Friday, September 16, 2022

Q&A with Andrew Maraniss




Andrew Maraniss is the author of the new young adult book Inaugural Ballers: The True Story of the First US Women's Olympic Basketball Team. Maraniss's other books include Games of Deception. He is special projects director at the Vanderbilt University Athletic Department, and he lives in Nashville.


Q: What inspired you to write about the first U.S. women's Olympic basketball team?


A: With all of my books, I’m interested in writing about the connections between sports, history, and social issues. My first three books dealt with either racism, antisemitism, or homophobia. My second book, Games of Deception, was the story of the first U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team, which played at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany.


I was traveling the country talking about that book and at two middle schools, one in North Carolina and the other in Kansas, students asked me questions about the first women’s Olympic team. I didn’t know much about that team’s story other than that they played at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, so I started to look more deeply into it.


When I realized I could tell a story about the women’s rights movement of the 1970s and time a book for publication during the 50th anniversary of Title IX this year, I knew this was a story I wanted to tell.


Q: How did you research the book, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?


A: Unlike some of my other books, most of the key participants in the story of the 1976 Olympic team are still living. So interviewing former players, coaches and USA Basketball administrators was a big part of the research.


I also interviewed women who tried out for the team but didn’t make the final roster, as well as experts on women’s basketball history and women who were just “regular” students prior to Title IX to learn about the battles they fought for equity.


I spent a lot of time reading old newspaper and magazine articles and books about the state of women’s sports throughout American history, about the feminist movement of the 1970s, and about the Montreal Olympics.


I try to be open to learning anything during the research phase of a book, so in that sense nothing should be too surprising, but there were a few things that you could say surprised me.


The US national team is so dominant now, having won seven straight Olympic gold medals, it was surprising to see how much of an underdog our team was in 1976, having barely even qualified for the Olympics after finishing eighth in the world championships a year earlier.


I was also a bit surprised at just how fiercely the NCAA fought Title IX. You see the NCAA celebrating the 50th anniversary of the law this year, but back in the 1970s you had athletic directors, coaches, and NCAA officials claiming that equity for women’s athletics was an outrageous idea that would kill college sports.

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, in part, “Weaving women’s basketball into a textured account of a society in flux, Maraniss’ latest will appeal to a broad audience.” What do you think of that description, and can you say more about how you placed the team's story in a larger societal context?


A: I think it’s important in all of my books to place the sports story within the context of the place and times in which the athletes operated.


So in this story, that means writing about the history of feminism in the U.S., the feminist movement of the 1970s, figures such as Betty Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly, events such as the Miss America protest of 1968 and the International Year of the Woman conference in Mexico City in 1975, and the conventional attitudes about women’s athletics.


The women on the 1976 Olympic team grew up at a time that women were told not to sweat, not to build muscles, not to be competitive, and not to play sports. They had no promise of earning a college scholarship or playing professional sports.


So they didn’t just earn victories on the basketball court, they climbed mountains built on centuries of misogyny and sexism in society at large. The broader context is what makes the basketball story interesting and significant.


Q: What do you see as the team's legacy today, and what do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: One of the legacies of the team goes back to the inspiration for the book in the first place – the fact that middle school students, one a boy, the other a girl, were interested enough in women’s sports to ask me about the roots of the women’s national basketball team.


Before the ’76 team’s final game at the Olympics, head coach Billie Moore told her players that if they won the game, they would change women’s sports in this country for decades to come. She had seen how little girls picked up gymnastics after watching Olga Korbut in the ’72 Olympics, and she believed her team could have the same impact in basketball.


And she was right. After the US won the silver medal, the number of girls who began playing basketball skyrocketed. And other team sports benefited, too. There was no women’s soccer in the Olympics or the World Cup in ’76, so the women on the basketball team paved the way for the growth of that sport, too.


In the years since Title IX was implemented, there are so many more opportunities for girls and women to pursue their interests and their dreams as athletes. That’s given so many young women a measure of purpose and confidence that wasn’t available before. A girl isn’t looked down on for having an interest in sports, or being competitive.


And yet tremendous inequities and challenges remain at all levels of sports. There have been highly publicized examples of that the last few years in terms of media coverage, unequal pay, sexual abuse, leadership and coaching opportunities, and investment in facilities and other perks. Every generation has its battles to fight and its opportunities to make a difference for those who follow.


And as we’ve seen in other areas, just because something is a law doesn’t mean it will be enforced or that it will remain intact. It’s important that people understand the roots of Title IX and how things looked before it was implemented so that we continue to value its protections and fight for equality.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a series of books for younger readers, early chapter books, called Bigger Than Sports. It focuses on athletes who have done significant work to help other people. The first book will tell the story of WNBA star Maya Moore and how she quit playing at the height of her career to help free an innocent man from prison.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: While Inaugural Ballers is considered a young adult book, it is researched and written in a way that will appeal equally to adults. I expect that adults will make up a significant share of readers – especially women who grew up in the pre-Title IX era and experienced the same obstacles that women on the ’76 Olympic team faced.


I interviewed women who had to fight for equal access to the gym as elementary school students, or who were told they should never beat a boy in a race at recess lest they bruise his ego.


Most of the book clubs I’ve spoken to over the years have been made up of women in their 60s and 70s, so I hope those women will read this book, too. I’d love to join them for a Q&A after they’ve read the book.  Contact me through my website, www.andrewmaraniss, if you’re interested.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Andrew Maraniss.

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