Women's professional basketball traces origins to Caraway

Thursday, December 12, 2002

(Editor's Note: The following is the first of a three-part series on the All American Red Heads, an all-female traveling basketball team that, from 1955 to 1986, was owned and coached by Caraway native, Orwell Moore.)

CARAWAY In today's sports world, female athletic sports leagues are rapidly growing in popularity and stature as well they should. Within the last 19 years, the United States' womens Olympic basketball teams have won three gold medals and one bronze in world competition. In 1997 womens basketball saw the inaugural season of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA).

Things are changing dramatically for female athletes in recent years.

In the late 1920's and early 30's, women's basketball was hardly the norm, actually quite rare.

Although female rules for the game were adapted only a year after Dr. James Naismith invented the sport in 1892, full-court play by women didn't evolve until 1938.

Traveling back in time to the early 30's, the sport of women's basketball was just beginning to learn the modern rules of the era, such as; numbers having to be worn on jerseys, field goals counting as two points and defensive guarding being allowed on all parts of the court.

While the now legendary Harlem Globetrotters were playing their first seasons (the team began in 1927), the future of professional womens basketball was quietly being sewn in Arkansas and Missouri.

In 1935, a man by the name of C.M. "Ole" Olson played on and managed a men's traveling basketball team in Cassville, Mo. dubbed "Olson's Terrible Swedes." Much like the traveling medicine shows of the time, Olson's team barnstormed across the area entertaining spectators with their basketball skills. Olson's wife, also a roundball player with several of her ladyfriends, formed their own team the Cassville Red Heads later dropping the Cassville name, and with keeping the moniker that described their notorious hair color (aided by the assistance of dye to those who were not naturally red), were then simply known as the "Red Heads."

The Red Heads quickly became popular and began barnstorming across the country.

In 1946, at Cotter High School in Arkansas, a legend in women's basketball was beginning to hohn his skills.

Orwell Moore, born in Agnes, Ark., was coaching basketball at Cotter High School and had a chance to take his team to watch the Red Heads play an exhibition game against Yellville.

"They (the Red Heads) were very exciting to watch," Moore said recently during an interview at his home in Caraway. "The show the girls put on was amazing. Watching them play did magic things for our kids."

While Moore may have been excited about what the girls did for him and his team, little did he know at that time what he would eventually do for the entire women's sport.

Moore takes charge

In the late 1940's the "Famous Red Heads" as they were now known, had split into two separate teams, a western squad in addition to an eastern-based traveling team due to their growing popularity.

Olson, at the time in need of someone to take over the operation of the western team, contacted coach Moore inquiring about one of his star players, Lorene "Butch" Adams, (who would one day become Moore's wife) hoping he could get her to join the traveling Red Heads.

On November 21, 1948, Lorene and Orwell now the athletic director at Caraway both joined the team; Lorene as a player and Orwell as coach/business manager.

Over the next few years, the famous Red Heads traveled through Arkansas, Tennessee and Oklahoma delighting crowds by playing against primarily men's teams and winning the majority of their contests quite handily.

In 1955, the future of the Red Heads was changed forever as Moore purchased the team and based the would-be pioneers of female professional basketball out of Caraway.

"We were the first women's basketball team to play full court ball," said Moore. "We played men's teams which was unheard of at the time. People loved to come out and watch our shows."

Moore's team was certainly a show.

Dressed in heavy silk red, white and blue uniforms and traveling from venue to venue in a 31-foot stretch limosine, the Red Heads were not something familiar to sports fans in the 50's.

Nor was their unusual entertainment.

While sticking to the basic game of basketball during their first half of competitions, the Red Heads became reknown for their Globetrotter-esque antics during their halftime shows which flowed over into the second half.

"We put on an extravagant halftime show," Moore recalled. "It was real basketball for the first half then we'd put on our real show in the second half."

During intermission of the Red Head games players, such as Willa Faye Mason., Charlotte Adams amd Jolen Ammons highlighted the halftime spectacle with antics that could only be equalled by Curley Neal and Meadowlark Lemon. More than two dozen consecutive free throws made at the line by Moore's wife, Lorene the highest point scorer in the history of women's basketball, with 35,426 points on her knees no less, was one of the many highlights of the Red Head halftime extravaganza.

Said Moore, "It was fun for us all every night. The girls loved basketball absoultely loved it. It was their game."

It was obviously coach Moore's game too.

In 31 years of coaching the Red Heads, Moore posted an overall record of 1,803 wins against a mere 300 losses.

To this day, Moore is the winningest coach in the history of professional women's basketball.

(Next week: More Delta Sports-area connections to the Famous Red Heads and a change of name.)

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