines was the first school to give girls a chance to play beyond high school graduation, and organized a team in 1930. In 1934 they beat the best Iowa high school teams, and was the first to play in the National A.A.U. Tournament. The coach was R. C. Bechtel.
In early 1936, Coach Bechtel had watched Redfield beat Dexter, but he’d told people that Doris Wilson was the best high school forward he’d watched. This news came through English teacher, Miss Moraine. Mr. Bechtel sent a letter to the school, saying to encourage her to think about attending AIB on a basketball scholarship, which would pay for business classes.
Her teachers were all for it, telling her she could get a job at Bishop’s Cafeteria for her meals, and find a way to pay for a room. Doris wasn’t sure she wanted to prepare for office work after graduating in 1936, but in early 1937 and with trepidation she rode to Des Moines with Mr. Clampitt to begin the second semester at A.I.B.
Doris played with the A.I.B. team during 1937. She played in a game at Wichita, Kansas, until a six-foot tall girl sent her into the bleachers and she twisted a knee. Doris at her tallest was 5 feet 5 inches. She got to travel to Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma–and shook hands with Alf Landon, Kansas Governor who was running for President and staying at the same hotel. He lost to F.D.R.
The A.I.B. team played an exhibition game in Dexter. Since the Wilsons lived right along the highway in town, the team dropped Doris off to see her family first. They had just sat down to supper–bread, water, and brown sugar. She felt guilty to be another mouth to feed that night, but they all laughed about it anyway.
When the grocer–where they’d needed to charge groceries–learned that Doris was at A.I.B., the grocer’s wife paid Leora Wilson a visit, saying that if they were rich enough to send their daughter to college, that they ought to be able to pay their grocery bill.
Doris played basketball for tuition, waitressed at Bishop’s Cafeteria for her two meals a day, and relied on her Navy brothers for the $10 rent per month for her room. When that stopped coming*, she had to drop out of school.
Those Depression Era years were hard on the Wilson family–losing twins to whooping cough, and another baby, no jobs, on welfare, hand-me-downs for all the kids, threadbare everything. But they also held wonderful memories for my mother, Doris Wilson, because she was nimble with a basketball.
And because she was a lefty.
*Delbert didn’t reenlist because he thought he could get a job in California and be able to better help the family. Because of the Depression, that didn’t pan out. We didn’t know until coming through the old letters after Leora died (1987) that Donald had probably lost money from some gambling, so this is probably why the $10 for rent stopped.
See also: From Six-on-Six to Full Court Press: A Century of Iowa Girls’ Basketball by Janice A. Beran
This story is also told in Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression.
An interesting and enjoyable read.
You know, my sister and I got kinda tired of hearing her basketball stories, but now they are precious!
What a nice tribute and a peek into Depression Era family life. I’m sure the older boys joined the Navy for the meals and to take the financial burden from their folks, a lot of young men did. And I enjoyed the descriptions of basketball at the time. I went to high school in the 1960s, before Title IX, when it was still considered to girls’ health benefit not to play too hard. We still played half court, meaning offensive and defensive players couldn’t cross the center line. In fact, we could never dribble more than 3 times, then pass. Participation in after-school sports garnered points toward an athletic block letter. Boys got a letter for one season. Girls had to participate for five seasons — two and a half years — to earn one. Those were the days!
Thank you, Linda. Grandma Neal, my dad’s mother, also played basketball in high school! She graduated in 1916–my only grandparent to complete high school.
What wonderful details you have!
Thank you, Debi! Now you know what my house looks like–my husband and I both save pictures and clippings and stories.
A lovely story! I love how you captured the realities of the times as well as the excitement of having a terrific female athlete in the family! My husband’s grandmother also played basketball in high school, and she ended up marrying the coach! That was in the early 1920s.
Wow, what a story! My dad’s mother also played basketball in high school, my only grandparents to graduate–in 1916!
I’ve enjoyed reading the comments as much as reading the story! The details are indeed priceless, particularly the Depression supper of bread, water, and brown sugar.
And that they laughed about it. I can hear my grandmother doing that.
[…] via Nimble with a Basketball — Joy Neal Kidney […]
Great post! I really enjoyed reading this.
Thanks, Darren. I just noticed that yesterday’s post was my 400th. How did that happen?
Congratulations! That’s quite a milestone. Posts fly when you’re having fun!
Enjoyed the article. My Mom played 3 court basketball. She was only 4’10”. I played 6 on 6! Loved it!
Mom was about that size!
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