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'Granny Basketball' gains momentum ahead of national championships

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Later this week, the Cedar Rapids Sizzlers defend their national title in Decorah, Iowa. They are a women's basketball team, and they're three-time champions in what's called Granny Basketball for women over 50, though not necessarily grandmas. Greg Echlin reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All right.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Let's go. Let's go.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Go Sizzlers. Woo.

GREG ECHLIN, BYLINE: At the Iowa Senior Games tournament, a huddle of six women break after a time-out. Diana Marker is their co-captain and coach. She's 72. She says more older women are taking on Granny Basketball. Their league's theme, off their rockers.

DIANA MARKER: Women are thinking, so what if I'm 50? I can still do this.

ECHLIN: Granny Basketball is played six-on-six. Unlike the conventional game, there are restrictions to where players can move on the court. It's adapted from the way the girls' high school game was played for decades.

MARKER: We have modified the rules so that people won't get injured playing 'cause you can't afford to go through a year or two of rehab, you know, when you're in your 70s.

ECHLIN: The uniforms are inspired by those that women wore 100 years ago. That means pinny jerseys with a big bow tied in front, not unlike sailors in the Navy. From the waist down, the grannies play in black bloomers and colorful knee-high socks. Player Linda Jennings said at first, she thought the uniform was too ridiculous.

LINDA JENNINGS: I just said, I'm not wearing those outfits.

ECHLIN: Historically, women's uniforms covered their entire body. They've preserved this regulation by inventing something called a technical flesh foul. That's when flesh is exposed below the neck. Jennings said, eventually, she relented.

JENNINGS: So it took a couple years. I retired when I was 55, and then it was like, ah, what the heck? Who cares? I'm old now. It doesn't matter if I wear those goofy outfits.

ECHLIN: Granny Basketball is a nonprofit organization. It was founded in 2005. Now it has more than 500 players in 10 states. Michele Clark, who's retired from the health care industry, is Granny Basketball's executive director.

MICHELE CLARK: Gosh, we're just getting contacts all the time from new women wanting to join the league. They hear about Granny Basketball. They want to learn more, and they want to be a part of it. So we try to connect them with teams in their area.

ECHLIN: Granny Basketball has attracted attention from many places. Women's Final Four star Caitlin Clark of the Iowa Hawkeyes has been garnering the headlines this year. She says when she learned about this team, she was an instant fan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAITLIN CLARK: Oh my gosh, I might have to check them out. That's tough. That's sick. That's awesome.

ECHLIN: As three-time national champions, one might think the Cedar Rapids Sizzlers could flash a little bling with either a ring, a bracelet or a necklace. But on the subject of championship jewelry, Diana Marker says...

MARKER: No, I don't think so.

ECHLIN: The Sizzlers, in their humble manner, took care of business at this most recent tournament. They won it. Now they're on to their biggest challenge, the national championship in Decorah. Any team thinking it's got a shot at dethroning them just might be off their rockers. For NPR News, I'm Greg Echlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF KURTIS BLOW SONG, "BASKETBALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Greg Echlin