March 24, 2023
Gail Marquis was destined to move women’s basketball forward
'I understand my role was to keep pushing the game forward'
Like many women of her era, 1976 Olympic silver medalist Gail Marquis struggled as a young person to find an organized basketball team to join. Until part way through her high school career in Queens, NY, there was no sanctioned high school girls basketball team for Marquis to join. Once a team was established during her sophomore year, the team didn’t draw much attention, so Marquis pushed to get eyeballs on their play. Understanding the importance of recognition in the media space, she gathered stats for her team and sent them to a local newspaper columnist known for covering women’s sports.
Later, when the time came to start thinking about college, Marquis noticed the dearth of scouts and tryouts for college teams. In the early ‘70s, Title IX was new, and most schools lacked any real recruiting infrastructure. Gail reached out to the coach at Queens College and asked if her high school squad could scrimmage with the team. The high schoolers lost, of course, but more importantly the game allowed them to set foot in the college basketball space, and for everyone involved to envision them there in the future.
In a recent conversation with The Next, Marquis reflected back on the challenges she faced as a young person to get on to the basketball court and stay there. The goal was always, “Keep playing and pushing the limits of basketball…I understand my role. I’m glad I played it. I’m glad I pushed it,” Marquis said.
At every stop of her career from college, to the Olympics, to playing in Europe and eventually joining the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL), Marquis did indeed push the game forward in a meaningful way, ushering women into new spaces, both literal and figurative.
Marquis eventually went on to play for Queens College, where she earned All-American honors twice and posted 20 points per game her last two seasons; her teams advanced to the postseason all four years. Stats and honors aside, the team established a foothold for women’s basketball within the larger New York City basketball culture. On February 22, 1975, Queens College faced Immaculata in the first women’s basketball game ever played at Madison Square Garden, an iconic venue, known as the Mecca of Basketball ever since playing host to the first NIT tournaments in the ‘30s and ‘40s before the NCAA tournament ascended to its current position of dominance.
Marquis understood that playing at The Garden pushed the women’s game into new territory. In her eyes, Queens and Immaculata were, “[P]laying basketball, and at a higher level. I don’t just mean X’s and O’s, but playing at Madison Square Garden.” For Gail, playing women’s basketball in a historic venue mattered in building the foundation of the sport.
The Garden wasn’t the only exclusive arena where women began occupying space. Marquis cites the cascading effects of Immaculata playing at The Palestra, which she refers to as Philadelphia’s equivalent of Madison Square Garden, and others commonly refer to as the Cathedral of College Basketball. From there, the women’s game went on to earn coveted space on televised broadcasts at a time when broadcast space was far more limited than it is today. Marquis sensed that sustaining momentum for women to play basketball required not only playing high-quality basketball, but doing so as part of the mainstream basketball culture and interacting with the legacy of the sport as they worked to build a new legacy within and around its existing structures.
Amidst her groundbreaking college career, Marquis learned of another opportunity to help push women’s basketball into a new space, this time at the Olympics. Gail learned about the 1976 Olympic Games trials via an advertisement in the newspaper and made plans to attend, but she didn’t go alone. She insisted that the other starters from Queens College join her. They expressed hesitancy, but Gail wanted that experience for them. The five of them set out for the trials. They each packed three t-shirts — one red, one white, one blue — because the organizers wouldn’t be able to provide them with standard pinnies to differentiate between teams, and as Marquis notes, “We don’t do shirts and skins.”
The women found themselves amongst a field of 250 players from which only five would be selected following several rounds of cuts over the course of a weekend. By Sunday afternoon, only 20 players remained. As for Gail and her reluctant teammates? “All five of [us] made it to that final 20. And I had bet them that they would. And every one of them owed me an ice cream.” Marquis and her teammate Althea Gywn moved on to the next phase of the Olympic process, but only Gail made the final roster. Before officially making it to the 1976 Olympic games in Montreal, the team first competed in a qualifying tournament.
Prior to qualifiers head coach Billie Moore addressed the team and as Marquis recalls, “She said if we don’t win, this will set us back about another 25 years. No pressure.” The team understood that their performance would dictate the state of women’s basketball in the U.S. moving forward. As we know, the women took first place in the qualifying tournament and went on to take the silver medal in Montreal, and the game has grown from there.
The Olympic success led to larger investments on the women’s side of the sport, some more genuine than others. In the NCAA, buoyed by both rising interest and the 1972 passage of Title IX, several schools began the process of converting their programs to legitimate powerhouses. Marquis remembers Pat Head (Summitt) and Cindy Brogdon rooming together during the Olympics, so it made perfect sense to her when Head, Brogdon and Trish Roberts teamed up after the Games to return to Tennessee and establish the Lady Vols as a decades long basketball dynasty, bringing even more fans to the sport on the back of their Olympic success.
As college programs grew, the increased funding as a result of Title IX didn’t just benefit scholarship recipients. Marquis astutely points out that it also provided a bump to coaches’ salaries. Suddenly coaching the women’s teams became a viable career path. “And then you had better coaches, the coaches could coach better players. Those who couldn’t make it to the college ranks had better coaches now in the recreation [leagues], the AAU and the high school levels. So all of that pushed the sport all-in and helped to sustain it.”
A star among the Stars
Success stemming from the Olympics and the college ranks led to a strong enough belief in women’s basketball to spawn its first professional league, the WBL. Marquis joined the New York Stars of the WBL in 1979.
At the beginning of the season, the Stars played their home games at Madison Square Garden and practiced at Long Island University. The Stars were the first women’s professional team to call the Garden home, an important symbolic step for the growth of the women’s game.
It wasn’t all a rosy journey, though; about halfway through her season with the Stars, Marquis remembers the ground starting to shift underneath them. “We ended up playing in local colleges [or] local arenas. We used to practice at a nice, safe arena. I would get a call the morning of practice and we’re not going to be at Long Island University. We’re going to be at a rec center on Avenue C and Alphabet City…It was just so haphazard.” In addition to dealing with inconsistent facilities in the second half of the season, players also dealt with inconsistent pay.
Even amid a complete lack of stability, the Stars went 28-7 and won the WBL title that season. Following a successful season, the owners of the Stars decided to call it a day and not return for the WBL’s third season. Marquis joined the New Jersey Gems the following year, but at its conclusion the entire league folded.
In contrast to several NCAA programs which were thriving under sustained financial support and dedicated leadership in the coaching ranks, the WBL lacked that same type of commitment. Looking back on the experience now, Marquis sees the clear cracks in the foundation. “The owners, the organizers, they were just in it for the money and they didn’t have the longevity to go with it the whole time.”
During Gail’s turbulent, yet productive season in New York, the Stars were coached by NBA alum Dean Meminger, who was an All-American at Marquette before becoming a first-round draft pick by the Knicks. While increased coaching salaries at the college level increased the pool of quality coaches, the cachet of a professional league drew interest from a broader range of candidates looking to break into coaching. While Meminger may have hoped his stint in the WBL would lead to coaching offers in the NBA, Marquis appreciated that his basketball bloodlines included coaching from Red Holzman, which via the transitive property means she benefitted from Holzman’s coaching as well.
As another example of coaching transitivity, Marquis cites Celtics legend, K.C. Jones, who spent part of his post-playing career as a women’s basketball coach with the New England Blizzard of the American Basketball League (ABL). Applying the Holzman/Meminger logic to Jones, members of the Blizzard benefitted from the expertise of Bill Russell who coached Jones while on the Celtics. Marquis underscores that especially in the early going that “those channels [were] so important to the game” because of how they expand players’ basketball knowledge and allow them to get better.
The cross-pollination between the men’s and women’s sides of the sport fostered a greater appreciation for the women’s game. In his opening press conference with the Blizzard, Jones said “The NBA is a professional league and the ABL is a professional league. For me they are both on the same level.” In further praise of the women’s game, Marquis remembers John Wooden talking about how, “The women’s game is so pure, because it’s playing below the basket. It doesn’t finish up with a dunk and because it’s playing below the rim there’s so much more technique involved, so much more passing, seeing the court, seeing the whole play, as opposed to just relying on quickness or more jumping ability.”
While the WBL provided an important stepping stone to professional women’s basketball as we know it today, Marquis feels the league lacked of earnest commitment from investors. “The owners, the commissioners, the deciders of that league [thought] if the women didn’t play well, [then] ‘Well, we gave it a try.’ And then they would leave and boot us out.”
As teams would fold, sometimes in the middle of the season, negative narratives emerged in the public perception of the league. As Marquis characterizes the issue, “In the eyes of the media, ‘Oh, you see, the women’s game is not sustainable,’” which became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
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Future of the game
Today, Marquis speaks highly of the United States’ current professional league for women. “I applaud the WNBA for its longevity [and] for its embracement of the game.” When the WNBA started, Marquis held reservations after encountering so many men who claimed to want to push the women’s game forward, but in actuality were “just in for the money.”
The WNBA has made considerable progress in its 25+ years of existence, but there remain plenty of hardships yet to overcome, some of the same hardships that plagued the WBL. Gail spoke of an evening WBL game they were scheduled to play in San Francisco, and “At 10 a.m. on the day of the game, we were still at LaGuardia Airport.” Today in the WNBA, players still fly commercial, and suffer through delays, inconvenient scheduling and cramped seats.
As another example, Marquis discovered years later “The inequality in the salaries for one set of players versus African American players,” and the way teams attempted to appease the biases of their fans by only putting “so many Black and Brown [players] on a team.” Racial discrimination in roster building is less pronounced in the current phase of the WNBA, but valid criticisms are still frequently raised regarding the marketing of the league and the disproportionate number of white players who receive prominent media coverage.
Thankfully the forward-facing mentality has carried on from Gail Marquis and her generation, through to the current generation of women’s basketball players. Just looking at the current offseason, we see Breanna Stewart leading the charge for chartered flights, Dearica Hamby speaking out about her rights as a mother and players becoming more and more empowered to use the tools available to them via free agency and trade market to control their own destiny.
Marquis sees and appreciates the work done by players in the WNBA and specifically calls out the Players’ Association as a valuable tool for standing up to a league with misaligned priorities. Unlike when she was in the WBL, “They have a much stronger players union, who would stand up to [the league]. And I think the women are much more educated…they’re playing four years of college ball and they’re much smarter, much more well thought out…So I think that also pushes the game, they can go toe-to-toe with many of the owners.”
As the WNBA continues to evolve and TV coverage expands, Marquis observes and maintains an active group chat with former teammates. During the 2022 WNBA playoffs, the members of the chat were mesmerized by Chelsea Gray who, in addition to putting up a stellar performance, provided them with “the spitting image of Janice Thomas,” a teammate of Gail’s on the championship-winning Stars. The comparison highlights the rich history of women’s basketball, and how a group of women with no one to compare themselves to, no one to model their game after, no footsteps to follow in as they ascended from high school to college to a nascent professional league, pushed themselves and the game into a whole new era.
When asked how she feels watching the Olympics now, and the dynasty Team USA has built after being the first to represent the U.S. on that stage, Gail admits with a dry chuckle, that her initial reaction is not pride or joy, but jealousy. Then she continues, “But after I go through the jealousy and a tiny, little pity party, then I’m just very happy for them. Like yeah, you go girls.”
Marquis remembers how hard that first 1976 Olympic team had it, from the lack of practice uniforms, to the “pee-ridden” dormitory beds they slept in. From her days advocating for a team to play on during her middle and high school years winning a championship in the newly-formed WBL, Marquis moved the needle advanced women’s basketball in the United States. Looking back on both her grand successes and grueling tribulations, she knows she “was destined to move the game forward.”