Inaugural Ballers: The True Story of the First US Women's Olympic Basketball Team

Inaugural Ballers: The True Story of the First US Women's Olympic Basketball Team
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Release Date
September 13, 2022
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From the New York Times bestselling author of Strong Inside comes the inspirational true story of the birth of women’s Olympic basketball at the 1976 Summer Games and the ragtag team that put US women’s basketball on the map. Perfect for fans of Steve Sheinkin and Daniel James Brown.

A League of Their Own meets Miracle in the inspirational true story of the first US Women’s Olympic Basketball team and their unlikely rise to the top.

Twenty years before women’s soccer became an Olympic sport and two decades before the formation of the WNBA, the ’76 US women’s basketball team laid the foundation for the incredible rise of women’s sports in America at the youth, collegiate, Olympic, and professional levels.

Though they were unknowns from small schools such as Delta State, the University of Tennessee at Martin and John F. Kennedy College of Wahoo, Nebraska, at the time of the ’76 Olympics, the American team included a roster of players who would go on to become some of the most legendary figures in the history of basketball. From Pat Head, Nancy Lieberman, Ann Meyers, Lusia Harris, coach Billie Moore, and beyond—these women took on the world and proved everyone wrong. 

Packed with black-and-white photos and thoroughly researched details about the beginnings of US women’s basketball, Inaugural Ballers is the fascinating story of the women who paved the way for girls everywhere.

Editor review

1 review
A Pivotal Moment in Women's Sports History
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Writing Style
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Learning Value
If you have read any of Maraniss' work like Strong Inside or Singled Out, you know that his books are submersive experiences where we get to know so many historical figures in a swirl of well explained current events. I felt almost as if I were a young basketball player myself, preparing along with Nancy Lieberman and Gail Marquis to go to the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics, the first where there was a competition for women's basketball. Since the women were all just a few years older than I am, I know well the social conditions that existed at the time, and Maraniss explains those well for younger readers who will be surprised at how few girls and women played sports, and at how little funding and support girls' sports had. Even though my mother played basketball in high school (half court, of course), she never told me back int he 1970s that playing sports was a feminist act. If she had, I would have taken a lot more interest in my 5th grade softball team!

One of the more interesting parts of the lead up to the women's Olympic team is Maraniss' sensitive exploration of how women in sports were percieved in the 1960s and before. "The casual sexism of the day was relentless in its ubiquity." I was definitely in the demographic that was told we could never beat a boy at a game, and that our purpose (as defined by none other than writer Paul Gallico in 1936) was to "look beautiful"! In the same way that my students are shocked that I wore skirts to school every day, they will be shocked that the members of the team had to work so hard just to be able to play basketball at all.
Good Points
This reminded me quite a bit of Swaby's Mighty Moe in the way it followed not only the players, but also the coaches, through their childhoods and up to the tryouts for the team and the Olympics themselves, from which the US very nearly pulled out due to issues with China and Taiwan. There are a number of pictures, and I found myself making bookmark after bookmark about different people (like Bunny Sandler, who worked on Title IX, or the absolutely incomparable Billie Jean King) and events. One excellent reason to buy this book is that it is such a great starting point for history research. Why isn't there a biography of Luisa Harris, the only woman ever drafted in the NBA? Or one about Coach Mildred Barnes, who jogged in the 1940s? I have a long list of people whom I can only hope have written memoirs, since I want to know so much more about their stories.

Maraniss does an exceptional job at describing the sports aspect of this, but also delivers the information about the feminist perspective in an up-to-the-minute way, clearly understanding the divisions between the different generations of feminism, and briefly mentioning some of the problems with different stages of the movement.

This book is the perfect choice for young women players who don't know how good they have it, for young men who probably wouldn't care quite so much if a girl was on their team, and for those of us who remember just how far away the summer of 1976 is. I loved everything about this book, from the Harlem Globetrotters-esque cover (the television cartoon show version, not the exhibition team, although thinking about either one has me humming "Sweet Georgia Brown" to myself for days) to the nail biting Olympic competition to the back stories of the players. There's even an excellent afterword that talks about the effects of that team, and how the woman who played on it have viewed the progress women have made in sports since.

We need to remember the past, because we live during a time when we can't take for granted that we will keep the rights that our forebearers fought so hard to gain.
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