‘So much more than a game’A look back at the competition that brought international relations to a Mt. Pleasant basketball court
“World basketball interest centers on Mt. Pleasant.”
Today is the 50th anniversary of the game that inspired that Mt. Pleasant News headline.
Today, it’s been 50 years since the IWC women’s basketball team played a game with the world watching — a game that Coach Olan Ruble noted was so much more than a game.
In 1962, the Russian women’s team did an eight-game, seven-city tour of the United States that started in Madison Square Garden and included a stop at Cottrell Gym in Mt. Pleasant.
While front page headlines proclaimed “Navy intercepts Russian ships” and “Soviet charges US taking steps towards nuclear war,” highlighting the tension of the cold war era, sports page headlines at the same time contained excitement about the Russians’ visit to a basketball court in Mt. Pleasant.
But that’s not to say that the game wasn’t something of a battle.
“(It’s) more like football,” Ruble said about the international competition, according to a report documenting his telephone call just days before the Russians visited Mt. Pleasant. Ruble only played his IWC Tigerettes — as they were then called — for four minutes at a time to keep them from getting hurt.
In the end, the games weren’t all that close.
But that wasn’t the point.
The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) arranged the tour under the auspices of the cultural exchange agreements between the U.S. State Department and the U.S.S.R., according to a Mt. Pleasant News article from that year. It was a project to better international relations.
IWC President John W. Henderson and Ruble worked to bring the games to Mt. Pleasant, and the Mt. Pleasant Junior Chamber of Commerce (the Jaycees) sponsored the event to make sure that the Mt. Pleasant community got the chance to see that project first hand.
The Jaycees sold 1,300 tickets to the game, and another 200 seats were reserved for press and special guests. The tickets were $5 each.
The Tigerettes’ team captain that season was Lori (Williams) Wright, who, along with 1962 teammate and fellow All-American Dixie Ramsbottom, is in the IWC Hall of Fame. She still remembers what an impact the Russians’ visit had 50 years ago.
“It was great opportunity for IWC to have Russians on campus,” Wright said. “It was a wonderful opportunity for the whole campus. We were so pleased that Olan Ruble made it happen — he made the whole thing come together.
“I don’t think anybody had any idea — I mean, you know what you learned in classes, but we had never before had the opportunity to talk to them (the Russians),” Wright said.
The women’s basketball team, in particular, spent quite a bit of time with the Russian team.
Before hosting them in Mt. Pleasant, the Tigerettes traveled to play the Russians in Sioux Falls, S.D., and then they all flew into Burlington together. The Russian men’s team played against the NAIA all-star team.
The Russians had already played in Washington, D.C., and Nashville, Tenn.
Williams doesn’t remember too many details about the games in Sioux Falls or Mt. Pleasant — “50 years ago is a long time!” she said — but a few things stick out.
First of all, the games were not close.
“We got beat — badly,” she said.
In Sioux Falls, the Russian women took the game by a score of 103-50, and they won the game at Cottrell, 83-38. In the game at Cottrell, Wright led the IWC scorers with 14 points.
It didn’t help IWC’s efforts that the tough Russian women’s team included a player who stood 6-7.
The tallest woman on the IWC roster was one that they brought in to play with them: Barbara Sipes. Sipes, a 6-3 teacher at West Des Moines, was one of four non-IWC players who joined the team for the game — the Tigerettes were allowed to bring in four other players.
Sipes had played against Russia in other games and was America’s leading scorer against them. However, she had broken her hand and was questionable up to the day of the game.
According to one Mt. Pleasant News article, the Tigerettes’ starting five for the international game were Wright (5-5), Sipes, Carmen Maas (5-6), Norma Schwarz (5-8) and Jean Rush (5-10).
But height and physicality weren’t the only factors in the game.
“We played international rules — five players, up and down the court,” Wright remembers.
At the time, collegiate women’s basketball was a six-player game: two players stayed on each side of the court, and two were allowed to cross the center line.
Other changes were made as well. Before the game, workers changed the position of the backboards and painted new lines on the playing court of the newly-constructed Cottrell gym, and special shot clocks were installed. The 12-foot lane was doubled, and only coaches could call timeout.
“It was a very different game — but that’s no excuse!” Wright said.
But the score wasn’t the only memorable part of the event.
Iowa Wesleyan Archivist Lynn Ellsworth was very young when the game took place, but she was there, and there’s one thing she remembers: “It was a packed house,” she said. “There was such excitement surrounding it.”
Before the game, the teams were introduced and the Americans presented the Russians with gifts. The Tigerettes presented the women’s team with ballpoint pens and red roses. Mr. Malenchov, the head of the Soviet delegation, received an 1888 silver dollar key chain from Mayor Wade McBeth, and Malenchov then presented Jaycee President Landon Larsh with a flag of friendship. The Jaycees had previously given the Russians a travel alarm clock.
More important to Wright than the game was the whole experience of hosting the Russian teams on the IWC campus.
The party that arrived on campus on Nov. 17 included 32 Russians, three interpreters, four game referees, three AAU officials, 12 NAIA players and two government officials from both the U.S. and Russia.
The Russian players were housed in Sheaffer-Trieschmann Hall at IWC, and the NAIA players stayed in Hershey Hall.
IWC students doubled up in dorm rooms to make room for the visitors. Administrators’ biggest concern was whether the players would fit in the beds: two of the Russian men were 6-11, and one was 6-10.
While on campus, the Russians toured the area, discovered bubble gum and the twist, and fulfilled their dream of seeing an Iowa cornfield.
The hosts found it interesting that the Russians took three or four long walks a day and ate their biggest meal at 10 p.m.
But the visitors also amazed those who met them with how similar they were to young people in America.
According to newspaper reports, the Russian boys went to American movies and commented on the pretty girls. The girls giggled when they were together and dreamed of being wives and mothers.
And though there was a language barrier, Wright remembers one event where it didn’t matter.
“We had a dance at the student union, and the whole campus really came away from that with a positive experience,” she said. “Communication (throughout the Russians’ visit) was difficult, but at the dance, everyone knew what they were doing. They knew how to have fun and smile, and dance with everyone there.”
From Mt. Pleasant, the Russians went on to play in Lubbock, Texas, and finished with two games in Denver, Colo.
But when they were done playing, the Russian teams didn’t want to leave IWC.
“Many of our students, upon the arrival of our teams, stepped forward and showed the Russians the kind of friendship and life we have here in America,” said Wright in a letter to the student body that was printed in the campus newspaper. “Their not wanting to leave our campus can be accredited to you — student body — and for these things the Iowa Wesleyan Tigerettes salute you.”
In their words: Excerpts from past editions of the Mt. Pleasant and IWC newspapers
“Coach Ruble prepared the students for the extra-tall players which make up the Soviet National team. The tallest woman is 6-7, Ravela Slaimova, and several others are over 6’, making up a team which has not been defeated in six years.
“Ruble told how players are assigned to teams in the U.S.S.R. and that every town is required to have both men’s and women’s teams, with basketball a compulsory part of physical education beginning with fifth grade. The women’s team which will play in Mt. Pleasant has taken part in over 100 games so far this year." — Mt. Pleasant News, Nov. 9, 1962
“All is ready — from pickled herring to a twist dance — to welcome Russia’s touring men’s and women’s basketball teams to the Iowa Wesleyan college campus.” — Mt. Pleasant News, Nov. 19, 1962
“State agents in plain clothes were around the campus throughout the weekend. There was no fear regarding the activities of the visitors, but there were some security measure because of a fear that some person carrying a grudge might come in and try to harm them.” — Mt. Pleasant News, Nov. 19, 1962
“Touring Russian men and women basketball players made a fascinating discovery today -- bubble gum. The bubble gum was a gift to the visiting Russians during a tour of a supermarket here today, and the Soviets promptly set about trying to outdo each other in blowing bubbles." — Mt. Pleasant News, Nov. 19, 1962
“The experiences and opportunities that were invoked upon you as a student body and upon us as a team in the past week were rare. We as a team realize that we didn’t measure up to the Russian women’s height and fastness but we did in spirit.” — Lori (Williams) Wright, The Wesleyan Tiger, Dec. 1, 1962