Staying Fit With Granny Basketball

Barb McPherson, director of Iowa's Granny Basketball League
Barb McPherson of the Granny Basketball League

Granny basketball is a playful, fun-filled senior exercise activity that encourages women to stay fit in a non-traditional, social environment. Granny leagues raise money for charity, and curious members of the community fill the bleachers to see just what kind of "game" these "old" ladies have! LoveToKnow Seniors had a timeout with Barb McPherson, director of Iowa's Granny Basketball League. McPherson, 62, is a retired nurse. In addition to running the league and caring for her family, she works part-time in real estate.

Background of Granny Basketball

Competitive female athletes over the age of 55 have played basketball in the Senior Games for a number of years. The rules allow for a combined offense and defense combination of three players per team. However, in granny basketball, players follow the rules of girls' "six on six" basketball, and play on half- or third-courts. This reduces the amount of running needed to keep the ball in play.

Although not widespread yet, popular leagues exist in New England and on the West coast. There is also a sizzling group of basketball-wielding grannies in Iowa, where girls' "six on six" basketball started in the 1920s, long before other states recognized the appeal of organized female sports.

Interview with Granny Basketball's Barb McPherson

How did the emergence of women's sports in the 1920s change the image of women in general?

It showed that women could do what men could do, and that playing sports didn't detract from femininity. Back in the 20s, this was an important message.

My father was once a girl's basketball coach, and wrote a book about the experience. He recalled seeing his first girls' game, and how sedate it was - so different from the way the boys played it. Society's view of women at that time was that we were fragile, and that it was unseemly to be involved in sports. But as more women showed an interest in playing, everything changed.

Girls' basketball caught on in Iowa in particular because men here already knew that active women didn't mess up their reproductive systems, which was a common belief back then. In Iowa, women worked on the farms, baled hay, plus raised a family, and so men understood that women were both sturdy and feminine.

Your program started as a charity fundraiser. Why the idea to play basketball?

I had several ideas all at once, and thought about finding a way to incorporate exercising. Many women I knew used to play in school, and still loved the game. I decided a good way to raise money for the Old Stone School preservation efforts, get a little exercise, and get out of the house at the same time would be to play basketball.

You play in a traditional 1920s girls basketball uniforms, showing no skin, complete with bloomers! So there's obviously a love of fun and of the game in action here.

Bloomers were once considered to be very freeing for women! It was the closest thing to pants that they could get. The bloomer thing is also good for women our age, because they cover up all kinds of sins. Plus, it goes with the 1920s look. I doubt that anyone would be interested otherwise. It's like a belly dancer doing her dance in jeans and a t-shirt.

We're out there to have fun, and we hope the crowd sees that. Plus they just can't believe that anyone 80-years-old can sink a shot!

Senior Exercise Activity: Granny Basketball Benefits

Your slogan is "Die with Your Tennies On." What's the philosophy behind that?

I was thinking of cowboys, and how they die with their boots on. We don't want to die in a rocking chair or wheelchair - we're going to die in action!

Our leagues have players ranging in age from 50-81. We also have a lady who is 71 and has Parkinson's disease. It's done her a world a good to play the game. No matter what frailty you have, exercise usually helps it. We use many different muscle groups and "hustle," even if we don't run. Everyone takes rest breaks when the ball is in play at the other end of the court, so it's safe and fun.

It's so unique and unexpected for women our age to be doing this. Most people say, "I want to see this for myself, but I just can't picture it." I say just form a team and get after it. It's such a great stress reliever, too. Everyone has problems, but you get on the court, you don't think about any of that. You just think about making the points, you leave your everyday life behind.

Granny basketball played in Minneapolis, MN

As we get older, is it harder to "allow" ourselves to play?

Yes, especially for women. There really aren't that many fun opportunities for older women, and this has a great social aspect. For those members that are recently widowed or divorced, they use this as an outlet. We travel together, meet new women.

And there are still women who like to compete. So many senior exercise activities are solitary, but granny basketball is great group activity. And winning is good!

Is there a Grandpa's Basketball League?

I talked to a man in Mississippi who wanted to start a Grandpa League, and not only did he have a great response from men, a lot of women contacted him, too. So hopefully, soon.

The league has received a lot of press in the past two years, playing different fundraisers, and performing prior to Harlem Globetrotters events and college exhibition games. Is the word about granny basketball getting out?

Yes! It's all good exposure for the leagues and for their charities. The Chicago Sky put on a clinic for women over 40 training for Senior Olympics, and invited us to come to that, too.

What's your biggest wish for granny basketball?

To have every state conducting leagues for women, for our age group, that are appropriate, fun, and not so hard to find. People are frustrated when they call from other states, because there just isn't anything out there. Many women aren't in the right athletic shape to really compete, but even they can handle a more fun-focused game like ours. We're trying to get organized. The Iowa Games sponsors our state tournament, so that's a great start.

I'd love to see a National Granny Tournament - kind of like March Madness for Grannies! And, most of all, have no one be surprised that we're out there.

Iowa Granny Basketball State Champions 2005

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~Tracey L. Kelley.

Staying Fit With Granny Basketball