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Granny Basketball in Kansas: Not a Tall Order

 A woman poses on a basketball court before a Granny Basketball game.
Greg Echlin
Carol Handley, of Olathe, grew up in Coolidge, Kansas, and plays Granny Basketball for the Kansas Sunflowers. She posed in the Sunflowers playing uniform before her game at this year's Iowa Senior Games.

Kansas and Iowa (KPR) — Several groups of women over 50 are now playing competitive basketball. From Kansas to Iowa to Texas and beyond, these women openly admit they are “off their rockers.”

They even use that phrase in a brochure to promote their sport: Granny Basketball.

The Granny Basketball League is a non-profit organization founded in 2005. Kansas now has nine teams. Iowa has 14. Both states are among 10 in the U.S. with organized teams – teams of women, 50 and older, playing ball on the hardwood court.

“We’re just getting contacts all the time from new women wanting to join the league,” said Michele Clark, the league’s executive director based in Berryton, Kansas.

“They hear about Granny Basketball. They want to learn more,” she said.“They want to be a part of it, so we try to connect them with teams in their area.”

Clark, retired from the health care industry, is among six women and one man on the board of directors from Kansas, Iowa and Texas who invest their time as volunteers.

“There’s no paid staff whatsoever, so sometimes I’ll burn the midnight oil getting things done like a newsletter getting out to folks,” said Clark. “But it’s such a pleasure to work with everyone and we try to keep it simple.”

The beneficiaries of their games are the charities they play for.

Last year’s national tournament at Hy-Vee Arena (formerly Kemper Arena) in Kansas City was a fundraiser for Noah’s Bandage Project, a non-profit charity based in Olathe that raises money for pediatric cancer research.

Not only did they compete for the national title on the floor, but vied for who could round up the biggest donation of bandages for the project.

“Our team, a very competitive team, got that prize,” said Carol Handley of Overland Park, who plays for the Olathe-based Kansas Sunflowers. “We got free headbands from Noah’s Bandage Project, which was lovely. I still wear it sometimes.”

The Sunflowers and another Kansas team—the Kansas Cougars—will participate in the national tournament (July 14-16) in Decorah, Iowa.

As a nod to how women’s basketball games were played 100 years ago in the 1920s, Granny Basketball is a matchup of 6-on-6. There are two-on-two matchups in three segments of the court.

 Several older women in the Granny Basketball League are seen on a basketball court. One woman is shooting the ball toward the basket as another player tries to defend against the shot.
Greg Echlin
Caroll Sabath, who grew up as Carol Coykendall in Norwich, Kansas, goes up for a shot at this year's Iowa Senior Games. She was an all-conference player at Fort Hays State in 1993 and plays Granny Basketball for the Kansas Sunflowers.

As a preventative measure against granny injuries, there’s no running or jumping. Sunflowers forward Carol Sabath of Overland Park is a former college basketball player in her second year playing in the league. She said it’s been a tough adjustment.

“You can usually move around enough to get open, but the (no) running and jumping was the biggest thing to get used to,” said Sabath. She may be better remembered to some as Carol Coykendall. She grew up as a basketball standout in Norwich, Kansas, before moving on to play at Barton County Community College, Missouri and Fort Hays State.

Is there an age limit to Granny Basketball participation? Apparently not.

 An 88-year=old Granny League basketball player stares at the camera taking her photo as takes a break on the bleachers.
Greg Echlin
Alice Peterson, of Overland Park, is 88-years-old and has been playing Granny Basketball since she turned 84. She plays in the regular season for the Kansas Meadowlarks, who practice in Olathe.

Overland Park resident Alice Petersen is 88 and played for the Cougars this month at the Iowa Senior Games in West Des Moines. Though she’s passing up the national tournament next month, Petersen said she’s not ready to call it quits for good.

“I’m in better shape than a lot of those girls out there,” she said with a laugh.“I don’t have any knee braces, I don’t have any arm braces, I don’t have any aches and pains.”

Petersen picked up the game again at the age of 84 for the first time since graduating from a small Iowa high school in 1952.

In another salute to tradition, the Grannies play their games in basketball pinnies—outfits with long shorts and jersey tops resembling the look of a sailor.

If not for the look of the uniforms, Petersen said there might be even more women playing Granny Basketball.

“There are some girls that won’t play Granny Basketball just because of the uniforms,” she said.

When the 2019 national tournament was held at the University of Kansas, Clark made sure the teams that traveled to Lawrence embraced the game’s traditions.

She pushed for organized trips to Allen Fieldhouse to see the original rules of the game, as typed out by the game’s inventor and KU’s first basketball coach, Dr. James Naismith.

“Absolutely. We had organized tours in conjunction with our banquet,” said Clark.

The Sunflowers will be the host team next year when the national tournament returns to Kansas.

The tournament in 2024, which will be played in Kansas City, may even draw more women... off their rockers.


Reported by Greg Echlin.
Edited by J. Schafer and Laura Lorson.