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Pioneers of women’s hoops discuss the struggles they faced to play the game

By Sean Savage

Title IX: 37 words that stand for the iconic motto of “play for something bigger than yourself.”

Springfield College faculty and students got to witness a discussion with New York Times bestselling author Andrew Maraniss about his book Inaugural Ballers. A deep dive into history, the book highlights the team of 12 women who laid the foundation for the future of women’s basketball in the U.S. 50 years ago. These women competed as part of Team USA in the first-ever Olympic women’s basketball tournament at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.

Two of the players, Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame members Ann Meyers Drysdale and Juliene Brazinski Simpson, joined the conversation.

There was no WNBA at the time, nor any professional women’s league in the U.S. “The men received all the recognition,” Simpson said.

Team USA was not even expected to qualify for the 1976 Olympics. The 12 women were strangers to one another. Simpson recalled the experience as difficult, but impactful.

“The trueness of our fight and the little steps we took [were brutal]. We look back now, and they were really major steps,” she said.

The small battles started with raising money. At the time, “only one percent of funds were spent on women’s athletics across the globe,” Maraniss added. The team had to raise its own money, as nobody supported the players financially. Simpson said: “It was like society was against us.” She continued, “If you played a sport in the ’70s, you were a tomboy.”

Predominant social attitudes at the time were that girls could never beat boys. Therefore, they should not even sweat or build muscle because if they did beat boys, it would damage their egos.

Another problem was each player had a different background and nobody knew one another.
Forward Pat Head learned how to play basketball in a barn. Their leading scorer, Lusia Harris, grew up in the same county in Louisiana where Emmett Till was murdered. Forward Nancy Lieberman’s mom would puncture basketballs with a screwdriver because she did not want her daughter to play.

Ann Meyers Drysdale speaks to the Springfield College community

Even after the team qualified for the tournament, there were still adverse reports. Simpson recalled a newspaper article stating, “We [U.S. Women’s Basketball Team] were the second worst team to qualify.” In addition, the team would receive no funds throughout the tournament, as society believed they should not be competing.

Coach Billie Jean Moore reminded them: “We are playing for all the little girls out there. We are going to make a difference in the coming years.”

“These words stuck with me more than any other speech,” Meyers recalled.

The team ended up going on to win a silver medal, beating Czechoslovakia 83-67. Simpson was asked at the press conference following the team’s last game if they were surprised to have made it so far. The continuing questions further expose what the ’76 team was up against and how society did not want to believe what had just happened.

To Maraniss, this begged the question, “What was driving these women to compete?’”

“Everyone was telling you should not even be doing it and that there is no great reward for doing it,” he said. “What incredible self-motivation and determination did you all have to reach that point?”

Meyers shared one thing that resonated with her was the realization that they were able to make a difference even at a young age. “You make a difference. It is about what is right. You, young people, are so important with what is going on in society today. You can not overlook the importance and power that you have in your voice. But, you must be able to speak up in one way or another,” she said.

Another reason for her bravery was that “other people had more opportunities than we had, so we had to fight. But this fight still goes on,” Meyers said. “I think it is important you all understand Title IX is not only a women’s rights issue. It is an issue that impacts everybody. So I would strongly encourage you all to understand the law more deeply because it can very well be taken away.”

Much progress has been made, but there is still more to go. Maraniss added, “Just because something is a law does not mean it will always be enforced or in place. It is important to understand the history, so you know what you are fighting for.”

(from left to right) Sue Guyer, Juliene Brazinksi Simpson, Andrew Maraniss, Mary Beth Cooper, Marty Dobrow, Ann Meyers Drysdale

He used his platform as an author to inspire. “My book uses sports as a way to encourage young people to get involved in social issues,” he said.

Looking back, Simpson and Meyers realized the impact they made both on and off the court.
The book has helped bring attention to these pioneers who continue to blaze new trails.

“Use your platform to make a difference,” Meyers concluded.

Photos Courtesy Springfield College

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