“Inaugural Ballers,” a book by New York Times bestselling author Andrew Maraniss about the first-ever U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team, comes out Tuesday and tells the compelling story of the 1976 silver medal that greatly amplified the impact of recently enacted Title IX and acted as a turning point in the progress of women’s sports that would lead to the more well-known story of the 1996 gold-medal winning “Dream Team” and the creation of the WNBA.
Published by Viking Books for Young Readers, the book tells the individual stories of the 1976 team’s key contributors (Lusia Harris, Nancy Dunkle, Trish Roberts, Ann Meyers — before the Drysdale — and Juliene Simpson), it’s head coach Billie Moore and U.S. Olympic Women’s Basketball Committee chair Mildred Barnes. It delves deeper into the stories of Harris, Meyers, Moore and Barnes and well as players who would go on to become legends in Nancy Lieberman and Pat Head, the latter before she became eight-time national championship-winning head coach Pat Summitt.
Its sections about of the history of the women’s game from the very beginning make it a must-read for any basketball fan and it also looks at the history of how the Olympics have treated women — from the ancient Greek games where they could be sentenced to death for even watching as spectators to their accidental inclusion in the 1900 Games to the story of Alice Milliat’s 1920s and 30s “Women’s Olympics,” which forced the International Olympic Committee to finally accept women’s sports in the official Games.
Interwoven with the history of basketball and the history of the Olympics is the history of women’s rights in the United States and an examination of how politics and societal gender norms affected sports and vice versa, making “Inaugural Ballers” a great history book as well.
Check out the book to travel back to the 1970s and follow U.S. women’s basketball’s improbable journey to making the Olympics and battling their way to silver.
Maraniss has also authored “Strong Inside” (about Perry Wallace, who broke college basketball’s color barrier), “Games of Deception” (about the first U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team in 1936) and “Singled Out” (about Glenn Burke, MLB’s first openly gay player).
Here’s Swish Appeal’s interview with Maraniss about “Inaugural Ballers”:
Swish Appeal: What was it like learning about Pat Head before she became Pat Summitt and bringing her character to life?
Andrew Maraniss: I really enjoyed reading about Pat Head and interviewing her former teammates. She was such a legendary coach it is almost hard to imagine her as anything but that stern figure standing on the Tennessee sideline. It was interesting to learn that she overcame a lot of self-doubt just to survive as a college student, let alone as a pioneering basketball player. Learning more about her upbringing and life on the farm really made her incredible work ethic so understandable. By the time of the ’76 Olympics, she was the classic “coach on the floor” – a team co-captain and leader who was highly respected by everyone associated with the team.
SA: What was it like telling the stories of Ann Meyers and Nancy Lieberman?
AM: I felt very fortunate to be able to interview such legendary figures as Ann Meyers and Nancy Lieberman for the book. Both came from very different backgrounds, and different coasts and with different challenges to compete as a female athlete, but both had uncommon ability and competitiveness. I didn’t have space to tell the entire backstory of every player on the team, but in the case of both Ann Meyers and Nancy Lieberman I was able to do so. Both of them were way ahead of their time back in ’76 and continued to break barriers for decades afterward. Without a doubt they are two of the most important figures in the history of basketball so it was a thrill to speak with them and to tell their stories.
SA: When Lusia Harris passed away, a lot was made about how she is not talked about enough as one of the greatest centers of all-time. Are you glad your book tells her story and were you impressed by what you learned about her game?
AM: I am so happy that Lusia Harris has finally started to receive her due as one of the greatest players in history, though it is bittersweet that it’s happening after her death. She was the top scorer and rebounder on the ’76 Olympic team and in that sense the most important player on the team. Yet for decades she existed in the shadows of better-known players on the team such as Nancy Lieberman, Ann Meyers, and Pat Summitt. The chances that a little girl growing up Black and poor in the Mississippi Delta would compete in the 1976 Olympics were miniscule. But Lusia Harris beat the odds in so many ways and deserves to be remembered as a pivotal pioneer in women’s basketball. She was a delightful person to speak with and I highly recommend the documentary that was made about her, The Queen of Basketball.
SA: Do you think, outside of Head (one of the greatest college coaches of all-time) and Meyers and Lieberman (who have awards named after them), most of the players on the 1976 team are underappreciated?
AM: I would agree that the other players on the team, other than the recent interest in Lusia Harris, are not names that most people, even hardcore basketball fans, are overly familiar with, and that’s a shame. On the other hand, most of the women on the team have been inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, so there has been that level of respect and recognition. This is a team that had such a big impact on the growth of not just women’s basketball but all of women’s team sports in the U.S., especially at the National Team level.
SA: What was it like interviewing Billie Moore and Mildred Barnes for this book?
AM: Billie Moore and Mildred Barnes were amazing to speak with. You never know when you’re writing a book about something that took place nearly 50 years ago how many people will still be around to talk about it. To have the head coach and the woman who hired the head coach and led the tryout process still around and still full of such colorful stories was a real blessing for me as an author. Mildred was really one of the first all-around American female athletic stars, way ahead of her time. She told me that police officers used to pull over and ask if she was OK when they saw her out running. It was that rare of a sight to see a woman out jogging in the 1940s or 50s. Billie Moore’s roots in basketball went back to her childhood in Kansas, where she once had her bad back checked out by a doctor named Allen — Phog Allen! Billie also really was the mentor behind the career of Pat Head Summitt. She was interested in participating in the book because she believed her players deserved to be recognized for the history they made. Mildred wrote me back with some really kind comments after she read the book.
SA: What was it like bringing the atmosphere in Montreal to life?
AM: The 1976 Olympics in Montreal are the first ones I remember watching on TV. I was six years old, and I got a crush on Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian gymnast. For this book, I read other books about Montreal and about the ’76 Games and of course hundreds of newspaper and magazine accounts. I interviewed not only players but spectators, journalists, and others who were there. The highest compliment I received just a couple of weeks ago when a Canadian journalist who had been at the Games said I accurately captured what it felt like to be in the city at the time. I wish I could have been there.
SA: Since the 1976 silver medal led to millions more participants at the high school level, full scholarships at the college level, the popularization of the NCAA tournament, the creation of the WNBA and, as you say, “one of the most dominant streaks in the history of international sports,” it obviously held more significance than your typical silver medal. How did you approach telling the story of a team that came in second and capturing the disappointment of not winning gold while also hammering home the societal impact that is still felt today?
AM: One thing that made writing about a silver medal-winning team as opposed to a gold-medal winning team a bit easier was that the American women truly did WIN a silver. The way most tournaments are played today, the silver medal would go to the team that lost in the championship game. But in ’76, there was a just a round-robin tournament and whoever had the second-best record won the silver. So the US didn’t lose to the Soviets to take silver; they beat the Czechoslovakians. So just as a literary device, that worked better for me in telling the story. But the Soviets were such prohibitive favorites going into those Olympics that the Americans were overjoyed to win silver, anyway. They knew they had no chance for gold. They weren’t even supposed to make it to the Olympics, period, after finishing eighth in the World Championships the year before. It was the last time an American women’s basketball team would be a major underdog. Head coach Billie Moore told her players before their final game that if they won, and won silver, they would change women’s basketball in the U.S. for the next 25 years. She was right. The game exploded after ’76 and so did other team sports for girls and women, notably soccer, which wasn’t yet played in the Olympics or World Cup.
SA: Was it cool to learn that basketball inventor James Naismith was an ambassador for the women’s game and not someone who was sexist? And that women were just as interested in the game from the beginning?
AM: I was happy to learn that women were a part of basketball from the very beginning. Women schoolteachers watched some of the first games ever played in Springfield, Mass., and soon formed their own team. Naismith encouraged Senda Berenson to teach the new sport at Smith College, and she’s considered the “mother of the game” in many ways. While it took 40 years for women’s basketball to be added to the Olympics after the men’s game was first introduced in the Summer Games in Berlin in 1936, it wasn’t because women’s basketball was anything new around the world in 1976.
SA: Are you glad you were able to bring superstar players to life from generations that we don’t have YouTube highlights of? (1920s Chicago AAU star Izzy Channels, 1940s Nashville AAU star Alline Banks and 1950s/60s Nashville AAU star Nera White)
AM: In addition to writing about a team that has been largely overlooked, I also wanted to tell some of the stories of the women who came before them, some of the stars of the game in earlier eras. Whether they were Olympians in ’76 or amateur barnstorming players in the decades before, all of these women not only worked hard to develop their skills on the court, but they did so in a society that often denigrated them for even trying. It took enormous courage and dedication to succeed as an athlete with little reward.
SA: What do you think the popularity of the first women’s game between Stanford and Cal and the following back-and-forth between popular and unpopular that women’s basketball faced says about the real reasons behind men’s sports being more popular? Do you think women’s basketball would be capable of appealing to as many people as men’s basketball if people gave it a chance? (Other examples of women’s sports reaching extremely high levels of popularity: Battle of the Sexes — 90 million viewers and 2021 Tokyo Olympics — 60% of what was televised was women’s sports)
AM: One of the themes I wanted to get across in the book was the constant ebb and flow in American society in terms of attitudes about women’s athletics and women’s basketball in particular. Typically, acceptance or lack of acceptance related to other broad social trends, such as women’s suffrage or women in the workplace. So you would have periods where women’s basketball was incredibly popular with players and fans followed by eras of condemnation and restrictions. People, both men and women, would often cloak their objections to women’s sports in terms of health or morality. It was clear, however, that underlying most of the resistance were the fragile egos of men, who resented sharing any of their athletic turf with women.
SA: Whenever you were talking about a person or entity, if they had a history of racist, homophobic, sexist or anti-Semitic actions, you made sure to mention it. Why is it so important to hold these people and entities accountable and to combat any attempts to ban books that do so?
AM: Well, I think it’s important to tell the truth in a work of nonfiction. Racism, homophobia, sexism, and antisemitism are directly at odds with what this country, at its best, is supposed to be all about, and also what sports, at their best, are supposed to be about. But there are countless examples of these prejudices in sports — an area that is supposed to provide a level playing field for all. So the hypocrisy stands out even more. I think it’s important to learn from history and to call out these hypocrisies in the past so that we will not tolerate them today. Clearly there are people who feel threatened by attempts to identify hate and injustice — the ones who as you say are attempting to ban books. What does that say about them? To me it says something very scary and something we must fight against. Threats on books, history, and the truth are directly connected to threats to our democracy. Nobody can remain neutral on that issue.
SA: Can you speak to why women students and athletes of the 60s and 70s would really enjoy this book?
AM: While this book is about a specific team and a specific group of women, I think anyone who lived through the pre-Title IX era or the early days of its implementation in the 1970s will relate to so much of what these women experienced. So many women, from elementary school through college, fought for basic things like access to playing fields, uniforms, coaches, and simply the acknowledgement that sports weren’t only for boys and men. It’s not that all problems have been solved, but every generation has its struggle and its purpose. Women of that era passed the baton to a new generation and I think they’ll enjoy seeing their experiences validated and celebrated.
SA: Why do you think this book will appeal to both young adults and adults and why is it important for young adults to have nonfiction options as well as fiction options.
AM: My experience with my previous books is that even though they are marketed as Young Adult books aimed at teens, they appeal just as much to adult readers of all ages. I do the same amount of research for my books for teens as I would for a book marketed to adults. The only difference is the books are a bit shorter and have more photos. But what adult doesn’t like that? The main thing is to do the research and tell an interesting story. People of all ages can appreciate that. But I think we’re living in a critical time in history when the value of the truth is called into question, when the rights of all Americans have been called into question, and when books themselves are under attack. To me there’s no more important time to be writing about true stories in American history that shine a light on all forms of discrimination. I have great confidence in younger generations to right some of the wrongs we’re seeing now, but we need to give them some of the tools and frameworks to understand the context of what they’re facing. That’s why I think strong narrative nonfiction is so important for teens right now.