New book from Madison native tells inspiring untold story of the first U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team

'Inaugural Ballers,' a young adult book by Andrew Maraniss about the 1976 silver-medal winners, is perfectly timed to the 50th anniversary of the landmark Title IX legislation.
Photo by Keith Miles.
"Inaugural Ballers" is the new book from author Andrew Maraniss, a Madison native.

The seed was planted while he was promoting an earlier book.

Andrew Maraniss was visiting middle schools across the country to talk about “Games of Deception,” his 2019 book for young adults about the first U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team. It was the 1936 Olympics — Nazi Germany was the host. Two students — one in North Carolina, the other in Kansas — raised their hands with the same question.

“What about the first women’s Olympic basketball team?”

“I didn’t know much of the answer,” Maraniss said recently.

We were speaking in advance of the publication, this week, of “Inaugural Ballers,” his new young adult book on the 1976 silver-medal winning inaugural U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team.

Maraniss said he began doing some research after getting the question at the two schools. “I decided it could be a good book,” he said, “and the story — if I could get it written in time — could be told in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Title IX becoming law.”

Maraniss made his deadline. The landmark legislation prohibiting sex discrimination in educational institutions receiving federal funding became law in 1972.

While not an immediate panacea for women’s intercollegiate athletics — there would be legal challenges and decades-old prejudices to overcome — Title IX forced a reckoning on campuses nationwide.

At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a committee was established to make equity recommendations for athletics, and in 1974 Kit Saunders-Nordeen — subject of the biography I published last spring — was named UW’s first director of women’s athletics.

(Maraniss and I are part of a Cap Times Idea Fest panel on Title IX this week, a virtual event that includes UW grad Judy Sweet, first woman president of the NCAA, and Olympic gold medalist Benita Fitzgerald Mosley.)

With Title IX and a larger 1970s women’s rights movement underway, the stage was set for the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal to welcome women’s basketball for the first time. The U.S. squad — Maraniss interviewed many of them — included Ann Meyers, Lucy Harris, Nancy Lieberman and Pat Head Summit, revered names in women’s basketball history now.

But then?

“Big time underdogs,” Maraniss said.

The U.S. team wasn’t even favored to be one of the six countries making up the women’s tournament field at the Olympics, having finished eighth in the previous year’s World Championship. The Americans made it by going undefeated at a qualifying tournament, and in Montreal, they made they most of their opportunity. Still, their story is little known, though Maraniss’s book should help rectify that. “Coach Billie Moore,” Maraniss said, referencing the Americans’ legendary head coach, “told me she felt this team deserved to have their story told and she would do whatever she could to help. She felt this was a pioneering team that really hadn’t gotten much acclaim for what they did.”

Maraniss continued: “They came along as athletes before Title IX, and then the Olympics were when [Title IX] was being implemented. So they had stories about how they became interested in basketball and the obstacles they had to overcome.”

He noted there were no scholarships or future pro possibilities. “They were playing because they loved to play. And they became some of the best players in the world.”

Maraniss’s Madison roots go deep. His grandfather, Elliott Maraniss, was editor of The Capital Times. His parents, David and Linda Maraniss, are West High grads, and David, of course, is a decorated nonfiction author, with a new bestseller on Jim Thorpe, “Path Lit by Lightning,” just out.

Andrew Maraniss, who now lives with his family near Nashville, was born in Madison but grew up in different cities — Washington, D.C., Austin — as the family moved. He still considers Madison his hometown, having once told me he “grew up with a Bucky Badger I thought was my little brother.”

The best young adult authors — and Maraniss qualifies, having won awards and excellent reviews for earlier efforts — write books that can be enjoyed by readers of any age. He thinks “Inaugural Ballers” might resonate with the many women who aspired to be athletes in that era when it was anything but easy. “They would have fought the same battles that the women on the Olympic team did,” Maraniss said. “Just to play.”

The 1976 Olympics women’s basketball competition was a round robin tournament. There was little doubt of which country would win the gold medal. The Soviet Union was as dominant then as the United States women are today. The competition for the silver medal was fierce, and it came down to a final game between the U.S. and Czechoslovakia. With a win, the Americans would take the silver. A loss — given the round robin standings — and it would go to Bulgaria.

Billie Moore, the U.S. coach, knew what was at stake. The world was watching, and so, too, were young girls back home, looking for role models, allowed at last to dream of athletic success.

“Win this game,” Moore told her team in the pregame locker room, “and it will change women’s sports in this country for the next 25 years.”

They did.

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