October 9, 2022
Historic 1976 U.S. Olympic team shaped post-Title IX women’s basketball landscape
New book "Inaugural Ballers" tells true story of first U.S. women's basketball Olympic team
In 1976, Lusia Harris scored the first-ever basket in Olympic women’s basketball history. Representing the United States, Harris was part of the inaugural women’s national team that competed for gold in the Montreal Olympics.
The Americans would leave the Games with a silver medal, and a legacy that stretched beyond the Olympic games and into the U.S. consciousness. The team served as the goalpost for young women and girls looking to take advantage of the passage of Title IX just four short years after its passing in 1972, and two years before the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) was founded.
“They were the first women’s basketball team for the national team and I ended up playing with a few of them … I had seen [1976 Olympic team members] on TV a couple of years before and now I am in the same company,” Tonyus Chavers, former WBL player told The Next about playing alongside Olympians in the newly-formed WBL. “It was, it was mind blowing, but they made me so proud even though we, you know, didn’t didn’t win the gold. They were they were still first. You know, actually when you think about it, they they were the first seeds.”
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Start of a collegiate dynasty?
In April 1976, just months before the tip-off of the Olympic Games in Montreal, USA Basketball hosted five regional try-outs throughout the nation. Over 1,000 young women showed up to try and prove they belonged on the national team. The try-outs brought together players from all over the country, allowing for relationships that would blossom in unexpected ways.
One player at those try-outs, Patricia (Trish) Roberts, remembers meeting Pat Head (Summit), unaware that Pat was already a head coach at the University of Tennessee.
“I met Pat (Head Summit) at the Olympic trials,” Roberts told The Next. “We both made the Olympic team and became, you know, really good friends. And I really didn’t enjoy being so far away from home out in Kansas. And I had been talking to some girls and I remember mentioning that I would really like to go to a school closer to home and Pat must have found out because she asked me about it. And she asked me if I would be interested in transferring to the University of Tennessee. At that time, I did not know that Pat was the head coach of the University of Tennessee. When we played for the Olympics, we were teammates that whole summer, and I didn’t even know she was the head coach at the time.”
Roberts played one season with Tennessee, a season that ended with the Lady Vols making a run to the AIAW semifinals, falling to eventual champion Delta State. She was the first Black player ever to lace up for the Tennessee women’s basketball program, and also the player that put the eventual eight-time national champions on the map.
“Pat [Summitt] even said it to me. She said, ‘Trish, you really started this tradition,’” Roberts said. “I look back now and I always think, had I not transferred to Tennessee, had I not propelled them to the national spotlight, would there be eight national championship trophies? Would Tennessee be the program that they are today?”
As a Lady Vol, Roberts set 11 records for the burgeoning program, most of which stand to this day.
While it may be hard to believe today, considering the U.S. national team’s legacy of dominance which includes winning gold at the last seven Olympic Games, the Americans entered the 1976 Montreal Olympics as underdogs. In his recently-released book Inaugural Ballers, Andrew Maraniss details how the legendary team came to be, and the challenges they overcame to even reach the Games.
“There were many things that surprised me … the ‘underdog’ position of the U.S. team in ‘76 – the U.S. national team has been so dominant for decades, it was hard to believe they weren’t expected to even qualify for the 1976 Olympics,” Maraniss said.
Once the 12-person roster was finalized, Hall of Fame coach Billie Moore led the team to a 5-0 record at the pre-Olympic qualifying tournament in Ontario, Canada. Co-Captains Juliene Simpson and Pat Head (Summit) provided leadership for a team that included legends like Ann Meyers, Lusia Harris, Nancy Lieberman and Gail Marquis. The Americans earned a silver medal with a tiebreak win over Bulgaria. The Soviet Union won gold with an undefeated record.
Perhaps more daunting than any opponent they would face in Olympic competition, the Americans also had to conquer stereotypes of the woman athlete in the fledgling years of Title IX.
“You had some players who had overcome tremendous obstacles to be on that team who their entire life, they were told, ‘Well, this isn’t something that girls do, this isn’t something that women do, you don’t compete, you know, you don’t sweat, you’re not banging around in the paint going up for a rebound that’s unladylike.’ And they, every day of their existence as an athlete, they were defying these norms that were other people were trying to place upon them.”
Published by Viking Books for Young Readers, Inaugural Ballers details the great diversity of experiences that came together to form the nascent U.S. women’s national team set in the backdrop of the civil rights movement of the 1970’s.
“Some players had gone to Catholic schools their entire life that were sex segregated. And you might think that those would be some of the most repressive environments. But in fact, they supported girls sports, you know, women that grew up in the Deep South, which were not places that the women’s rights movement was especially popular, you know, in the 1960s, or 70s, where women’s rights in general, were not what they were in other parts of the country. Expectations were much more traditional and conservative. But again, girls sports were very popular at some of these high schools, or even colleges …. they became social activities for the whole town, you know, to go watch these games.”
Maraniss’ book masterfully weaves together stories of the early years of Title IX women’s basketball in the United States. He talks directly about the challenges and celebrates the successes of the early pioneers of the women’s game.
Honoring the game’s history
A lot of attention has rightfully been directed towards the 1996 women’s national basketball team and its impact on shaping the blueprint of women’s professional basketball in America (the ABL and WNBA were founded following the team’s epic world tour and gold medal in Atlanta). That team, however, was not the first, and was built on a 1976 team’s foundation for women’s professional basketball in the States.
The two decades before the WNBA came to exist in America, women athletes were slowly but surely foraging a path on the long, windy road toward gender equity. It’s important that books like Inaugural Ballers exist so that we never forget the names and stories of the courageous fighters without whom U.S. women’s basketball as it is today would not exist.
Written by Tee Baker
Tee is a women's basketball reporter and historian. As an author at The Next, Tee covers the BIG EAST conference and contributes articles and media featuring the WBL, the first professional women's basketball league in the United States.
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