Final Point: Even at 100, Grandma in a ‘zone’ of her own
     2011-11-17      By Terry Gaston   
Newton family photo: The Newton High School girls' basketball team of northeast New Mexico, from the fall of 1928, consisted of (front row, from left) Ruth Newton (later Bolinger), Irene Jordan, (back row) Ruth Jordan, Irene  
She is the best 5-foot, 6-3/4-inch center who ever played basketball.
Now that the sports element of this column has been justified, let me tell you about my grandma.

On Nov. 5, Ruth Newton Bolinger, former center of Newton High School in northeast New Mexico, turned 100 in Hays. Kan.

On the final day she was 99, we briefly talked about what she always called “zone ball,” where the court was divided into three sections. Growing up in Kansas, my brothers and I always got a kick of hearing about it but never really understood its significant difference from what we knew.

Basketball, for both boys and girls, was a full-court game in Kansas by those 1970s days. Until I went to college in Oklahoma in 1986, I never knew even a half-court version of girls’ basketball still existed.

As her 100th birthday drew closer, so did my interest grow in this “zone ball” she played. So I consulted two experts on the long-past game — which actually has regained life in the past six years primarily in the Midwest.

In my Internet research, I discovered a Granny Basketball association had been formed in Iowa in 2005 and features leagues of former 6-on-6 players in Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri and Minnesota. I also found a historian of women’s basketball who was enthusiastic to learn that I was capturing my grandmother’s stories of the three-court game.

So on the day after her milestone centennial birthday, we talked more in depth about the game Grandma played.

“There were two centers in the middle, I was the jumping center who jumped to get control of the ball and the other one was to catch it and put it in play,” Ruth Bolinger vividly said. “Then in the other two sections were the forwards and guards, two forwards in two guards in each section.

“You were confined to your section, and if you crossed the line or even got your foot over, you got a foul.”

Games were played in four, eight-minute quarters with a running clock, with two-minute breaks between the first and last two quarters and a 10-minute halftime. No coaching was allowed between the two-minute quarter break. Each player had three personal fouls.
The Granny Basketball web site features a list of rules offered by John A. Molina, a preservationist and historian of women’s basketball. He said in an e-mail that the rules, from the Spalding sporting goods company, were written in 1923 and several additional rules were added afterward.

While the Spalding rules state that a player could take up to two dribbles per possession, Grandma could only remember being allowed one dribble per possession but admitted it didn’t sound right.
Granny Basketball League President Barb McPherson, in a series of e-mails, said their players are between 50 and 84 years old, veterans of the two-court game that replaced the three-court game in 1935.

McPherson also said that most centers are on the short side since the centers really couldn’t jump off the ground, but just to tip the ball into play.

So, perhaps, Grandma’s role as Newton’s tallest player could have been better utilized in the front court as a forward? According to her memory, no.

Grandma played one game as a forward for what reason she could not remember. However, the opportunity offered her to score the only four points of her career.

“I was thrilled to death because I was not good at making baskets,” she said. “I don’t remember the occasion why I was playing forward, but once in a while I did.”

Among the rules listed on the Granny Basketball site was an intriguing one: “No running or jumping (Hurrying is allowed).”
What was hurrying, Grandma? “I have no idea,” she replied. “I would think that would be jumping.”

It was definitely a bending of the rules, McPherson explained. “Hurrying is basically a fast walk, but ultimately up to the discretion of the referees. If people are falling down a lot in a particular game, then we tighten the standards. There is no problem with the 70-85 year olds, but some of the 50-year-old kids get to moving too fast!”

Kids. Don’t you just love it? Women young at heart still playing the game they loved.

Scoring was a little different. The modern-day two points for regular field goals and one point for free throws were intact — no 3-point line then; that would not come into play nationwide until the late 1980s.

And for the fabled underhanded “Granny shot,” three points were awarded. “What’s a granny shot?” she amazingly asked. “I don’t know about the three points if we had that rule.”

Molina said in 1925, additional points were given for goals scored by a one-hand overhand throw, two-hand underhand throw, shot-put throw and a throw with a player’s back to the basket also counted as one point.

Grandma said she does not recall such additional scoring rules. “I grew up in the backwoods, I guess,” she laughingly replied.
Rules also stated that the players had to be well covered, although the official rules said that only upper arms and legs had to be covered. Newton High School, however, took the leg coverings a step further.

“When I was in high school, we wore bloomers, which covered down to your knees,” Grandma said. “We wore a jersey with short sleeves.”
What about shorts?

“When I was still in high school, some of the teams started wearing shorts, but we didn’t. Our parents wouldn’t allow us to wear shorts, so we wore bloomers. But they were worn by some teams before I was out of high school.

“And it happened at our school (eventually), but probably in other places they were wearing shorts a long time before we had the opportunity. But our parents wouldn’t allow us to do that and expose our legs.”

To complete that task, the Newton players wore long socks. The girls’ uniforms were red with an N that Grandma believes was gray.
Girls’ basketball was played during the fall, primarily because the games were mostly played outdoors.

“We played on a dirt clay court. If we went to another school to play and they had an indoor gym, it was kind of difficult. We didn’t have a gym,” Grandma said. “We were more used to it (playing outside), I supposed so, but of course it was cold (late in the season).”

Grandma said the Newton team, which did not have a mascot or nickname, struggled on court, regardless of the surface type or conditions.

“We didn’t do very well because sometimes we didn’t have a full team,” she said. “Sometimes we only had five players and had no backup. We had two or three players who were pretty good, but I didn’t happen to be one of them.”

The school had two different coaches, Grandma said.
“We had a teacher, what they called a manual training teacher who came once a week,” she said, “and we did have someone, one of our teachers, who was our coach. The picture (of her team from 1928) shows five players and our coach. She was a sister of one of our players, she was a teacher.”

Scheduling was ad lib at best, she said.
“There were quite a few times when our coach would say, ‘Oh, let’s go over to Wheatland and play them a game of basket ball.’ Sometimes they weren’t scheduled, and other teams would just show up and we would play. So we never knew sometimes when we were going to be playing.

“We would go 25 to 30 miles sometimes to play games. Schools weren’t so close together in those days, and we were probably the only one that had so few students. We only had about 30 students in our entire high school.”

Ironically, Wheatland included a player named Evelyn whom would later become a Newton when she married Grandma’s second brother, Oliver. “She was a good player, and rough,” Grandma said. “We had a girl on our team who was really rough, but she was a good player too.”

Apparently my mild-mannered grandmother had her rough moment, as well. Grandma remembers one vivid occasion in which she admitted getting a little overaggressive and could have been ejected.

“You’d stand just as close to the line as you could, trying to get possession of the ball, and your opponent would get in front of you and jab you with her elbow. I remember one game we played, she kept doing that to me and I got mad,” she said. “I hate to say this, but I deliberately ran into her, and I was ashamed of myself later.

“Everybody yelled ‘Foul, foul, foul!’ My brother Aubie was refereeing the game and he didn’t see me. I probably would have been ousted from the game if he had seen it.

“Now I ask, ‘Why in the world?’ I just lost my temper because she just kept jabbing me with her elbow. In close quarters they don’t see you. You were fortunate if you were able to get in front of your opponent.”

And after recalling the jabbing incident, she asked, “That last remark, was that recorded?”

Indeed it was, for all time’s sake, forever in print and in the Gering Citizen online archives.

John and Lula Newton, along with their three sons and oldest daughter — who would later become a 100-year-old, three-time great-great grandmother — had a pioneering spirit that led them to move from Lohn, McCullough County, in central Texas.

Baby Ruth Newton and her family arrived in Texline, N.M., on her first birthday in 1912 on the immigration train, with her uncle Sam Newton’s family, and they then traveled on to Clayton. In the latter part of December they traveled by covered wagon to Springer, then east of Springer they settled in what became the Newton community on their homestead land that spring.

Newton School was named for her uncle Sam, who donated a portion of his homestead land for the school. All the grades 1-8 were in the first one-room school.

“Later then, I was still in grade school when they built a new school building, and it was about three miles from where we lived, and the first school was not even a mile from where we lived,” Grandma said.

“Then later, when we got a high school, then they moved a building from another school district when they combined ours with another one. And later they combined with another one.

“It wound up we were the only school out there, and eventually rural people began to move away after the Depression, so they moved the students into Springer from that area, what few were left. But all six of us graduated from that school.”

Grandma graduated from Newton High School in 1929 and that family pioneering spirit hit Ruth Newton in a quick decision offered to her in March 1931.

A recruiter from Dague Business University in Wichita, Kan., knocked on the family’s door and made an offer for Grandma to attend the school. Her school superintendent loaned her the money for the tuition and, all in the same day, she was headed to Kansas.
“I didn’t even get to tell my brothers goodbye,” she said. “I was gone before they got home.”

Basketball, too, was left behind in New Mexico. If she knew of any opportunity to play basketball in Wichita, Grandma said she was unaware of it.

Although Dague did not have basketball, Molina said several business colleges did and were renowned on the national level.

“There might have been an opportunity, but I never took advantage of it,” my grandmother said.

She instead focused on her educational opportunity, although the Depression forced her into working more at the school than she was able to gain class credits. She took classes from March 1931 to September 1933 when she earned a full-time job.

“I was really surprised later that my folks would allow me to do that,” said my grandmother, whose brothers all were educators. “They didn’t have much education, but they wanted us kids to have as much as we wanted.”

By 1935, the three-zone girls’ basketball court layout was eliminated and the two-court game became the standard. Six-on-six girls’ basketball began being phased out in 1958, with the final holdout states being Iowa – often considered the crown jewel of the game – in 1993, and the final 6on-6 state tournament in Oklahoma taking place in 1995.

Another bond my grandmother and I have always shared is the number 5 – we were both born on the fifth day of our birth months. And she was 55 when I was born. She and my granddad were married in 1938 and he died in 1982 — 44 years of bliss. My mom was their only child.

Grandma’s pioneering spirit apparently has remained intact through most of her 100 years, when in 2004 she decided to leave Wichita after 73 years and move to northwest Kansas to be near my mother. This was Ruth Bolinger’s idea, not anyone else’s — what a spirit indeed.

I don’t ever recall having seen Grandma with a basketball even in her hands, much less playing the game. However, she is the best 5-foot-6 grandmother a person could ever have.

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