Lucille Kyvallos, Women’s Basketball Coach

To appreciate legendary basketball coach Lucille Kyvallos and what she has accomplished for women in sport, you have to step back in time to the 60s and 70s.

“You know the expression ‘You run like a girl? “” Kyvallos casts the question as easily as she can pull off a free throw.

“It’s an old expression, and part of it still exists today,” Kyvallos said, “but in my day boys didn’t want to play with girls… little kid, you had assigned roles.

When it comes to Barbie dolls or basketball, the choice for Kyvallos was clear.

“Basketball – I pleaded for it,” she says, even though “walking the streets people (then) were very critical”.

Kyvallos, was a natural athlete who grew up in Astoria and performed on New York’s multicultural street with the boys. She was better at basketball than most of her peers, women or men. Much better.

She then taught physical education at Queens College, where she was a faculty member for 30 years. But it was his 12 years as head coach at Queens College from 1968 to 1981 during his tenure there that cemented his legacy.

Kyvallos not only developed the Queens College women’s basketball team where there weren’t many, she led them to the championships – and in 1975, made history, when she brought her team to play at Madison Square Garden – it was the first women’s basketball game to play in this arena.

She received numerous accolades and awards during her lifetime, including the Joe Lapchick Character Award in 2015, for her honor demonstrated throughout her basketball career. Her 1972-1973 team was the first women’s basketball team to be inducted into the New York Basketball Hall of Fame, where she herself was also inducted.

Not only was she inducted into the Queens College Athletics Hall of Fame in 2017, but Queens College has renamed its Lucille Kyvallos Court basketball court in her honor. This summer Dan’s Papers was honored to present Kyallos with a special Out East End Impact Award for Lifetime Achievement and Inspiration.

Now, at 89, Kyvallos may be retired, but she is far from being the retired type.

An avid and competitive tennis player who plays for the United States Tennis Association Senior League, she was gearing up for an international world tournament to be held this month in Mallorca, Spain, until the USTA recently pulled all of them. its teams due to COVID issues.

We caught up with Kyvallos by phone from her home in Sag Harbor to talk about her career, how she broke the mold for women in sport, and her ideas on living a long, healthy life.

Lucille Kyvallos

Tell us about your approach and impact at Queens College.

At the time, there was no inter-school program for girls in New York City high school, so I didn’t have much to draw on – Catholic schools did.

Basically, I was teaching the basics, coaching them, and doing everything to make them competent athletes – skills, tactics, and strategy – the way they viewed themselves. For example, if there was a free ball and two opponents went to it, they would stop instead of fighting for the ball. I taught them to be assertive and aggressive, to work hard, to take responsibility, to rise up under pressure and to function as a team.

And girls and women tend to take a back seat in the competition.

There was a book written in the 80s or 70s for women executives – From the cloakroom to the meeting room – for me, it’s a real path, learning to function as a team, assert yourself, set goals and know how to achieve them. We do it now as women, but back then, in the 1960s and 1970s, it was unheard of.

We were assigned sex roles, we couldn’t be who we really wanted to be – we had to break down those barriers. What I did was put together a team to make it work really well and we gained national recognition.

What was that path to the game changer at MSG like?

We introduced ourselves to Queens College as a role model for the city and Long Island. They had just started developing high school programs for town girls and we were the role model – the gym was packed all the time.

In 1973 we reached the final and lost to a small Catholic college (Immaculata College) in Pennsylvania – we were finalists. They were an undefeated team… they were unbeaten for two and a half years when we lost to them in 1973.

In 1975 we were invited to play at Madison Square Garden which was a big deal. They had a college program but (at the time) they only had men’s games in the Garden which attracted 4,000 people.

When we were invited I knew it was a major event. I invited Immaculata College as an opponent, which generated a lot of interest – 12,000 people… we beat them. And it has gone viral in the basketball world – viral across the country. We had a momentum and generated a lot of interest and a lot of spectators… and that alerted the NCAA – they weren’t happy with that publicity and that interest. Then it really started to move on Title IX… I had no intention of changing the culture and the attitudes of society towards sport. I was so motivated. …

By 1973 three things had happened – in 1972 Title IX was passed (ending gender discrimination in sport), Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in 1973 and in 1975 (Queens College) Madison Square Garden. … When we were at Madison Square Garden in 1975, Billie Jean attended this game – sitting in the boonies because she didn’t want people to know she was there to get attention.

When both teams went out to warm up, suddenly the lights went out and (a recording of) Helen Reddy singing “I Am Woman” played – all of these social and cultural changes – it was so loud!

Who encouraged you to grow up and how has your athletic career developed?

My mom never encouraged me, my dad did. … This demonstrates the attitudes of the time. …

I was a phenomenal athlete in my neighborhood, playing with boys all the time – I played on many recreational teams in tournaments and leagues sponsored by PAL or the Park Department. I’ve always finished top scorer in basketball… but I’ve never had the opportunity to play on a girls’ team in high school or intercollegiate or at the Olympics, which I probably could have done.

I have always felt deprived of the opportunity to develop my own skills and all of that motivation spilled over to girls and women’s sports.

I graduated, took a job at a high school on Long Island for three years, then went to Indiana University for my masters where I really learned the science of movement. I had the hands-on experience growing up, playing games with kids in the neighborhood – throwing, running, changing direction, spatial perceptions – it was all there, but when I went for my masters I had learned the intellectual part of it all. …

In 1966 when I came to Queens College (after teaching at universities in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania) I wasn’t assigned to women’s basketball, I started coaching in 1968.

I coached for 12 years, but was at Queens College (as a faculty member) for 30 years. I retired in 1995.

How have things changed?

In the early 1980s, things started to change in the women’s basketball program. The Division 1 schools started giving money and scholarships… the men finally got the hang of it and started having programs for women.

How do you see women’s sport today?

I’m thrilled because young women, whether they play basketball or tennis or not, train hard – the programs are more stimulating and they are progressing in their skill level.

I think the level of achievement, performance and excellence of these young female athletes is superb.

When and why did you come out of the East?

I started coming here in 1980. I bought my house in 1983. I found it to be a wonderful and lovely place with nature and so beautiful.

I live six months here and six months in Florida.

Motivational advice for those who want to stay in shape?

It depends on the person. If you work best in a group, find a group to go to and work out… toning classes and Zumba classes – I took one, not easy.

You have to be resourceful; log on to East Hampton, the recreation center. Pickleball – a lot of people play it; they adore it. Walking on the beaches, running a bit here and there, cycling a lot.

I don’t eat fried foods. I eat fresh food, eggs, protein, no meat – just fish and chicken and lots of salads and broccoli. I started making shakes and got protein powder – now you need carbs before you work out, protein after.

I find that the older I get, the more I have to do my interview – the negative side, we’re not young anymore.

What’s the secret to longevity?

I can’t believe I’m gonna be 90 next year [laughs]. I feel good. The secret for me is to work continuously. I have a trainer twice a week, I play tennis four times a week. I try to stay healthy, my biggest problem is hydration – I drink 70 ounces of water a day.

Longevity is really about staying active and other healthy things. If you are a couch potato, forget it. Either you use it or you lose it.


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