By Laura Raines, Pulse editor
Since Taylor Telfair Regional Hospital in McRae closed in 2008, business has been booming in the emergency room at Dodge County Hospital in Eastman.
“Seeing 64 people in a day is a lot for a small-town ER. It gets the adrenaline flowing,” said Becky Harp Pritchett, RN.
But at 61, Pritchett can handle it. “Adrenaline is part of my make-up,” she said.
Long before she was a nurse — and long before the WNBA was born — Pritchett was a professional basketball player. From 1965 to 1969, she played for the All American Red Heads, a woman’s barnstorming team that toured the country and played men’s teams from 1936 to 1986.
“Oh my goodness, it was so exciting being in the stadium and seeing the Atlanta Dream,” Pritchett said. “It was all I could do not to jump down on the court and start playing. Watching them, you just wanted to get back into it.”
It was a humbling experience for Pritchett. “We got a standing ovation. It was such an honor.”
Pritchett’s five-year-old granddaughter was in attendance and heard stories about her grandmother’s exploits with the Red Heads for the first time.
“I guess you can see we got the ball rolling for teams like the Atlanta Dream, by showing that women could get out there and compete on par with men,” she said.
Talent is a family affair
Athletic genes run in Pritchett’s family. Her mother, Jackie, played for the Sports Arena Blues, an Atlanta-based Amateur Athletic Union basketball team. After raising her family, she took up bowling and competed in a national tournament.
“She had so many patches for perfect games that she ran out of room on her jacket. She’s always been an inspiration,” Pritchett said.
Her father, Jim, was a standout pitcher in the minor leagues.
Despite Pritchett’s pedigree, her road to hoops history wasn’t always smooth.
“I wanted to play basketball in high school, but I was 5 feet, 6 inches, so I sat on the bench for the first two years,” Pritchett said. “My parents suggested I try another sport, but I had been raised to set my goals high and [I] never give up.”
Her perseverance paid off. By the time she was a senior in 1965, Pritchett was the star player on a team that lost a heartbreaking state championship game by only two points. A coach told Pritchett that she would have been voted the tournament’s most valuable player had her team won.
Pritchett, who had been accepted to Middle Georgia College in Cochran, figured her basketball days were over. But then a letter with a red-white-and-blue border came in the mail.
A scout for the All American Red Heads had seen Pritchett play and wanted the all-state player to try out for the team. She scrimmaged with the team and signed that day.
“I learned that sometimes losers can be winners,” she said.
Opportunity of a lifetime
Although Pritchett knew she might not get another chance to attend college, she couldn’t turn down an opportunity to play pro ball. The Red Heads traveled the country playing men’s teams and using men’s rules — not the 6-on-6, half-court style that many womens’ teams were forced to play in those days.
The team dazzled crowds with ball-handling skills and trick shots, but the Red Heads were serious about basketball.
“I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into at 18, but it turned out to be quite an education for me,” Pritchett said. “The first thing we all did after our parents dropped us off in Caraway, Ark., was [to] dye each other’s hair red.”
“Each girl brought something to the team and we taught each other,” Pritchett said. “I greatly improved my set shot after learning I was using the wrong foot.”
She would juggle basketballs during the halftime show and sink free throws from her knees. The team’s designated comic, Pritchett would back into an opponent and cry out that she’d been pinched — a ruse used to draw a foul.
“We’d pick the guy most likely to be embarrassed — say the coach or mayor of the city,” she said. “It was fun, but we were there to play ball and we were very competitive.
“Guys would start out thinking they’d go easy on the girls. After five minutes they realized they’d have to buckle down to beat us.”
The Red Heads played roughly 200 games a year and won about two-thirds of them.
“We’d play and then we’d drive to the next town — sometimes all night. Often, we did our wash in the hotel bathtub,” she said. “When we had a day off, we’d sightsee, but we were always together. We were a family.”
Pritchett played basketball in all 50 states, met celebrities and made TV appearances, but in 1969 she left the team to marry her high school sweetheart.
“I’d traveled all over, learned a lot about myself and socialized with others in a competitive environment, but I wanted to have a family,” she said.
Pursuing a new dream
She left pro basketball behind, raised two sons and started working in the X-ray department at Dodge County Hospital.
“Every chance I’d get, I’d sneak back to surgery because I loved watching it,” she said. “I wanted to be right in there digging in the blood and guts and seeing how the body worked.”
When Pritchett was in her early 30s, she achieved her dream of attending college. The hospital gave her a nursing scholarship, and she earned her associate degree in 1983. She has spent 26 years in nursing — first in the OR and now in the ER.
“I’m proud to be a nurse and grateful to be healthy enough at 61 to be able to take care of others. When a patient tells me, ‘I’m so glad you were here today,’ it’s a good feeling to know that I was there for that person,” she said.
She enjoys the team aspect of nursing and especially likes to mentor young nurses.
“It’s so rewarding to see young people wanting to learn, and I get a kick out of encouraging them,” she said. “Everyone brings her own personality and specialty to the team.”
Although she enjoys being a member of the ER team, Pritchett still has a soft spot for her basketball sisters.
“Being an All American Red Head taught me what lifelong friends meant. I still keep up with old teammates. I haven’t been a carrot top in a long time, but when I put highlights in my hair, the tones come out red. Those red roots still show through.”