By MARY ANN ANDERSON
As a young girl, Dianne Kirkland first played basketball on a rocky dirt court at Excelsior Elementary in Snipesville, the school she went to for eight years of her life. After leaving Excelsior when Jeff Davis County’s schools consolidated, she then went to Jeff Davis High School in Hazlehurst, where she played basketball from 1964 until she graduated in 1968.
During her four years of play at Jeff Davis, she scored an astounding 2,166 points, with a single game high of 56 points scored against Cook County in the sub-region tournaments in her senior year. So revered was she that at her senior athletic banquet in May of 1968, her jersey, with its number 14, was retired and placed in the school’s trophy case, with the number never to be worn again.
But it was her love for the game that would take the hometown girl from that gravelly court in Snipesville to wooden courts across the United States as a member of the Southern Belles, a professional basketball team based out of Caraway, Arkansas. The team, an offshoot of the All-American Red Heads, traveled the country from 1967 until 1971 and was coached by Ben Overman.
Now Dianne Kirkland Warren – her husband, Jacky, is from Hazlehurst – the one-time hoops star of Jeff Davis High School is set to speak at the Jeff Davis County Public Library on January 18 at 7:00 p.m. She will present a lecture that tells her story from when she played for Jeff Davis to when she toured with the Southern Belles.
Warren will also discuss and present John A. Molina’s recently published book, “Barnstorming America: Stories from the Pioneers of Women’s Basketball.” The book features Warren’s story and photographs along with those of other players who “barnstormed” America with their sports expertise.
Says Warren, “I’m elated that Friends of the Library has invited me to share ‘Barnstorming America’ and my story of how I came to love the game playing in Snipesville and later to hit the roads of America playing professionally. For a small-town country girl, that was pretty awesome.”
She also says that some may remember her as a “simple farm girl” from Snipesville, or perhaps as a friend who attended Excelsior Elementary or Jeff Davis High School with her. But she also hopes that there are those who may remember that she was an outstanding player who became one of the pioneers of women’s basketball.
“One thing’s for sure, and that is I never knew I would be considered a pioneer of women’s basketball,” she says of the book’s accolades for her and her teammates. “Nor did I realize at the time that we were paving the way for the sport that women’s basketball is today.”
After she graduated from high school, Warren was offered a full four-year basketball scholarship at a college in Iowa, but declined to instead attend South Georgia College in Douglas. She was never able to get basketball out of her blood, though, and after she was courted – no pun intended – by several professional women’s teams, she accepted what she called an “attractive offer” from the Southern Belles.
Warren toured for two seasons with the Southern Belles, traveling across America and playing in arenas filled with adults and children. Think of it as the Harlem Globetrotters, Southern-style and ladies-style. Her women-only team even competed against men’s teams, playing by their rules. She and her fellow Southern Belles toured seven days a week, sometimes playing two games on Sundays.
As the specially-built station wagon “limousine” sped across the United States, she said that the one thing that often came to her mind was the song “America the Beautiful.”
“I understood what the song was about,” Warren says of seeing firsthand the country’s heartland, plains, mountain ranges, and oceans. “I saw America’s spacious skies, the purple mountains majesties, the fruited plains, and the shining seas. I experienced seeing America in all that glory and beauty.”
But the team also learned history along the routes, thanks to Overman.
“Not only did we see the scenic beauty of the country, but also we took advantage of visiting historical sites when time permitted,” she says. “We saw Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the location of Custer’s Last Stand, and Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City, Kansas, just to name a few. Truly traveling and playing professional basketball was an education in itself.”
And now Warren is one of 80-plus basketball-playing women featured in Molina’s “Barnstorming America,” a hardbound coffee table book published by Acclaim Press of Sikeston, Missouri. Molina’s book received the “Book of the Year” award by the New England Basketball Hall of Fame, and it also received a five-star rating by Authors Talk About It, an organization of authors who reviews books and sponsors book award contests.
Chris Voelz, the executive director of Collegiate Women’s Sports Awards, described the book as a mix of “A League of Their Own” and “Forrest Gump,” in that it chronicles American history and women’s basketball at the same time. The book has also recently been optioned for film by Crystal City Entertainment, a New York and Washington, D.C.-based film company whose credits include the Academy Award-nominated “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and “The Ides of March,” starring George Clooney.
“For ‘Barnstorming America’ to be compared to ‘A League of Their Own’ and ‘Forrest Gump’ is such a compliment to Mr. Molina and the women who played professional basketball” says Warren. “And now it has also been optioned for a film. That’s really unbelievable and very exciting. I can hardly wait to see what happens in the future.”
Warren and other women from seven touring professional teams met in Dallas, Texas, for the first time in history in April of last year for a book signing event at the Final Four games. She reunited with her teammates she had not seen in many years, and as a bonus met with players from other barnstorming teams.
“Who would have ever imagined that we would have helped break new ground for women?” she questions. “We helped pave the way for the thriving industry that is women’s basketball today.”
She and other players will travel to Tennessee in June to Knoxville’s Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame for yet another national book signing. The event takes place in conjunction with the Hall of Fame’s 20th anniversary inductee ceremony.
Warren and her husband, Jacky, have one daughter, Jack-O Warren Bailey, who is married to Meacham Bailey. The Warrens have two grandchildren, Reid and Mary Madyson. Both families live in Roanoke, Alabama, where the Warrens moved to in 1980 from Jeff Davis County.
Warren will have copies of “Barnstorming America” for purchase at the lecture and book signing at the library. She also says that a few other players may also be in attendance, including Lenna Carey Tucker of Alapaha, one of her Southern Belles teammates. A question-and-answer session will follow the talk, and players will also be available to sign autographs.
“I cherish my memories of growing up in Jeff Davis County,” she says, “especially my high school years of playing basketball and the influence many people had on my life. I thank them for it. Jeff Davis County will always be home and I am excited that I will have the opportunity to tell of my experiences.”