A ‘Red Head’ heads for hall of fame

September 4, 2012 

EASTMAN -- There are times when Becky Harp Pritchett looks in the mirror and sees a younger version of herself.

She is on a highway, rolling through cotton fields in south Georgia and wheat fields in Kansas. She is in the back seat of a Pontiac station wagon, watching the tumbleweed make a fast break through Texas and whitecaps bounce off the shores of the Great Lakes.

She is crossing the Continental Divide and the mighty Mississippi. She is eating lunch at the Dairy Queen and supper at the Tastee Freez in every little town in America.

In yesterday’s mirror, her hair is always red.

For three of the most memorable years of her life, Becky’s head was as red as the check engine light on an old Ford pickup truck.

She dribbled basketballs in high school gymnasiums filled with so many people they either stood in the aisles or sat in their neighbor’s lap in the bleachers. She made free throws in every state of the union and sank 19-foot shots long before there was a 3-point line.

Becky was a member of the All American Red Heads, a women’s professional basketball team. They won more than 75 percent of their games competing against men’s teams.

She played guard for the Red Heads from 1965-68. After three years, she returned to Eastman to marry her high school sweetheart, Ray Pritchett. She became a registered nurse for 40 years in her hometown.

Friday night, she will be at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., where the Red Heads will become the first professional women’s team to be inducted into the hall of fame.

Imagine that. The tiny guard they sometimes called the “Georgia Peach” will be enshrined on the same sacred ground where a physical education instructor named James Naismith nailed two peach baskets from the lower railing of a balcony at nearby Springfield College in 1891 and invented the game of basketball.

Becky was not a natural redhead. She was a petite brunette. She and the others would dye their trademark hair to match the red stripes on their uniforms.

They blazed the trail for professional women’s basketball. The Red Heads were born in 1936 in Cassville, Mo., and finally disbanded in 1986 after 50 years of entertaining basketball crowds across the country.

Their founder, C.M. “Ole” Olson, recruited several ladies who worked at his wife’s beauty salons and formed the Red Heads. About 300 women played for the team during those 50 years. Nine were from Georgia, including Pam McAnally and Karen Milner of Warner Robins.

Becky comes from an athletic family. Her mother, Jackie, was a star basketball player at R.E. Lee in Thomaston and signed with a women’s professional team in Atlanta. She chose instead to marry Jim Harp, a pretty fair country baseball player from down the road in Yatesville. Jim pitched for the Class D Eastman Dodgers and was inducted into the Georgia/Florida/Alabama State Hall of Fame six years ago. Becky’s older brother, Terry, played basketball in the Navy and her younger sister, Connie, was also a standout for Dodge County High.

Becky grew up a tomboy, shooting hoops on dirt courts. Those were the days when girls teams competed with six players (3-on-3).

“Nothing could stop me from playing,” Becky said. “I was short, the runt of the litter. I could have been discouraged but my coach would tell me dynamite came in small packages.”

She was a freshman on Dodge County’s state championship team in 1962, and a starter on the state runners-up in 1964 and ’65. The Red Heads sent a scout to Atlanta for the state tournament in 1965, and the little guard from Dodge caught his eye.

Becky had considerable basketball prowess, but she was well-rounded in other ways. She was a cheerleader, was on the homecoming court, was an excellent student and never missed a day of school in her 12 years.

For most young women, there were not many opportunities for playing basketball beyond high school. Becky had planned to enroll at nearby Middle Georgia College in Cochran and pursue a degree in art.

However, she came home one day to find a letter a from Coach Orwell Moore of the All American Red Heads. She had never heard of the team.

They held a tryout in Eastman, where she scrimmaged against boys. She was invited to camp in Caraway, Ark. Her parents drove her 600 miles and dropped her off.

“I almost went home after the first week,” she said. “We dyed each other’s hair, and I was shocked. I cried like a baby. I thought: ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ ”

But she stuck with it. The Red Heads traveled to all 48 states in the continental U.S. The paychecks were small.

“It was peanuts,” she said. “But I sent the money home and bought my parents some new carpet for their house.”

The Red Heads competed against men’s teams from the towns where they scheduled games. They played by the men’s rules -- with one exception. The men were not allowed to fast break.

“That’s because we were traveling and playing almost every night and sometimes had doubleheaders on Sunday,” she said. “We played in podunk towns and big college arenas. We stayed at motels and stopped at laundromats to wash our uniforms. We always loved it when we went somewhere and got a home-cooked meal.”

Most of the time, fans rooted for the Red Heads, even though they were playing against the hometown boys. In some ways, they were like the Harlem Globetrotters. They did trick shots, fancy dribbling and behind-the-back passes. Becky would shoot free throws from her knees and juggle basketballs.

It was not choreographed, though. They played to win. There were only a couple of parts of the game that were staged. Becky was the team’s comedienne.

“We would pick out the shyest guy on the team, and I would back up close to him and scream that he pinched me,” she said, laughing. “I would always get two free throws.”

She once got to meet Don Knotts, who played Barney Fife on “The Andy Griffith Show.” She also was introduced to comedian Red Skelton, who was a former carrot top himself.

Becky and her teammates were invited to perform comedy and basketball tricks on the “Art Linkletter Show.”

About 70 former Red Heads are expected to attend the Hall of Fame ceremony, which will be carried live Friday on the NBA Network beginning at 6:30 p.m.

Yes, when she looks in the mirror, she can still almost see those strands of red from yesteryear.

“We were pioneers,” she said. “And we knew it.”

Reach Gris at 744-4275 or gris@macon.com.

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