In 1976, Lusia Harris scored the very first basket in Olympic women’s basketball history. Representing the United States, Harris was part of the first women’s national team that competed for gold at the Montreal Olympics.
Americans would leave the Games with a silver medal and a legacy that stretched beyond the Olympics and into American consciousness. The team served as the goalpost for young women and girls looking to capitalize on the IX title stint just four short years after her passing in 1972 and two years before the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) was established.
“It was the first national team women’s basketball team and I ended up playing with a few of them… I had seen [1976 Olympic team members] on TV a few years ago and now I’m in the same company,” former WBL player Tonyus Chavers said. The following to play alongside the Olympians in the new WBL. “It was, it was mind-blowing, but they made me so proud even though we, you know, didn’t win the gold. They were they were still the first. You know, actually, when we think about it, they were the first seeds.
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Beginning of a collegiate dynasty?
In April 1976, just months before the Montreal Olympics kicked off, USA Basketball held five regional trials across the country. More than 1,000 young women showed up to try to prove they belonged to the national team. The tryouts brought together players from across the country, allowing for relationships that blossomed in unexpected ways.
One player from those trials, 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 said. The following. “We both made the Olympic team and became, you know, very good friends. And I really didn’t like being so far from my home 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 didn’t know that Pat was the head coach at the University of Tennessee. When we played for the Olympics, we were teammates all 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 racing to the AIAW Semi-Finals, falling to eventual champion Delta State. She was the first black player to step into Tennessee’s women’s basketball program, and also the player who put the eight-time national champions on the map.
“Tap [Summitt] even told me. She said, “Trish, you really started this tradition,” Roberts said. “I look back now and I still think, if I hadn’t moved to Tennessee, if I hadn’t propelled them into the national spotlight, would there have been eight national championship trophies? Would Tennessee be the program they are today?
As Lady Vol, Roberts set 11 records for the burgeoning program, most of which stand to this day.
While it might be hard to believe today, given the US National Team’s legacy of dominance, which includes winning gold at the last seven Olympics, the Americans competed in the Montreal Olympics in 1976 as outsiders. In his recently published book Inaugural BallersAndrew Maraniss details how the legendary team was born and the challenges they overcame to even reach the Games.
“There were a lot of things that surprised me… the ‘underdog’ position of the US team in 1976 – the US national team had been so dominant for decades, it was hard to believe they weren’t even supposed to 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) led a team that included legends like Ann Meyers, Lusia Harris, Nancy Lieberman and Gail Marquis. The Americans won a silver medal with a decisive victory against Bulgaria. The Soviet Union won gold with an unbeaten record.
Perhaps more formidable than any opponent they would face in Olympic competition, the Americans also had to overcome stereotypes of the female athlete in the nascent Title IX years.
“You’ve had female players who’ve overcome tremendous odds to be on this team who all their lives they’ve been told, ‘Well, that’s not something that girls do, that’s not something that women do, you don’t compete, you know, you don’t sweat, you don’t kick in the paint for a rebound that isn’t feminine. And they, every day of their existence as an athlete, they challenged those standards that others were trying to impose on them.
Published by Viking Books for Young Readers, Inaugural Ballers details the wide diversity of experiences that came together to form the nascent U.S. Women’s National Team in the context of the civil rights movement of the 1970s.
“Some players had gone to Catholic schools all their lives where gender segregation was practiced. And you might think these are some of the most repressive environments. But they actually supported girls’ sports, you know, women who grew up in the Deep South, which weren’t places where the women’s rights movement was particularly popular, you know, in the 1960s or 70, 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 in some of these high schools, even colleges…. they’ve become social events for the whole town, you know, to go and watch these games.
Maraniss’ book masterfully weaves together the stories of the early years of Title IX women’s basketball in the United States. It speaks directly to the challenges and celebrates the successes of the early pioneers of women’s football.
Honor the game’s history
Much attention has rightly been given to the 1996 Women’s National Basketball Team and its impact on shaping the model for women’s professional basketball in America (the ABL and WNBA were founded in following the team’s epic world tour and gold medal in Atlanta). This team, however, was not the first and was built on the foundation of a 1976 team for women’s professional basketball in the United States.
The two decades before the WNBA existed in America, female athletes were slowly but surely forging their way down the long, winding road to gender equity. It is important that books like Inaugural Ballers exist so that we never forget the names and stories of the brave fighters without whom American women’s basketball as it is today would not exist.