Located in Nashville, The New York Times-Bestselling author Andrew Maraniss is always looking for inspiring sports stories that spark conversations and share a big message. His first book, 2015 Strong from within, received two prestigious honors in the field of social justice, a Lillian Smith Book Award and a “Special Recognition” award from the RFK Book Awards. With 2022 marking the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of Title IX, the foundational law that expanded women’s athletic opportunities, Maraniss decided it was the right time to highlight female athletes—and one team in particular that paved the way to the sport’s highest level.
In his newly published book, Inaugural BallersMaranis tells the inspiring stories of the teammates and coaches who made the first US women’s Olympic basketball team in 1976. We chatted with the author about the inspiration behind the book, the players’ Southern connection, and why sports can be a springboard. Important conversations.
What gave you the idea for your book?
My first book, Strong from within, is about Perry Wallace, the first black basketball player in the SEC. When I was talking about this book on the street, I remember being in a middle school and students asking about the first women’s basketball team. I noticed that the students were interested in it. When I looked into it and realized that the team played in 1976, the first Olympics, it reminded me of my childhood, and I was able to relate this story of these pioneering basketball players and the women’s rights movement of the 1970s. That’s what made it a story that I found interesting.
Title IX was passed fifty years ago. Did that anniversary prompt you to write a book?
Absolutely. I thought there would be a lot of interest in women’s athletics – people talk about the gains made in the last fifty years and the problems that have to be overcome. The team played four years after Title IX was signed, but it was during these Olympics that the law began to be implemented. They really represented generations with less opportunities. That’s what I thought about how good these women were, to win a silver medal in the Olympics, to induct many into the Basketball Hall of Fame. What they were able to achieve is truly remarkable.
Which Southerners can we identify in the book?
This team had strong southern connections. Perhaps the person who became most famous was Pat Head Summitt [the former longtime coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team]. She grew up playing in the haystack in the barn on her family farm. Lucia Harris was from the Mississippi Delta and the first black athlete at Delta State University. She led that team to two national championships and was the MVP of the ’76 Olympic team.
How can this book, and other stories on sports history, promote discussions about race, gender, and social equality?
Games are available to the public. Seeing a book with a basketball or baseball player on the cover doesn’t seem intimidating to read. But once you pick up one of my books, you realize that it’s about basketball—but also about feminism, the women’s rights movement, racism, homophobia. Games are a platform for telling these stories.
Have you heard from any of the topics in the book?
I heard from the coach [Billie Moore], she said she has no words to express how much it means to her. It’s really satisfying in a way but also kind of poignant – almost fifty years after the Olympics, these women are finally getting their due. I want them to recognize and celebrate this experience, and while their stories were told years ago, I feel lucky to be able to tell their stories now.