A Groundbreaking Basketball Team Gets Its Due – Garden & Gun

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Andrew Maraniss.

City of Nashville, New York Times– bestselling author Andrew Maraniss is always on the lookout for inspiring sports stories, sparking conversation and sharing a larger message. His first book, 2015 Strong Within, received two major honors in the social sciences, the Lillian Smith Book Award and the “Special Recognition” award from the RFK Book Awards. As 2022 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of Title IX, the law that expanded access to women’s sports, Maraniss thought it was a good time to highlight female athletes — and one team in particular that paved the way for the sport’s highest level.

In his new book, Early BallersMaraniss tells the inspiring stories of the teammates and coaches who made the first US women’s basketball team to the Olympics in 1976. We chatted with the author about the inspiration for the book, the connection between Southern players, and why sports can be important conversation starters.

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What gave you the idea for your book?

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My first book, Strong Within, is about Perry Wallace, the first Black football player in the SEC. When I was on the road talking about the book, I remember being in middle school, and the students asked about the first women’s basketball team. It caught my attention that the students were interested in that. When I looked up and realized that the team played in 1976, which is the first Olympics that I remember as a kid, I was able to tell this story about the pioneering basketball players and how the women’s rights movement of the 1970s happened. and that’s what made it a story that I thought would be interesting.

Title IX was passed fifty years ago. Did the anniversary of that day inspire you to write the book when you wrote it?

Absolutely. I was hoping there would be a lot of interest in women’s sports—people talking about the gains that have been made in the past fifty years and the issues that still exist. The team played four years after Title IX was signed into law, but in fact the law was just beginning to be implemented at the time of these Olympics. They really represented generations that had less opportunities. That’s what I thought was so great about how good these women were—winning a silver medal at the Olympics, so many of them went into the basketball Hall of Fame. It’s really amazing what he was able to achieve.

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How can we identify the southerners in this book?

There was a strong Southern connection to this group. Perhaps the person who became the most famous was Pat Head Summitt [the former longtime coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team]. He grew up in a hayloft in a barn on his home farm. Lusia Harris was from the Mississippi Delta and was the first black player at Delta State University. He led the team to a national championship and was the best player on the ’76 Olympic team.

photo: Courtesy of USA Basketball

1976 US Olympic women’s basketball team led by Lusia Harris of Delta State University.

How can this book, and other stories about sports history, encourage conversations about race, gender, and social equality?

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Sports reach people. Seeing a book with a basketball or baseball player on the cover seems like an intimidating read. But when you pick up one of my books, you realize that it’s about basketball—but also about feminism, women’s rights, racism, homophobia. Games are a platform to tell these stories.

Have you heard any of the stories in this book?

I heard from the teacher [Billie Moore], who said he had no words to express what it meant to him. It’s in a way both exciting and frustrating – almost fifty years after the Olympics, these women are getting their due. I wish they would have had this opportunity to be recognized and celebrated and have their stories told years ago, but I feel lucky to be able to tell their story now.

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