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Granny basketball national champs call Cedar Rapids home court

Women as old as 81 stay active, support each other as part of Sizzlers

The Cedar Rapids Sizzlers take a picture with the statue of James Naismith in Lawrence, Kansas, during the 2019 Granny Basketball National Championship. The seated players are (left to right) Sharon Pease, Lois Henderson, Linda Eowen and Diana Marker Siguenza. The players standing (left to right) are Linda Jennings, Trish Spear, Joan Forbes, Lola Reisner, Margaret Beuter, Susan Hartley and Sue Cahalan. Lori Neblung is also on the team but couldn't make it to the tournament. (Photo courtesy of Cedar Rapids Sizzlers)
The Cedar Rapids Sizzlers take a picture with the statue of James Naismith in Lawrence, Kansas, during the 2019 Granny Basketball National Championship. The seated players are (left to right) Sharon Pease, Lois Henderson, Linda Eowen and Diana Marker Siguenza. The players standing (left to right) are Linda Jennings, Trish Spear, Joan Forbes, Lola Reisner, Margaret Beuter, Susan Hartley and Sue Cahalan. Lori Neblung is also on the team but couldn't make it to the tournament. (Photo courtesy of Cedar Rapids Sizzlers)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — When Linda Jennings played basketball in high school, her team had to use electrical tape for the uniform numbers, frequently stopping to make sure the numbers didn’t fall off the reversible jerseys.

About five decades later, Jennings, 64, isn’t slowing down and isn’t having to retape any numbers either. She and a group of other women 50 or older geographically spread across Eastern Iowa play for the Cedar Rapids Sizzlers, the 2019 winners of the National Granny Basketball Tournament in Lawrence, Kansas.

The league of 37 teams across nine states plays by rules and attire from the 1920s. It’s six-on-six basketball. Players cannot jump and are only allowed two dribbles per possession. Underhanded shots are 3 points, other shots are 2 points, and free throws are 1 point. Any extra skin showing constitutes a flesh foul.

Other teams in the area include the Late Bloomers, also based in Cedar Rapids, and the Center Point Model Ts.

The lack of running, jumping or three-second violations does not keep elbows from flying.

“We come home with bruises and black eyes,” said Margaret Beuter, 64.

“It’s fun to play, but it’s more fun when you win,” Susan Hartley said.

For many, it’s the chance to finally play competitive basketball. When many of the players on the Sizzlers, mostly in their 60s and 70s, were in high school, it was before Title IX, the federal law that bans gender discrimination and opened the door for female athletics programs.

Only a couple players had the opportunity to play high school basketball. Jennings was the only one to play college basketball after earning a scholarship at Grandview College.

“We pulled together players that never played basketball, really,” Jennings said. “And then you got players that played quite a bit of basketball, and we’ve been able to mesh it up.”

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It’s not all about basketball, though. The Sizzlers raise money for several local causes, including Horizon’s Meals on Wheels program, Waypoint, Bridgehaven and a group of grannies supplying school supplies.

The Sizzlers and the Granny Basketball League have served as a support group for its members. Multiple members described it as “another family.” When Diana Marker Siguenza battled lymphoma in 2010, her teammates and competitors from other teams were there to support her.

“The grannies were so supportive,” Siguenza said. “I got cards from all the teams. They would email me, ask me how I was doing. ... Even though we compete with each other, we’re all on the same boat because we’ve lived through so many of the same life experiences. You can’t get to our age and not go through some real obstacles.”

When someone takes a fall during a game — “Granny down!” — everyone stops play to make sure the player is OK.

It involves many of the grannies’ other family members as well. One son is the “voice of granny basketball,” and many of the husbands help at fundraising events.

The 2019 title isn’t the only time the Sizzlers have had success. They also won the national titles in 2012 and 2015. The team couldn’t repeat its title in 2016 because of players with a broken knee, broken foot and broken arm. At their ages, injuries are a constant concern, so every practice starts with stretching.

Granny basketball lets the Sizzlers also stay in better physical shape. The team starts practicing in October and the season goes through July. Some of the team plays pickleball together in the offseason, too.

Lola Reisner, 81, said the rest of the team “keeps challenging me.”

“It keeps my brain going, keeps my body going,” Reisner said.

Her teammates say she’s the one keeping them on their toes.

“She’s in pretty good shape, really,” said Susan Hartley, 68. “She’s pretty active in the middle there.”

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When the Sizzlers won the national championship, Jennings achieved a personal record on her FitBit — 26,000 steps — no electrical tape necessary.

l Comments: john.steppe@thegazette.com

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