Without the All American Red Heads, there would be no WNBA 

The Arkansas-rooted professional team showed the world that women belong in basketball.

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At 83, Willa Faye Mason, is one of the oldest living Red Heads. She joined the team in 1949, and in 1956, switched to coaching the Famous Red Heads, a sister team whose players sometimes fed the Red Heads line-up. Once she left the road, she earned a Ph.D. in education and eventually became the women's athletic director at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla.

When Mason was a senior in high school at Siloam Springs, the Red Heads came through town and her entire basketball team attended the game. Later, team owner Olson returned to Siloam Springs and hired her and the team's two other forwards.

Growing up, Mason was more athletic than her brothers. She describes her parents as "hardworking with normal values," but they always supported their children's ventures — even when that meant their 19-year-old daughter wanted to live in motel rooms and face-off against random men each night. "For my mother, the only thing about it was the traveling. At first she was wary, but she got to thinking about it and knew I was seeing the U.S.A., playing a game I loved and getting paid. So she thought it was all right, if that's what I wanted to do," Mason said.

In 1950, in an attempt to stave off trip boredom, Mason penned the lyrics to the Red Heads theme song. It began, "We are the Red Heads, pretty and trim / we've come to your town to play ball and win." It was sometimes accompanied by a banjo and always accompanied by giggles.

On the road, Mason didn't have much privacy. The Red Heads were lucky if they snagged a moment to do laundry someplace other than the bathroom sink. But there were group outings to state Capitols, museums and university campuses. Mason remembers her favorite places — Catalina Island off California, the redwood forests and Jackson Hole, Wyo. In 1956, the Red Heads became the first women's basketball team to play in the territory of Alaska. In between their 20-game tour, Mason and her teammates went bobsled riding.

In 1946, Hazel Walker, 32, an All-American athlete and successful AAU player, joined the Red Heads. During halftime, she challenged anyone in the audience to a free-throw contest. She would start the contest sitting down, then throw a few shots from her knees before ending on her feet. Legend has it, she never missed. Walker was the only daughter of a part-Cherokee couple from outside of Ashdown. She was beautiful, vain, independent and smart. Olson assigned her the role of team captain and road manager.

But Walker grew frustrated with the Red Heads. She refused to dye her coal-black hair and instead wore a wig. She hated the comedienne's flirty antics and wanted to play guileless basketball. In a letter to Elva Bishop, who featured Walker in her documentary "Women's Basketball," Walker wrote, "The thing that bothered me about the Red Heads was they wanted a setup. They didn't want the men to fast break, and they didn't want the referees to call fouls too closely on us." Perhaps the final straw, according to Little Rock's Gary Newton, who authored a screenplay on Walker, was that she wanted to buy the Red Heads. Olson was looking to sell, but he didn't want to sell to a player. So in 1949, Walker became the first woman to start her own professional basketball team, the Arkansas Travelers. She accepted an initial loan from a boyfriend, but other than that, there were no men involved. (Walker's husband died when she was 26. She never remarried.)


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