Former Queens College stars remember first women’s hoops game at MSG

By Merle Exit

History was made on Feb. 22, 1975 when the Queens College women’s basketball was part of the first women’s hoops game at Madison Square Garden. The inaugural game against Immaculata may have been a 65-61 loss, but to coach Lucille Kyvallos, it was a win for women’s equality in sports.

History will repeat itself this Sunday when the two teams square off again at MSG as part of the Maggie Dixon Classic to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first game. The game will start at 10:30 a.m. and will be followed by the featured contest between St. John’s University and University of Connecticut at 1 p.m. Queens College is 7-2 overall and 4-0 in East Coast Conference play.

The Knights taking the court again at Madison Square Garden brings back fond memories to those who were there back in 1975. Donna Chait (Orender) remembers that day and the crowd of more than 12,000 like it was yesterday. She can still hear Helen Reddy singing “I Am Woman” and the sense of importance surrounding the game.

“That game was truly a milestone event in women’s basketball as well as all of sports,” said Orender, the former president of the WNBA. “To play in the mecca of basketball, to break the gender barrier if you will, was remarkable. The excitement around the game is something I will never forget.”

Teammate Gail Marquis went on to make her mark as a member of the 1976 U.S. Olympic team that earned a silver medal. She also was a member of the first women’s professional basketball team, the New York Stars of the Women’s Basketball League, to call Madison Square Garden their home court and won a championship in 1980. Even with all she accomplished, playing on the Madison Square Garden floor with Queens College was the thrill of a lifetime.

“I was a teenager on the same court as some of my pro basketball favorites like Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and Earl ‘The Pearl’ Monroe,” Marquis said. “And as I was warming up, I did think about being a woman in a man’s world and taking a small step forward to make it equal for all of us.”

Sharon Manning went from player to eventual Queens College head coach in 1982, and from 1999-2002, she served as the head women’s basketball coach at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Fairleigh Dickinson University. She is currently the athletic director of the College of New Jersey. She, Maryann Jecewiz, and a few of their other former teammates plan on attending the game at Madison Square Garden Sunday. There will certainly be plenty of reminiscing going on.

The year after the inaugural game, Queens College played against Delta at Madison Square Garden. Margaret Wade, coach of Delta, and Rob Franklin, head of collegiate basketball at MSG, presented an award in recognition to Kyvallos for bringing women’s college basketball to MSG and to national recognition.

“I remember my first interview for a coaching position,” Jecewiz said. “The athletic director said to me ‘You played for Lucille Kyvallos. This position is yours if you want it.’ That is what an influence Kyvallos had.”

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