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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The players were paid about $500 a month. At 40-hour weeks, this would have fallen at least $40 short of minimum wage. In 1997 the WNBA debuted a new era of women's basketball — one that is lipstick free and champions MVPs, slam-dunks and players measuring nearly 7 feet. The All American Red Heads were a relic, revered as pioneers by scholars and the players they influenced but long-removed from America's household vernacular.

When the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame opened in Knoxville in 1999, it included a Red Heads exhibit, complete with the team's trademark white limousine. But the Red Heads didn't truly rediscover the limelight until historian John Molina found a photo of his grandmother's 1934 J.B. Williams soap factory team, became fascinated with women's basketball and took up the Red Heads' cause. He has amassed the largest collection of Red Heads memorabilia, and shows it all over the country, including the NCAA championships. He first nominated the Red Heads for Naismith in 2006, but it took until 2012 for the team to make it. Molina didn't mind that he had to apply six times. "Considering how little information there was on the All American Red Heads just 10 years ago, to have gone from relative obscurity to the pinnacle of the basketball world is amazing," he said. Shortly after the induction ceremony in Springfield, Mass., the New York Times published an article on the Red Heads.

And make-up or not, in the footage that exists, the Red Heads play as a mechanically precise unit. They dart around opponents, pop the ball off hips and forearms, pass behind their back more often than not and shoot with dead accuracy. Their tricks are so clean that by the time the other team realizes what's happened, the Red Heads are on to the next play.

Vivian Stringer, the Rutgers women's basketball coach, was on the Naismith selection committee. "They were so skilled, and at a time when so many people thought we as women couldn't handle the ball without passing out. ... We all owe them our gratitude for paving the way for us," she said.

Another of Moore's favorite sayings: "If you can't play good basketball, you better stay home."

Sept. 7, 2012. About 80 Red Heads and a few coaches crowd the Springfield stage inside the giant silver dome, stacking three deep. Most of them are gray-headed and modestly dressed in black or royal blue, but several reddish-orange Clairol-heads bob among the gray.

In the crowd, Coach Stringer snaps dozens of pictures. Right now, she's not just the coach with the third highest number of wins in women's basketball history, she's an excited fan, overcome with the gravity of legacy.

A middle-aged blonde woman in a strapless blue gown steps away from the pack. She slides down the reading glasses perched atop her head and speaks into the mic. She's nervous, thanking the class of 2002 rather than 2012. Her voice wavers and she loses her place a few times, but behind her, award presenter Julius Erving and her extended family of Red Heads stand patiently. Only once does Tammy Harrison Moore's face nearly crumple. "My father never gave up on the idea that the All American Red Heads would someday reach his goal of being enshrined into the Naismith Hall of Fame. He knew this was the definitive honor in the game of basketball," she read. She presses her lips together tightly, holding back the rush of emotion — her father had died in 2009, three years before the nomination stuck. Then, as quickly as a Red Head on the court, she regains her composure. "We thank you for recognizing the work of the All American Red Heads and celebrating our part in the great game of basketball," she finishes. Behind her, there are a lot of fast blinkers.


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