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50 years later, Iowa state champ reflects on changes, similarities in women’s basketball
6-on-6 ‘was a different game,’ Heather Heddens says
CORALVILLE — In high-tops and white socks, with a basketball under one arm and a homemade pennant in the other, a 1960s-era, black-and-white photo of a young Heather Heddens epitomizes the dream scrawled on her hand-drawn flag.
“Future Bullette 1969-73 We Hope!”
A Bullette was the female version of her future Mediapolis High School’s bulldog mascot, and the “hope” captured her ambition to play 6-on-6 basketball, the game Iowa high school girls played from the 1920s through 1993.
“I think it’s a lot more finesse. It counts a lot more on passing and cutting, and screen and roll, and moving without the ball,” said Heddens, 68, of Coralville, who led her Bullettes to a state championship in 1973. “It was a different game.”
What remains the same from Heddens’ high school heroics and the 5-on-5, full-court system the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union adopted in 1993 is the enthusiasm the sport stirs among fans statewide — like the thousands who parked in front of their TVs Friday, or drove to Dallas, to watch the University of Iowa women battle South Carolina in the NCAA Final Four.
Even 50 years ago, when far fewer athletic opportunities existed for girls and women, throngs of community members would turn out to watch and celebrate the girl ballers, Heddens said.
“When we went to the state tournament … the town would do a big send-off,” Heddens said. “We'd get in the bus, and they'd have people waving at us as we left to go to Des Moines.
“All the (Mediapolis) businesses and the schools shut, and people went to Des Moines or else they were home listening to it on the radio.”
When the Bullettes completely dominated the field in 1973 and brought home the state tournament trophy in Heddens’ senior year, the team played before a crowd in Veterans Memorial Auditorium that one reporter described as “a roaring throng.” The team bus had a caravan escorting it home that became a victory tour.
“We did a little detour through Wapello, Iowa — they gave us a key to the city — and then the fire trucks met us from Wapello and escorted us down to Des Moines County, where our fire trucks took over,” Heddens said. “We went into town, and there were signs all over and a big reception at the gym.”
The girls basketball state tournament was the oldest sanctioned girls sport in Iowa, having started in 1920 “even when many people believed they (girls) should not play,” according to the high school athletics website.
In the 6-on-6 game, three guards would play on one-half of the basketball court and three forwards would play on the other half. If a guard stole a ball, she would pass the ball to one of her team’s forwards. The forwards then would try to score in their half-court while guarded by three players from the other team. And vice-versa.
The games “really united the community,” Heddens said.
And the same can be said today for the Hawkeye women who — while playing a faster, different style of ball — became only the second women’s UI basketball team to make the NCAA semifinals.
“Iowa women’s basketball has definitely been on the uptick,” Heddens said, pointing to the current group of girls who’ve been playing together for years. “I think people have really embraced them.”
Although Iowa men’s basketball still brought in more revenue than the women’s game last season, Heddens said she’s seeing more fans joining her and her husband as season ticket holders.
“I think you're going to see a huge uptick in season tickets next year,” she said.
For Heddens, basketball has served as a throughline for her life, starting with the pickup ball she played as a kid — a far cry from the organized leagues offered to today’s youth, including those not yet in kindergarten.
“For us, it was just scrimmage against the neighborhood boys and work hard and practice and get your shots tuned,” she said. “You were kind of on your own to get good.”
Although Heddens’ older sisters played organized ball in junior high, the earliest it was offered, they didn’t stick with it — in part because their dad was a coach. So when Heddens was old enough to join a team, the older girls suggested to their dad, “Don’t bother her. We want her to play.”
And she did. In her senior season, Heddens’ Bullettes won all 31 games, including the championship. And after graduation, Heddens headed to the UI, which launched a woman’s basketball program under coach Lark Birdsong in 1974.
Heddens wasn’t on the team, but she was a regular in the Field House — playing pickup with the guys and eventually organizing an intramural team with girls in her sorority.
“We were really good,” she said.
As a self-proclaimed “Field House rat,” Heddens said she spied on the women’s practices and eventually got up the nerve to offer her intramural squad for a scrimmage.
“I said we'd be happy to do whatever you need us to do,” she said. “And so we did scrimmage them once, and it was really fun, and I really appreciated that.”
Heddens went on to get her doctor of dental surgery degree from the UI in the 1980s and eventually set up a dental practice in Columbus Junction. But she never left behind the game that stole her heart as a youngster, joining that community’s high school as an assistant girls basketball coach in 1988.
Because she’s also been an adjunct clinical professor with the UI College of Dentistry since 1987, Heddens early on joined a UI committee to promote women’s basketball and “get more people to come to the games.”
“We had what was called a gold card that you could purchase, and it got you into all the games.”
Although she's been in Carver-Hawkeye Arena for decades cheering on the women, Heddens — a day before departing with her husband to Dallas for the Final Four this week — suggested this season has been special.
“It’s been magical,” she said.
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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