Standing Tall

Jolene Ammons was at the top of women’s basketball in the 1960s

Jolene Mary Ammons has had the time of her life. Can you imagine coming out of Homerville (Ga.), where her biggest thrill was fixing a chocolate malted milk shake at Doc Harper’s drug store, and vaulting to the basketball Hall of Fame?

Scoring 25,000-plus points over a 12-year career may be no big deal for a 6’ 6”, NBA superstar, but for a 5’ 7” woman it’s downright remarkable, especially when there was no three-point line.

Jolene literally marched to the beat of her own drum. She played two years in the Clinch County High School band before opting for the basketball team and an eventual women’s pro team.

A friend and part-time scout and sports writer, Lurner Williams, arranged a tryout for Ammons with the All-American Red Heads. It was 1962, and one year later she was the rage of women’s basketball.

“What was my biggest thrill? There were so many. Getting a tryout and making the first team was one of them. But here is this small town girl and all of a sudden she is featured in sports magazines and appearing on radio and TV shows,” Ammons says.

“I was made honorary citizen and given keys to many cities. We played in Alaska for a month, and I got to see whales, fly in seaplanes and pan for gold. We played in 49 of the 50 states. Can you imagine that? From Homerville to California? For this small town girl it was like seeing the world!

“During the 1970 season, the referees stopped the game and my coach, Orwell Moore, presented me the game ball. The ball was signed by all the players and coaches and it had written on it ‘10,000 points.’” There was another one, 15,000 points later.

Talk about versatility, Ammons had it in spades. Among many coaches (her own and the opposition’s) she was considered the best ball-handler in the game – the men’s and women’s games. She could do more tricks with the ball than a Harlem Globetrotter.

A player-coach for two seasons, during the off-season, Ammons became a coach at the first camp emphasizing women’s basketball. Some of her campers became good enough to make the Red Heads squad.

The Red Heads played about 200 games a season and won 75 percent of them. But it was Ammons’ ball-handling and long-range shooting that drew the crowds.

Ammons credits her late mother, Ruth, with providing the motivation for her success. “She started me playing pitch and catch at age four. She had me making moves and passing behind my back. She was my greatest fan. At Clinch County High School, she never missed a game. And she traveled far and wide to see me play for the Red Heads.

“My dad, Frank, was an auto mechanic and worked most of the time. But Mother was always home. Kids from all over the neighborhood came to our house to play basketball.

“Of course mother was not the only booster I had. There was Charles Bennett, my high school coach, my high school and professional teammates and especially the teams I coached during the season and at our basketball camp.

“My sister Laverne, who was four years older than me, taught me how to grip the ball although she never played past high school. My brother, Johnny, was not a player but he was a loyal spectator.”

Ammons is a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame where her uniform is displayed. The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame also requested a uniform to display. All told, Jolene played 2,136 games. Her Red Heads won 1,848 and lost 488. In 1974, she was the only female basketball player featured on CBS television during the NBA playoffs. She is retired and lives in Florida.

According to women’s basketball historian, John Molina, “Despite all her accolades, Jolene is one of the most unsung heroes in the game. In games, she would pass the ball off when she could have easily made shots. Her teammates and her coaches encouraged her to keep shooting because she could hit the basket from anywhere on the court.”

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