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Episode #131 – Andrew Maraniss, Author of Inaugural Ballers

If you enjoy sports, history and social issues, or any combination of the three, this week’s episode is for you! Andrew Maraniss, a New York Times best-selling author, uses his writing as a way to keep the story going. “There were a whole lot of kids out there who maybe loved sports but didn’t really spend a whole lot of time in their school library or didn’t really realize there were books out there that they would be interested in,” explains Maraniss. “I decided to turn my career into writing for young people.”

“Writing has always been a part of me and my family, and sports too, so I feel like I’m getting to do what I’ve always enjoyed,” reflects Maraniss. At 13 years-old, he started his own sports magazine writing about his hometown teams, the Milwaukee Brewers and Green Bay Packers. In high school, Maraniss was the sports editor of the high school paper and eventually earned himself the Fred Russell-Grantland Rice scholarship for sports journalism to attend Vanderbilt University.

It was taking a black history class at Vanderbilt that lead Maraniss to Perry Wallace, the first black basketball player in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), who later became the subject of his first book, Strong Inside. “I wanted to write a paper about Perry for my class, but I was really concerned that my professor was going to say, ‘we don’t write about sports in college, we don’t write about basketball players, that’s not a serious enough subject.’ Thankfully, she didn’t say that at all … so I wrote a paper about Perry Wallace’s experience that I came back to 17 years later to write the book,” recalls Maraniss. “In writing that book, I really came to realize, even more than I knew heading into that book, how much I enjoyed telling stories that involved – true stories – involving sports and history and social issues. That book became more about racism and what it was like to be an African American teenager in the deep south in the 1960’s, as much about those issues and the toll of pioneering than about basketball.”

Maraniss’ newest read, out September 13th, tells the story of the first women’s basketball team from the USA competing in the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games. His inspiration to tell that particular story? “I was in a school in Kansas and a girl in the crowd was hearing me talk about the first men’s Olympic basketball team and she said, ‘well what about the first women’s Olympic basketball team from the US?’ When she mentioned that, I had been wanting to do a story involving women’s sports anyway, and that just really was like, of course that’s what I should do,” he recalls.

Understanding the social context of the 1970’s, with women’s rights movements at the forefront, makes the story all the more important to tell - not only the determination and dedication that these women showed to the sport of basketball but for future female athletes as well. “They weren’t competing for endorsements or the possibility of a future professional career, they hadn’t even received scholarships to play in college for the most part,” Maraniss explains. “The women in the ‘70’s deserved more than they were getting. They didn’t get it, but they laid the groundwork for women to benefit in the future.”

It is clear that Maraniss holds a passion for telling stories with sport as a catalyst for major change. “It also showed me if you want to write about these subjects that deal with important social issues, that really needs to become a part of who you are at a much deeper level and not to just parachute in and write a story … You’re going to take on these topics that really should be a deep part of who you are and what you’re all about every day. Writing these books has given me a great sense of purpose in life and responsibility to live up to the types of people that I’ve written about.”

Head over to Episode #131 of The Athletes Podcast to hear more about Andrew Maraniss’ relationship with Perry Wallace, his thoughts on the 40-year gap between the US men’s national basketball team’s first Olympic appearance to the women’s first appearance, the history of basketball in the Olympic Games, and whether Perry Wallace is responsible for the no-dunk rule in college basketball.

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