DES MOINES, Iowa — Playing basketball isn't ladylike.
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That's what Jewell Chapman's high school principal told her in 1961 when he banned the girls basketball program.
"We were very frustrated," said Chapman, a forward for her high school team in Des Moines.
Nearly 50 years later, Chapman is back on the court. She's 62 and plays for the Hot Pink Grannies, joining about 10 other women on a team whose uniforms are black bloomers and hot pink socks. They play in the Iowa Granny Basketball League.
It's one of dozens of basketball leagues for women over 50 that have sprung up across the country. For some, it's an opportunity to exercise and socialize; for others, it's a once-denied chance to compete.
"You see more and more senior women's teams participating in state and national competitions and more recreational leagues," said Michael Rogers, an associate professor in sports studies at Wichita State University. "In the future it will be commonplace to have leagues like this."
Annual surveys by the National Sporting Goods Association indicate the number of women 55 and older who play basketball at least 50 times a year has grown from 16,000 in 1995 to nearly 131,000 a decade later.
The women on the Hot Pink Grannies are good-natured but competitive come game time.
"I think I'm tough," says Hot Pink Granny Colleen Pulliam, 69, flexing her biceps at opponents in a game against the Strutters, known for their brilliant yellow socks.
Seconds later, she dives for the ball as it slips from a player's hand and tosses it over her head to the forward waiting under the basket.
Granny Basketball Leagues and similar groups are scattered through much of the country, including California, Connecticut, Louisiana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.
It's part of a larger movement toward organized sports by older Americans, said Dr. Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, head of the kinesiology department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
"Gradually, as the boomers grow older we're going to have a cohort of people who have the expectation of remaining active," said Chodzko-Zajko, who studies aging and physical activity. "And a majority of those people are going to want to do that in competitive sport."
A league of their own
Unlike men, however, middle-aged women who want to play have had to create their own leagues catering to a range of players: from older women who haven't hit the court in decades to women who led their teams to tournaments in the post-Title IX era. That 1972 ruling forced public schools to offer equal athletic programs for males and females.
About 500 women from 47 states competed in basketball at the 2005 National Senior Games in Pittsburgh. And in response to growing interest by women, the formerly all-male Masters Basketball-National Championship will for the first time offer a women's competition at its May event in Coral Springs, Fla.
The movement to basketball among older women is exciting but not surprising to Audrey Pastore, who established the Senior Women's Basketball Association of San Diego in 1998. Today, her league has about 100 members who play three-on-three games on 18 teams. Three of those teams won gold medals at the 2005 National Senior Games.
"It's going to get bigger and bigger," said Pastore, 66.
There are even basketball camps for women 50 and older.
Deb Richards of Portland, Maine, launched her Not Too Late basketball camp last year and drew more than 50 women from 11 states. Richards, 52, plans another camp this August at Southern Maine Community College.
"They saw what their children had in experiencing sports and they didn't have that," Richards said.
Injury risks to older players
But there are risks.
Because basketball is such a physically demanding sport, doctors say older players risk cardiovascular problems, and some may aggravate existing arthritis conditions.
Women also are more susceptible to painful knee ligament injuries, said Dr. Kathleen Weber, director of the women's sports medicine program at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
"A lot of people decide to play a sport and they may not be in proper condition," Weber said. "They need to do conditioning."
Most leagues require doctor approval before joining.
Players on the Iowa Granny Basketball League have various reasons for joining, but clearly having a good time is a priority. Each team sports eye-catching attire, and they flap their arms to 1920s swing music at halftime. Many of their games raise money for charities, and there are stunt games like playing against a team of teenage boys who each have one hand tied behind their backs.
"I'm having fun and I love it. We have a nice bunch of girls here," said 78-year-old Phyllis Huxford of Des Moines. "The main thing is it gets you out of the house."
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